Discovering Dortmunder: Jimmy the Kid


When I first read the third Dortmunder novel, I knew very much less about Donald E Westlake that I do now, so I was ignorant for years of the magnificent in-joke that underwrites Jimmy the Kid.
A year has passed since the events of Bank Shot and Dortmunder has been studiously avoiding Kelp. It’s not that he blames Kelp for the last two disasters. I mean, he does, but more importantly, as far as Dortmunder is concerned, Kelp is a jinx. Even when he’s executing an everyday heist of furs from a clothing store, the mere presence of Kelp on the same block makes the caper go wrong, to hilarious effect.
But Kelp has an idea: of course Kelp has an idea, though he’s not keen to share the circumstances in which it came to him, involving, as it did, five days imprisonment in a town jail upstate for carrying implements. Kelp is thrusting a book on everybody, everybody here being Dortmunder and May, Murch and Murch’s Mom. No place for Victor or Herman X.
Those assembled enjoy the book to one extent or another – hell, it’s at least nice to read a crime novel in which the criminal gets away with it – but nobody sees what Kelp sees until he blurts it out. It’s not just a book. It’s got all the details, the set-up, the equipment, everything. It’s a blueprint. It’s a plan, and all they have to do it follow it.
The name of this book? Child Heist. And it’s author is Richard Stark.
Nowadays, we call this sort of thing metafiction. For those who missed the introduction, Richard Stark is a very successful pen-name for Westlake, and his series character, Parker, is the original, and decidedly serious model for Dortmunder.
Sadly, Child Heist does not exist, except in three widely-spaced chapters inserted herein, which Westlake uses, in part for context, but primarily to demonstrate the difference between a tightly plotted Parker novel and the way things happen for the Dortmunder gang (which is unfailingly but believably ridiculous). Though there’s a (possibly unintentional) undercurrent that suggests to me a commentary on the slickness of serious crime fiction, which always works perfectly, and is never hindered by unco-operative human beings caught up in their own causes, or the happenstance of real life.
Needless to say, Dortmunder won’t play ball. It’s not about Kelp-the-jinx this time, instead it’s the insult to his skills. He’s the planner, he’s the one who devises the jobs, and he’s not standing for Kelp suggesting it can be better done by some damned crime writer!
Once again, May has to wheedle him into it, though her task becomes more complicated when Dortmunder’s next job falls to pieces on him: between the final case of the joint and the night of the heist, the company goes bust and moves all its stock out, so yeah, it is still a bit about Kelp-the-jinx. But kidnapping, and kidnapping a minor at that, is serious stuff. It’s federal, which means life for everybody, and it needs Dortmunder to keep his ‘friends’ out of that hole, and also ensure that nothing happens to the kid.
So Dortmunder agrees to head things up, on the strict understanding that the book is not a blueprint, but a guide-line, a list of suggestions maybe. That the book then turns out to be an exact match for a viable caper is uncanny. And very misleading.
Because where it all starts to seriously go wrong for Dortmunder and Co. is in their selection of kidnappee. It isn’t just that Jimmy Harrington is twelve years old, instead of the eight year old of Child Heist, it’s more that he’s emotionally independent, has been in therapy for six years, has a very high IQ and, to be frank, is about three times as smart as all the rest of the gang put together.
So, leaving aside the many ways in which reality has suddenly chosen not to imitate art, hardly has the ransom demand been rung through to Jimmy’s Dad – a Wall Street broker who, unconsciously and automatically, starts to negotiate down the sum – the supposed victim has obtained the key to his locked room, worked out how to get out of it without anyone being aware how, and would be halfway back to civilisation if it weren’t pitch-black at night in the country, and pouring with rain and he’s walked in a circle back to the abandoned farm (which was so hard to find in the first place, abandoned farms being so attractive to developers and the ancestors of Yuppies).
But the gang do not take Jimmy’s sudden arrival at the back door as the omen they should, so the caper goes on to the collection of the ransom, during which things again refuse to conform to the security of Parker’s world. Harrington’s sent out in his car, which contains a rare-for-the-times mobile phone, to travel the freeway. He’s to be contacted en route and told where to drop the case of money except that, being a Wall Street broker, he’s straight onto the phone to start catching up on routine business, whilst he has a spare half hour or so, and Murch’s Mom doesn’t get through to him until he’s past the drop place, requiring him to u-turn and drive back, over the speed limit, thus attracting an irascible local speed cop whilst approaching from the wrong direction…
Suffice to say that the case with the money does eventually get into Dortmunder’s possession, though not quite in a manner that he anticipates. If only he’d looked up…
All that remains for the gang is to drop Jimmy off somewhere, safe and sound, where he can be found. Much as Dortmunder would like to do that immediately, May is not having a 12 year old being dumped on the streets of New York at night. So everyone settles in for the night, except for Jimmy, who gets out a second time and would be off home but for the fact that, unanticipated by everyone, the FBI has stuck a tracer in the case and the whole place is surrounded.
There’s only one thing for it: Jimmy has to go back, alert the gang, and get them out by his private route. After all, it’s not their fault: they’re just victims of their environment, he can see that clearly.
So everybody gets away safely, and Jimmy gets back to his Dad (via a trip to his psychiatrist first). There’s just three things left.
First is that, somehow or other, the case the gang gets away with is no longer carrying $150,000, but two pieces of brick rapped in a blanket – and a grand that Jimmy’s left them. For their time and trouble.
Second is that writer Richard Stark learns that there’s a movie coming out which is ripping off his novel Child Heist, only playing it for laughs, and gets mad. Unfortunately, Kid Stuff is an independent film directed by a thirteen year old whizz-kid named Jimmy Harrington, which is based on his real-life experiences, which can’t be copyrighted.
And lastly, a year and a half later, when Dortmunder finally agrees to do another job with Kelp-the-jinx, and it all goes wrong only it’s Dortmunder’s fault this time, the guys decide to take in a movie, having more time on their hands than they expected. Kelp’s heard about one that’s supposed to be funny, so they’ll go see that. Apparently it’s called Kid Stuff.
Jimmy the Kid, at 174pp, is probably the shortest novel of the series but its absurd premise, and the careful contrast between serious and comic approaches to it, make it one of the most concentratedly funny. Like it’s predecessors, it has been filmed, in 1982, starring Paul le Mat as Dortmunder (under that name) and child-star Gary Coleman (best known for the TV series Diff’rent Strokes and his catch-phrase “What’chu talkin’ about, Willis?”: the film appeared halfway through the series’ eight year run). It was not well-received. I saw part of it once, when it was shown during a midweek afternoon: I caught about ten minutes from somewhere in the middle that resembled nothing in the book, and which suggested the film was being played as broad slapstick. It was aimed at a child/family audience apparently, so my switching it off was only right and proper.
The story has also been filmed twice overseas, in Italy in 1976 as Come ti rapisco il pupo (literally, “As the pleasure takes you away the baby boy”) with Dortmunder renamed Elia, and in Germany in 1999 under the book’s title and Dortmunder’s own name.
As for the series in general, the cast is beginning to resolve itself into a consistent team. The gang, even with May and Murch’s Mom, still meet at the O.J. Bar & Grill, where the regulars’ bar conversations are staring to take on an increasingly familiar shape, although Rollo getting all gallant towards May is a one-off development.
You’ll have noticed the increasing tendency of Dortmunder being reluctant to work with Kelp after some of the things they’ve gone through, which isn’t all that unreasonable but, given that the two are a double-act, is a potential problem.
Let’s just say that Westlake doesn’t do anything to improve that in the next book.

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