Lemons Never Lie: Donald Westlake (1971)

Lemons Never Lie is written by Donald Westlake using his Richard Stark pseudonym. That means it’s not one of Westlake’s funny ones; it’s harder, tougher, meaner.

The lemons in the title refer to slot machine lemons, and when actor/thief Grofield flies into Vegas to listen to a pitch about a heist, the very first thing he does on terra firma is to go to the closest slot, put in a nickel, and pull the handle. Three lemons flip onto the screen. Yes three lemons. According to Grofield, “Lemons never lie,” and three lemons on the slot machine signal bad luck. He should have turned around and got onto the next plane back to Indiana, but he didn’t, and that’s what this tale is all about: bad luck, fate and revenge.

Lemons never lie

Grofield meets a man called Myers in a hotel on the strip. They’re joined by a handful of other crooks and Myers (accompanied by a bodyguard) explains a heist he plans.  Myers, a “blowhard,” exudes a bad vibe. Grofield who runs a theatre in Indiana which doesn’t pay the bills, needs the money badly, but when he hears that the badly conceived plan includes murdering several people, he backs out–as does acquaintance Dan Leach, another crook who invited Grofield to attend the meeting.

“No,” said Grofield.

Myers stopped mid-sentence, his hand dipping down for yet another photo or map or graph. He blinked. “What?”

“I said no. Don’t tell me any more of it, I’m out.”

Myers frowned; he couldn’t understand it. “What’s the matter, Grofield?”

“Killing,” Grofield said.

“They’ve got a half a dozen armed guards in there,” Myers said. “There’s absolutely no other way to get past them.”

“I believe you. That’s why I’m out.”

Myers looked sardonic. “You really that kind, Grofield? Sight of blood bother you?”

“No, it’s more the sight of cops. The law looks a lot harder for a killer than it does for a thief. Sorry, Myers, but you can count me out.”

Leach wins big at the tables that night, but then Grofield and Leach are later mugged. Grofield managed to ID Myers and his bodyguard as the culprits, but Myers disappears while the body guard is in the hotel room with his throat cut.

At this point, Grofield knows to get out of Vegas fast, and since the popular phrase is “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” he flies home thinking he’ll never cross paths with Myers again. …

He’s wrong.

This is a dark, mean tale that begins with an omen of bad luck and then weaves a savage twisted thread. To add more to the plot would spoil the read that awaits Westlake fans. The novel brings up the issue of crooks working with other crooks: who do you trust? Sooner or later you’re going to run into psychos, egomaniacs, and sadists, and then what do you do? For its emphasis on the inescapable nature of fate, I’d file this under noir. 

(This book is number 4 in the Alan Grofield series)



Filed under Fiction, Westlake, Donald

9 responses to “Lemons Never Lie: Donald Westlake (1971)

  1. I’ve never managed to read Donald Westlake – I think I own Point Blank /The Hunter which he wrote as Richard Stark.I’m guessing that would be a good place to start?

  2. I’ve only read one Westlake, Somebody Owes Me Money, which I liked a lot. I wasn’t aware of the differences in tone between the two groups of novels, so that’s useful to know – thanks. ‘Lean and mean’ can be diverting now and again, so I’ll bear this in mind for a future fix. As for the funny ones, is there another in particular you would recommend? (Something in a similar vein to SOMM.)

  3. Help I am Being Held Prisoner leaps to mind.

  4. I might prefer his funnier ones too but I like a good noir, so will keep him in mind. Can they be read out of order?

  5. I’m 15 books into the Parker series, also extremely lean and mean, must say I love them. Grofield features in a couple of the Parker books, and in fact one of them (Slayground) has the 2 characters on a job together. They get separated after the first chapter – Slayground completes the story from Parker’s point of view, The Blackbird takes the same events on from Grofield’s.

  6. There’s a bit of back story here re: Parker but not too much that you can’t read this as a standalone.

  7. I think I’ve read a Grofield book before but it wasn’t this one. I remember something about a thief from Indiana though. As a longtime Westlake fan, I’m gonna have to check this one out, although it does sound a bit darker than many Westlake books. Thanks for posting!

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