Discovering Dortmunder: Bank Shot

Obviously you can’t look inside here.

A ‘bank shot’ is an American pool term for what we, over here, call a double: you know, potting the ball by doubling it off a cushion into the pocket.
There’s nothing to do with pool in the second Dortmunder novel, published in 1972, despite the running gag of Kelp practising pool shots every time he goes to the Talabwo Embassy, but the title is perfect for the set-up Westlake comes up with to reunite the Dortmunder gang, or at least three members of it.
There’s nothing to suggest how long has passed since the Balabomo Emerald job, but whilst Dortmunder’s personal circumstances have improved slightly ā€“ he is now living with May, a tall, thin chain-smoker who works as a cashier at Bohack’s supermarket: the spark of romance struck when she caught Dortmunder shoplifting ā€“ it seems that if Major Iko did ever come up with the money, it’s long gone and no-one’s really the better for it.
Dortmunder’s back on the Encyclopaedia scam although, not to put too fine a point on it, he’s about to be picked up by the cops for it, until Kelp finds him, and even then Kelp would rather argue about Dortmunder being not where he said he would be than actually get away.
The truth is, Dortmunder needs a score. He also needs something to occupy his mind and keep him from being even more morose than usual. And, despite his reluctance to get involved in one of Kelp’s ideas again, he’s got nothing else going. It doesn’t hurt to take a look, does it?
This time, the idea comes from a different Kelp, Andy’s nephew, Victor. Though he’s thirty, Victor looks so young he still gets asked for ID when in a bar. He’s also an FBI Agent, or rather a former FBI Agent, who’s been thrown out for putting in a series of memos continually suggesting the FBI should have a secret handshake so that Agents could recognise each other.
And he smiles all the time, which really gets on Dortmunder’s nerves.
Victor’s idea is the Bank Shot. The Capitalist’s & Immigrant’s Trust is knocking down one of its banks to rebuild it. During reconstruction, the business of finance is taking place in an immobilised mobile home on the other side of the street. No money is kept here overnight, except on Thursdays, when it’s late shopping. There’s a modern safe, seven security guards, it’s on a busy traffic junction with the Police Station only seven minutes away: anyone can see that a robbery just isn’t practical.
But Dortmunder’s missing the point that Victor has seen. They’re not going to rob the Bank, they’re going to steal it. As in lift up the mobile home and take it away to somewhere that bit more private, where the safe can be cracked and all that money divided into equal piles.
The very idea sees Westlake hitting that note of ridiculousness that’s the key to the Dortmunder stories. Who in their right mind would try to rob a Bank that way? Only Dortmunder and Co. And only Dortmunder and Co. would be able to devise a plan that sounds as if it might actually work.
So it’s back to the O.J. Bar & Grill to start putting it together. There’s the first, albeit brief, in a series of cross-purpose conversations among the regulars when Dortmunder arrives, the usual business over Rollo identifying the gang by their drinks and the soon-to-be-very familiar trip to the back room.
Chefwick and Greenwood are out, more or less permanently. Chefwick is impliedly inside, having hijacked a subway train to Cuba (literally, as it happens, though Westlake wisely doesn’t give us all the details),whilst Greenwood has now got a TV series. Instead, Victor gradually slips into the utility role, despite Dortmunder’s reservations, whilst the new locksmith is Herman X. This being 1972, older readers will already have worked out that Herman is black, and divides his time between personal jobs and jobs for ‘The Movement’, where the cash goes to the Brothers. There having been too many of the latter recently, Herman needs a score of his own.
On the other hand, Stan Murch is still everybody’s driver of choice.
Actually, as the plan develops, a feminine aspect is added to the team, with both May and Murch’s Mom being brought in to add colour to the eventual hiding place for the mobile home during that unfortunately extended period during which Herman is going to be working his magic upon it. Murch’s Mom is not at her sunniest: to add to the natural temperament of a New York cab-driver, she is currently pulling an insurance scam with a neck-brace that she loathes putting on.
The actual theft of the Bank is carried out with the professionalism we already associate with the gang ā€“ one of the hallmarks of the series is that these people are good at what they do, and it is through no fault of their own that things continually refuse to go exactly as is planned: did they know it was going to rain?. Even the initial hiding place for the mobile home is a stroke of genius, especially when it becomes clear that the safe is very safe indeed.
But it’s when the gang are forced into moving, and when they find an utterly ingenious and inspired new place to hide, that Westlake really turns the screw, when it becomes apparent that the perfect place to stop and quietly drill/blow holes in this super-safe is actually the worst place of all to do so, that the story turns into its seriously hilarious and somehow inevitable endgame. And, needless to say, once what money that is taken, wet and charred as some of it is, is divvied up, the take turns out to be sadly not worth it.
Bank Shot has an overall lighter feeling to it, consciously avoiding anything hard-boiled from the outset. It’s a shorter book than The Hot Rock, which a much more linear story in which all stages of the job are more closely integrated. And Westlake obviously feels more comfortable about drifting off at tangents, or approaching the storyline more obliquely: there’s a comparatively long sequence centring on the Thursday night Security Guards gearing up for their usual uneventful, card-playing evening, which establishes the Guards as just as much ordinary nebbishes as the gang,unsuspecting of the moment when the Bank is going to be ripped out from underneath them. Literally.
But Westlake hasn’t got the tone wholly right, not just yet. Herman X. is played pretty straight, but cannot escape being a symbol of his times: everything about him signals the coming edge of blaxploitation and as such he can’t be allowed to be as openly funny as the rest.
Victor, however, who also wouldn’t survive into future novels, is entirely too much of a cartoon. The FBI Agent secret handshake is a great one-off gag, but it positions the character as being just that too much of a joke. His almost unconscious habit of starting to quiz everybody he meets about their political affiliations is a considerably more subtle, and character-depictive gag, but add on that his garage has been converted into a recording studio where he single-handedly (voicedly?) creates old-style radio crime dramas, complete with sound effects, and he becomes just too much of a caricature.
But these are just stepping stones on the way to perfecting Westlake’s technique with these novels, and better is to come.
Bank Shot was filmed in 1974 with George C. Scott in the lead role of Ballentine. There are also characters named Al Karp and Victory Karp, whilst Hermann X. (with an extra ‘n’) is the only character out of the book to retain his proper name. It’s described as ‘loosely’ adapted from the novel, though the only outline references I’ve found to it do correctly identify it as being about stealing the Bank and looting it at your leisure.
I started watching it one Saturday evening but switched off after about ten minutes. Scott’s age (and intrinsic character) made him nothing like Dortmunder and the failure of any of it’s gags to make me so much as smile suggested that I wasn’t going to miss anything. Nobody online seems to suggest I was wrong.

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