This is a book about one man, written entirely in the first person. A man who believes he can rely on no one but himself. In that vein all the other characers are merely shadows, or stick figures. They exist only through Burke's eyes. He IS the book.
Burke is a former production line manager in a paper mill who was laid off in the mid-nineties and has been unemployed for two years at the time of the novel (1997). He is at end of his rope -- his unemployment has run out and so, it seems, have his job prospects.
Burke decides to take matters into his own hands. He places an ad in a trade journal to evaluate the competition. Then, he decides to just get rid of them. He selects the job that he wants and then he kills off the competition AND the incumbent.
Burke goes on a killing spree through New York, Conn., and Mass. He kills the competition in broad daylight by the side of the road and in a crowded parking lot. He kills in a deserted mall parking lot and he even blows up a house.
The fact that Burke gets away with all these murders is completely implausable. The fact that the cops don't catch him and that he even manages to get rid of the evidence of his son's (unrelated) breaking and entering is unlikely. The fact that the search of the house that follows his son's crime raises no questions in the minds of the police is ridiculous. But it doesn't really matter. The fact that it is so unlikely that he'll get away with it all makes us identify with Burke all the more.
As the book progressed, I found myself disturbed by how much I could identify with Burke. I've never been laid off -- I work for one of those places that used to provide 'lifetime employment.' Not anymore. I can imagine myself laid off, desperate, looking for a job, as my family loses more and more opportunity and my retirement plans slip away. Can't most all of us?
Most of us can't imagine taking Burke's reasoning to the final end -- that the end of providing for his family (at one point in the book, Burke bristles when the judge says that Burke's son "comes from poverty.") justifies any means, even murder. But, many of us can identify with his desperation.
This is satire at its finest -- dark, disturbing and with an edge of truth. This book could certainly be read simply as a book about a serial killer, but it is truly much more than that. It is a book about Every Man for the age of downsizing, much as Death of a Salesman was about the Every Man of its time.
You might find it disturbing, but do read this book. Donald Westlake has outdone himself this time.