Discovering Dortmunder: Why Me?


After four Dortmunder novels in seven years, there wasn’t a fifth for six years,the longest gaps between books in the series. It was a fallow period for Westlake, with only two books under his name during that period, one of them the very serious novel Kahawa. Part of the time was taken up with writing the screenplay of the rather unsuccessful comedy crime caper film, Hot Stuff for director/star Dom DeLuise, as well as a pilot episode of the unsuccessful TV series Supertrain.
So by the time Why Me? appeared in 1983, Dortmunder fans were more than ready for it. And Westlake had a brand sparkling new angle to feed them.
I must confess to having a faulty impression about this story before I came to re-read it. The slowly deteriorating relationship between Dortmunder and Kelp, with the former being increasingly reluctant to work with the latter as caper after caper crashed, is reversed in Why Me?, setting things up for the two to work harmoniously ever after. After all, Kelp comes willingly, and at no little risk to himself, to Dortmunder’s aid in this book.
But what I’d forgotten is that whatever reconciliation had taken place has already been and gone before page 1, when Dortmunder is trying to contact Kelp to invite him to join in on this little job he has set up, and which is to be the start of all his troubles.
It’s just a burglary at a jewellers, is all, out near the Airport, a jewellers with a ‘going on holiday’ sign in the window, which is practically an invitation to do your shopping whilst it’s quiet, except that partway through the job the owner pays a late visit, no lights, to put something in the safe, and leave again. Dortmunder, whose interest in that part of the world that doesn’t affect him directly is less than total, shrugs it off, opens the safe and helps himself to all manner of pricey trinkets.
Almost as an afterthought, he takes this massive ruby ring that’s obviously a fake: nothing real could be that big: maybe it’s worth something? Unfortunately, the ring is real. In fact, it’s the world famous Byzantine Fire, and it’s definitely worth something. It was being given up by the United States after ninety years to go to Greece, but all sorts of Nationalist and Terrorist organisations, Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian etc, had contradictory opinions as to the propriety of that, and the ruby had been stolen in order that a certain well-trusted and calm Greek jeweller could take it out of the country the next day. A jeweller who planned to keep the Byzantine Fire in his safe overnight. A calm man who folds and confesses the moment the FBI arrive.
Of course, Dortmunder being Dortmunder, he knows nothing of this. New York throbs with excitement over the theft of this famous diamond, the FBI, various security organisations and the New York Police collaborate (in a riven by distrust, jealousy and plain loathing manner) to find the Ruby, and the man who has it doesn’t read the papers or watch the news and doesn’t even know there’s a fuss at all.
Whilst the FBI doggedly pursue the idea of secret and competing organisations, the Police, in the form of Chief Inspector Francis X. Mologna (pronounced Maloney) have the right idea, and the might of the NYPD is turned loose upon the poor unsuspecting criminal fraternity of New York (though virtually all of it is less unsuspecting than Dortmunder).
The blitz affects everybody, very rapidly. Dortmunder narrowly escapes being swept up with the proceeds of the robbery on him, whilst he’s at his fence (a first appearance from the unloved Arnie Allbright), and when he is hauled in for questioning, just a few moments after May has broken to him that he’s the cause of all this ado, and what it is he actually stole, he’s actually got the Byzantine Fire stuck on his finger and effectively in his hand all throughout his sojourn at the station.
The real problem for Dortmunder, and the point at which Kelp unselfishly and unhesitatingly weighs in on his buddy’s side, is that all this hassle has got the backs up of the afore-mentioned criminal fraternity, as presided over by Tiny Bulcher (he didn’t go back to prison after all: the gorilla didn’t press charges).
Tiny, as we already know, is not a man-mountain that takes kindly to anyone who interferes with the smooth and efficient running of his life, and the unlucky person who has brought this shitstorm of discomfort down on Tiny is an irritation not to be borne.
