Discovering Dortmunder: Good Behavior


Good Behavior was the only Dortmunder novel I read out of sequence. For some reason, it seems to be the rarest of the books, having apparently not been included in the Mysterious Press uniform re-issue of the series in the early Nineties, from which I draw the majority of my collection, the covers of which I’m trying to use as illustrations.
I’d originally read The Hot Rock and Bank Shot from the library, in English hardback publications, but Westlake’s works have rarely since then been available in the UK and I’ve had to rely on imports thereafter. In 1977, in a long ago closed London bookshop of good repute, I got hold of the next three of the series, but it was easily another decade before I found it had continued. I managed to get hold of the seventh and eighth books, and then the two after these as they were published and imported into the Crime Section at Waterstones in Manchester, but I had to wait until the Amazon era before I could backtrack to this missing gem.
Once again, the story opens with Dortmunder out on a job that quickly goes wrong, and when I say quickly, I’m talking within the first ten words here. Dortmunder’s partner here is not, for once, Andy Kelp but instead Jim O’Hara, a rather colourless fellow who is shortly going to have the opportunity to work on his prison pallor. Dortmunder takes off in a different direction, only to fall off a roof.
The scene quickly shifts to inside a convent, a convent of nuns devoted to contemplation, prayer and a vow of silence that only allows them two hours off every Thursday afternoon to talk. One nun in particular is sat there, Contemplating, whilst praying for long life to the Pope, forgiveness of the souls in Purgatory, the conversion of Godless Russia and the return of Sister Mary Grace. Suddenly, burglar’s tools start dropping from the rafters. Which is where John Dortmunder, with a badly sprained ankle, is perched. Thank you Lord, our prayers are answered.
This unlikely thought is gradually unravelled, through the medium of good will, patience and charades. Sister Mary Grace is the convent’s newest and youngest nun, faithful, devoted and determined. Unfortunately, outside the convent, she’s the youngest daughter of a very rich industrialist/financier/businessman, Frank Ritter, whose plans for her life are somewhat more conventional, and directed towards expanding the family empire, so he had her kidnapped, imprisoned on the 76th floor of the Avalon State Bank Tower, behind impregnable security, and is having her worked on (unsuccessfully) by the world’s leading deprogrammer.
It’s not a question of barter, but in unspoken exchange for not shopping Dortmunder to those very busy policemen at the other end of the block, the nuns want him to steal Sister Mary Grace back.
This improbable, but somewhat uplifting scenario makes for a strangely positive book, the first of the series, since for once – perhaps because they are working on the side of the angels – the gang gets an all-points win,including a pay-off that’s spectacular enough to see Dortmunder and May on holiday in Bermuda by the final pages. But, naturally, it’s not an easy ride.
Leaving aside the practical difficulties of breaking into a high security, 76 storey, downtown business centre to rescue Rapunzel from the apartment on the top floor (which only becomes possible because Rapunzel is not just faithful, devoted and determined, but resourceful and smart too, and gets the security spec books smuggled out to the nuns) there’s the question of manpower.
Sure, Andy Kelp – who has taken to using his credit card to bypass the lock whenever he drops in on John and May – will help, for old times sake, but Stan and Tiny will want a profit motive. However, given that the building is just chock-a-block with import and jewellery businesses, the prospect can be made tempting enough. And John’s plan is ingenious to say the least.
For the building includes, amongst its many tenants, several mail order businesses. And it is well known that wherever you get mail order businesses, you get people running scams. One such is J. C. Taylor, who is willing to allow the gang to hole up for the weekend in Taylor’s offices, breaking out on Sunday to relieve the 26th floor of its goodies, and sending these out of the building on Monday as part of J. C. Taylor’s everyday post.
The nun will be taken out separately.
It’s Tiny whose contacts have uncovered J. C. Taylor, and it’s Tiny who’s most affected by the discovery that J. C. is actually a woman: an attractive, albeit hard-faced woman, aged about thirty: self-confident, brash, cynical, and capable of having a very unusual effect upon Tiny Bulcher, hormonally, that is.
