“The Ax” by Donald E. Westlake

Westlake, Donald E. The Ax (1997)  
Mysterious Press, 273 pages, $23.00 hardcover  
ISBN 0 89296 587 8

Most of the serial killers we meet in modern fiction are tortured souls, abused as children or tormented by multiple personalities. But what if an otherwise ordinary man made a perfectly logical decision to become a mass murderer? 

Burke Devore, the protagonist of Donald E. Westlake’s darkly comic novel The Ax, is that man. Middle-aged, with a daughter in college and a son in high school, Devore has devoted most of his life to working his way up within the specialty paper industry. When his company merged with another and downsized, Devore and his colleagues became expendable. He’s now been out of work for two years, and he’s getting desperate. Faced with the realization that he’s not anybody’s top choice to fill a job vacancy, he develops a plan to kill off the competition:

I can’t change the circumstances of the world I live in. This is the hand I’ve been dealt, and there’s nothing I can do about it. All I can hope to do is play that hand better than anybody else. Whatever it takes. (p. 71)

. . .

I’m not a killer. I’m not a murderer, I never was, I don’t want to be such a thing, soulless and ruthless and empty. That’s not me. What I’m doing now I was forced into, by the logic of events; the shareholders’ logic, and the executives’ logic, and the logic of the marketplace, and the logic of the workforce, and the logic of the millennium, and finally by my own logic.

Show me an alternative, and I’ll take it. What I’m doing now is horrible, difficult, frightening, but I have to do it to save my own life. (p. 129)

Inexperienced at murder, Devore bungles his way through shooting the first two competitors (and one man’s wife as well who, unfortunately, gets in the way). He gets better at murder as he progresses, though, taking pride in his ability to devise clever and effective ways to eliminate the other job seekers without bringing suspicion upon himself.

The novel ends with Devore getting ready to go interview for the job he’s been shooting for all along. Let’s hope he gets it.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

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