Accordingly, whilst the crooks are running around looking for the guy with the diamond, the crooks are sitting very still – in the back room of the O.J. Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue, where else? – running a parallel investigation into what everybody was doing on Wednesday night. And their powers of subpoena, though not backed in any official way, are vastly more effective.
The real problem for Dortmunder is not so much that confession and restitution will considerably diminish his standing among his confreres, not to mention get him into jail for life, but that Tiny Bulcher insists on having certain dealings with the guy who’s causing all this ruckus, before handing him over to the Police.
So, with only the assistance of Andrew Octavian Kelp, Dortmunder has to work out away of divesting himself of the Byzantine Fire in such a manner as will clear his reputation as the man who everybody – police, crooks, press and all manner of fervently nationalistic and religious groups – is coming to believe has stolen it.
That’s all you’ll get from me, because how Westlake plays out this nearly impossible situation, delivering all manner of comeuppances to everyone whose behaviour deserves it, should not be marred by spoilers. Let’s just say that Dortmunder does, in the end, walk free, walk tall (even with his stooped shoulders) and with his reputation clean, and that there’s no more fallings-out with Andy Kelp so long as the series lasts.
Why Me? is effectively a two-hander, like the final part of Nobody’s Perfect, rather than a gang caper, fleshed out by a great many diversions into the concerns and actions of all the forces seeking the recovery of the Byzantine Fire. Stan Murch has a cameo role, calling Dortmunder up to consider a job he’s found, which has to be put on the back burner during the crisis, but which is still there to be picked up in the aftermath. Tiny Bulcher, as we know, has a central role, but not on Dortmunder’s side, and he ends up in hospital sick from having eaten all the crook’s files on everybody, to prevent the police getting their hands on them.
Arnie Allbright is a new addition to the list of characters in this book. Arnie, as I’ve already mentioned, is a fence. He’s Dortmunder’s regular fence because he gives the best rates, and Arnie gives the best rates because he’s such a repulsive personality, he’s got no friends, so if he didn’t give the best rates no-one whatsoever would visit him, because he repulses them so much, they’d rather go to Stoon even though he doesn’t give such top dollar.
Arnie lives in a top floor apartment in a run-down building that he seems to be doing his best to run down further. He collects calendars: they’re everywhere, every size, shape and subject, even the incompletes.
And mention must be made of the truly monstrous Chief Inspector Mologna, who, like the Security Guards from Bank Shot, is just too vivid a personality not to bring back. Mologna, a mass of old school, Irish cop prejudices, instinctively hating his FBI opponent Zachary as much as Zachary hates him, shifting his immovable belly about the place and, gloriously, refusing to let Dortmunder give the ruby back and insisting on catching him.
Westlake adds another running set-piece in the opening scene, a set-up that permeates the whole story and which goes on to be developed throughout the rest of the series. It’s a mini-masterpiece: Dortmunder rings Kelp to ask him to come on this job but Kelp doesn’t seem to be listening to him so he hangs up. It’s not until he tries a second time, and Kelp’s saying all the same things that Dortmunder realises what we immediately understood, which is that Kelp’s got an answering machine, though for why Dortmunder can’t understand. So he tries to leave a message, completely ignoring the fact that the machine is still talking to him, in fact Kelp has picked up and is trying to get through to John that it’s actually him now, though John is doggedly ignoring that detail!
It’s the beginning of Andy’s ongoing urge to not merely surround himself with all manner of energy-saving gadgets but also to surround Dortmunder with them too, in the face of John’s determination not to want, or even see the point of another one of these crazy contraptions that just make everything more complicated than it really oughta be.
But even if I misremembered the exact circumstances, Why Me? still represents something of a turning point in the series. From this point onwards, the endings do get a bit more positive. There are no great scores, no complete victories and the capers continue to run up against misfortunes and snags that turn them into pain-in-the-ass trials, but from here on there’s usually something in it, and with the next book the gang turns itself into a gang that automatically looks to its partners in whatever jobs might come up.

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