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The Ax

Donald E. Westlake

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To purchase The Ax

Title: The Ax
Author: Donald E. Westlake
Genre: Novel
Written: 1997
Length: 273 pages
Availability: The Ax - US
The Ax - UK
The Ax - Canada
The Ax - India
Le couperet - France
Der Freisteller - Deutschland
The Ax - Italia
  • The Ax was made into a movie in 2005, Le couperet, directed by Costa-Gavras

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Our Assessment:

A- : cold and dark, but very well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Nation . 8/6/2009 Charles Taylor
The NY Times Book Rev. A+ 29/6/1997 D. Keith Mano
The Washington Post . 22/6/1997 Michael Dirda

  From the Reviews:
  • "Had Westlake written a satirical novel, those lines would have been heavy with irony. But what makes The Ax so unnerving and so believable is the absence of irony in Burke's voice. Burke isn't embracing the new ruthlessness he sees around him. Knowing what it takes to hold on to his life doesn't make him happier because, on some level, it means accepting that everything he ever believed doesn't apply anymore." - Charles Taylor, The Nation

  • "Donald E. Westlake has caught and logged our unspoken fiscal dread in a novel of excruciating brilliance. (...) As novels go, The Ax is pretty much flawless, with a surprise ending that will unplug your expectations. (...) Westlake has written a remarkable book. If you can't relate to it, be thankful." - D. Keith Mano, The New York Times Book Review

  • "In The Ax, Westlake manages a tour de force of narrative immediacy by telling the story almost entirely in the first person, present tense (.....) Although The Ax is an expertly entertaining suspense thriller -- a cousin to Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley and the film classic Kind Hearts and Coronets, not to mention the Heinrich von Kleist novella Michael Kohlhaas -- it is also a complex morality tale, with real bitterness in every chapter." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Ax is narrated by Burke Devore. He's married, to Marjorie, and they have two kids in their late-teens, Betsy, who is already off at college, and Bill, . He worked at a paper mill for over two decades, most of them as a product manager -- until he got a yellow slip in 1995, telling him he was going to be let go, part of the company's massive restructuring plan. The transition was a slow one -- five more months on the job, a decent severance package, even continued medical insurance for a while -- but the recovery he imagined, finding a new job, hasn't materialized in the nearly a year since he was let go.
       Burke understands: the conditions aren't favorable, the power lies elsewhere, he has little to offer or bargain with.

I do know paper, and I could take over almost any managerial job within the paper industry, with only minimal training in a particular specialty. But there's so many of us out here, the companies don't feel the need to do even the slightest training. They don't have to hire somebody who's merely good, and then fine-tune him to their requirements. They can find somebody who already knows their precise function, was trained in it by some other employer, and is eager to come work for you, at lower pay and fewer benefits, just so it's a job.
       Burke and his family are still getting by -- Marjorie has two small part-time jobs, for example, which helps. But it's eating away at him, and he's decided he has to be pro-active. Not in the way the so-called experts suggest -- a course in air conditioning-repair is among their suggestions -- and not just by passively submitting resumés (as he's been doing -- even getting the odd interview here and there, only to be denied, again and again). No, desperate Burke comes up with a desperate plan: he has targeted a specific position at a relatively nearby plant, and the fact that it's currently filled isn't a problem: he's going to make sure it opens up -- and, when it does, that he's the best candidate for the spot. First he plans to wipe out the competition -- the similarly-qualified managers who are also hunting for the same kind of job -- and then he'll take out the guy currently in that position. When they look to fill the newly-opened position, he'll be their man. So the theory, anyway.
       It's a pretty hare-brained idea, but Burke has thought most of it through, and these are the lengths to which he's willing to go to. And that's what The Ax is: an account of his controlled but murderous rampage, all just to get his life on course again. Sure he has qualms -- "What have I started here ? What road am I on ?" -- but he honestly doesn't see any alternative. He's been driven into a corner, and this is his only way out.
       Despite the outlandish plot, Westlake's novel is mighty impressive. Burke is a difficult sort of character to present, but his cold rationality -- a forced sort of freeze, so that he doesn't let the horror of what he's doing get to him (too much) -- is convincing, and all the more believable when he struggles in confronting several of these men who are, after all, going through much the same thing he is: he can see himself all too clearly in each of them. The rationalizations are far-fetched, but Burke needs to convince himself, since he can't see any other way out. It's self-defense, he tells himself -- he has to kill:
In self-defense, really, in defense of my family, my life, my mortgage, my future, myself, my life. That's self-defense.
       It's a thin line, but Burke doesn't cross over to pure psychopath, and part of Westlake's accomplishment here is in how plausible he makes Burke's perverse crusade. Burke is believable as a character driven so to the edge that he's willing to go down this road, weighing the costs to his soul and deciding it's a price he has to pay.
       The Ax is an exciting thriller: Burke's plan is clever, but hardly foolproof -- beginning with the fact that if he's going to be using the same gun ballistics matches will quickly point to a serial killer with a very selective target-list. He's forced to take some chances, and he does have his run-ins with the police. There's a good deal of can-he-get-away-with-it tension, nicely handled by Westlake, but there's more to the book, too, including its critique, implicit and explicit, of a capitalist society that places shareholder value so far above any broader sense of community, and thus wreaks havoc on community. (It helps, and adds much to the book's power, that Burke and his victims are -- or were -- all securely middle management and middle class (or, as it turns out, not so securely ...).)
       There's also the effect on family, with Burke not realizing just how much his unemployment, and the way it has affected him, has affected his family, driving his wife to seek consolation elsewhere and ultimately pushing her to force him to go into counselling with her, justifiably concerned they aren't going to make it as a couple otherwise. Son Billy also gets in trouble with the law, but here Burke's transformation into a more take-charge kind of guy, more concerned with doing right for his family than simply doing right, turns out to be (at least in terms of seeing that Billy's future isn't ruined) a positive thing: whatever lessons Burke has learnt on his killing-spree haven't made him a better man or father, but they've made him better-suited to take on the challenges of a dog-eat-dog world of winners and losers.
       The Ax is a cold, dark, and very well-crafted novel. Westlake is very good at what he does here: this is very good writing, very good plotting, and a great character-portrait, lifting the novel far above mere sensationalist serial-killer fare. Burke Devore is just one of many who has has been devoured by modern capitalist society, but Burke chooses to fight back, the only way he can conceive of. He's decided on his priorities, and he's willing to pay the price (to his soul); that Westlake can send him down this path so convincingly is a terrifying indictment of modern America.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 February 2014

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Reviews: Le couperet - the film: Donald E. Westlake: Other books by Donald E. Westlake under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Donald E. Westlake lived 1933 to 2008.

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