Indeed, though she’s cynical and uncaring enough to make him almost resentful of her, it’s not really surprising that, by the end, he’s calling her Josie (which nobody else ever does), and it’s clear the relationship is heading for blue waters.
J. C.’s not part of the gang, though her curiosity puts her on the scene in the latter part of the book, and she’s instrumental in driving the remaining members of the gang into doing the right thing.
The gang is, however, complete on this occasion by another of Westlake’s weird and wonderful locksmiths. Chefwick’s retired, Herman X. is now Vice-President of Talabwo (remember the Balabomo Emerald?), so Tiny brings in little old Wilbur Howey, a little old man who spends virtually all his time singing and dancing, and panting after women.
You see, Wilbur once got caught and sent down for ten years but, on account of his insistence on escaping over and over again, it’s taken forty-eight years for him to get out. Wilbur’s been locked away from women for forty-eight years and is eager to impress himself on them, though the fact that his tastes, talk and general demeanour are still set to forty-eight years ago, he’s not destined to have much luck.
You’ll remember that I said something about “the remaining members of the gang” just now? That’s because the plan is working perfectly, everybody’s busy filling their boots (almost literally) with precious items (Kelp keeps diverting himself into the Magic Shop, until Stan has to have a word about it), and Dortmunder, with Wilbur’s help, is off to the 76th floor to retrieve Sister Mary Grace, and you know how every time there’s some little obstruction, some unforeseeable detail that the plan doesn’t cater for?
This time it’s the fact that Frank Ritter has it in for some South American country which has defied him. So he plans to have its government overthrown by a small army of extremely violent, homicidally maniacal, volatile mercenaries, who are staying in the Avalon State Bank Tower before flying out on Monday.
Sister Mary Grace is on the 76th floor. They’re on the 75th…
I’ll leave the rest of it to your good idea to get Good Behavior and read it. All I shall say is that Ritter gets his proper comeuppance, the mercenaries are arrested, Sister Mary Grace is reunited with her convent (whilst supplying some assistance to the rebels of Guerrero along the way) and, in a delightful precursor of Sister Act, a bunch of singing nuns get the gang out of the building, under the not very watchful eye of our old friend, Chief Inspector Francis X. Mologna. Pronounced Maloney.
More even than Why Me?, Good Behavior represented a pivot in the series. From this point on, though Dortmunder still finds life sticking spokes in his wheel all along the way, the gang will usually come out of their capers with something for their trouble, other than the freedom to plot the next job without the attention of warders.
And the gang is a gang now, John, Andy, Stan and Tiny. Though they all continue to earn their daily bread in their own manner, with or without other professional colleagues, when there’s a serious caper going, this is the quartet that will do it. Tiny’s initial fearsomeness, though it still has plenty of rope, begins to be tempered a little in this book, a process we understand will be accelerate once Josie starts to rub a few rough edges off him (not too many, Tiny being composed entirely from an overstock of rough edges).
But the moment J.C. shamed the other four into going to rescue Dortmunder, which even Kelp had agreed wasn’t going to happen, a sense of loyalty was created.
As usual, Good Behavior is very funny. There’s a lot of charades, which Westlake handles very skilfully, keeping it funny as Dortmunder (and others) have to interpret it, but not overusing the device until it stifles. There’s also a pragmatic degree of moral relativity among the nuns in the aid they lend to the gang, especially at the end, and May – who abruptly gives up cigarette smoking near the start of the book, only to start scratching her head a lot – even has a sub-plot of her own, scaring off the guy who wants to sue Dortmunder in court to recover the fee he paid John to commit the failed robbery of page 1.
It would be another five years before Westlake returned to his gang of oddballs, during which he would publish six other novels, four of them under the pseudonym Samuel Holt. It was one of the ways in which he would keep the series fresh, and fend off the risk of dipping too much into self-parody. Because next time out, in the longest book of the series, Dortmunder would find himself again doing the right thing, and this time without a convent of nuns spurring him on.

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