Discovering Dortmunder: Drowned Hopes

At 453 pp, Drowned Hopes is by a stretch the longest Dortmunder novel (it’s more than two and a half times as long as Jimmy the Kid) and if it has a failing it’s a sense that it’s got the usual amount of laughter in it, but having to fend for itself in more open territories.
It’s not a bad book, and I’m not suggesting that Westlake has stretched his idea out beyond its natural length. Rather, it’s the technical problem that Dortmunder has to solve that, perfectly naturally, requires time and space to tackle. Added to that a genuine sense of menace from the book’s seriously bad apple, and overall, Drowned Hopes, turns out to be an unexpectedly serious book, in amongst the absurdities.
Other than that, it’s what we all expect and look forward to. The gang is now fixed as a core quartet with an off-beat fifth member performing as a descant. May is once again something of a conscience for the book, Murch’s Mom plays a part – as well as giving up her first name as being Gladys – and it’s made perfectly clear that Tiny and J.C.Taylor are a shared-apartment item, even though the lady herself stays offstage this time.
Time has moved on, the big score the gang made last time out has gone the way of all money, and Dortmunder’s again working on the small heists that are bread and butter. This time his job goes wrong even before the book starts: the jeweller’s moved away, the antiques shop has switched to Disney collectibles, the cheque-casher’s got in a mean dog. It takes a page or two before May can get through to him that he’s got an even bigger problem: he has a visitor.
The newcomer is Tom Jimson. He’s not an old friend, but an old cell-mate: a bony, grey, tall guy notorious for being the only guy to come out of capers in which his erstwhile colleagues end up either in the hands of the Law or those of the Grim Reaper. And he’s not supposed to be here: he’s serving seven life-sentences. But, on account of prison overcrowding, and as a seventieth birthday present, the state has sent Tom Jimson out once more into the outside, where he intends to collect a $700,000 stash from a long ago job and head off to somewhere the other side of Acapulco.
Jimson is the sort of guy that nobody will miss having around. He calls Dortmunder Al, not John, on account of John’s middle name being Archibald, which he hates: Jimson knows that. However, he has a proposition for ‘Al’. It seems that, not long after he did the job that enabled him to bury that $700,000 behind the library in Putkin’s Corners, the New York State Government put a reservoir on top of it: the stash is protected by fifty feet of water. If Dortmunder, with or without whoever he calls in, helps Jimson retrieve his stash, he can have half.
This presents Dortmunder with two problems in the long and short terms. The long term problem is the way Jimson’s partners never really get to enjoy their share of the cut. The short term one is that Jimson doesn’t really want him for his skills at planning jobs. Tom has a plan: he just wants Dortmunder to help him place the dynamite when he blows the dam. That way, they don’t have to worry about the water, and they won’t get disturbed because people are just naturally going to be ore concerned about this great big wave of water sweeping down-valley and engulfing these half-dozen or so towns along the way.
Dortmunder is horrified. Actually, he’s appalled too. And he finds himself forced to take on this job, to find away of getting the loot, under the reservoir, under fifty foot of water, out without killing thousands of people in doing so. After all, it’s not going to be that difficult for Jimson to find partners whose desire for $350,000 won’t be hindered for a second by other considerations.
That’s where a lot of the book’s length comes from: you just can’t come up with simple, straightforward plans to tackle a job like that, and there’s a familiar Hot Rock-esque aspect to seeing the gang pulling the same job several times over. Westlake makes sure we don’t get bored with this repetitive task by providing several amusing distractions that weave themselves into the story.
The first of these is Wally Knurr, a four and a half foot tall, naïve but highly intelligent butterball of a computer geek who is, naturally, an acquaintance of Andy Kelp. Wally, who is not a crook, lives in a world of computers and interactive games, and is brought in by Kelp to ‘assist’ Dortmunder’s planning by running things through a very accurate model of the valley. Wally starts out being an innocent, but given that he’s very far from stupid, soon works out what’s going on (primarily through conversations with his computer, which tends to reduce things to the level of an interactive game, involving the hero (Wally), the warlord (Jimson) and the princess.
The Princess is Myrtle Street, who lives on Myrtle Street in Dudson Center, a town down-valley of the dam. Myrtle, a pretty but somewhat unformed girl of twenty-five, is a librarian, taking after her elderly, bad-tempered, fault-finding mother Edna, who’d borne her out of wedlock. Myrtle’s never really thought about her birth-father, not until her mother launches into some uncharacteristic obscenities one day in the car because she’s just unexpectedly seen Myrtle’s father again.
Edna’s shock is every bit as great as Dortmunder’s, and for the exact same reason: Myrtle is the daughter of Tom Jimson. And when strangers start turning up and showing an interest in the same long ago, pre-reservoir robbery that Myrtle’s already worked out is the probable cause of her father’s absence from her life, her already-fixated interest grows insatiable.
One of those strangers is Wally, but another is Doug Berry, a diving expert who, having gotten intrigued by Dortmunder and Kelp’s need for compressed air from a registered diver who won’t ask too many questions, is trying to muscle on on their job (and is soon trying to muscle in on what’s underneath Myrtle’s cotton dress). Doug has to be incorporated in the job, just like Wally.
Unfortunately, the job is not going well. It might have seemed easy just to suit up and walk in to find the stash, but Dortmunder and Kelp are complete novices at diving (even when they’re not diving) and Dortmunder soon develops a healthy and not entirely irrational fear of a reservoir that, quite seriously, is out to kill him.
Indeed, Dortmunder wants out. In an unusual twist, the extended gang stays behind, still trying to make the job work, whilst he goes home to New York. Until the day he returns to the apartment to find Stan Murch waiting for him with the news that May has moved out. No, she’s not left him, she’s just taking a holiday, her and Murch’s Mom. They’re renting a house in a nice, relaxing, upstate New York community. In Dudson Center. In front of the dam.
So now John has an incentive to come up with a plan that will keep Tom Jimson away from the dynamite.
That’s when things start to get complicated, when Westlake starts drawing together all the strings he’s been running out, including the more-than-crazed ex-partner of Jimson’s who wants revenge, and everything comes to a head out on the reservoir, in a boat, with the job working smoothly and everything going right, and Jimson preparing his usual double-cross.
Oh, it goes wrong of, course, and this time the twist is that Dortmunder’s the one who blows it, and there goes the $700,000 and this time no more chances. Still, Tom Jimson isn’t going to be bothering anyone any more, and the dam is still in one piece, even if the gang’s return for all their efforts is zip, zilch and nada.
Somebody does profit, however, as the final chapter reveals, much to everyone’s disgust.
Drowned Hopes is still a good book, and I wouldn’t suggest overlooking it, but don’t expect the same degree of fun as with others in this series. Whether he intended to or not, Westlake’s decision to use a character like Tom Jimson – who is a satire of the kind of people the late writer Jim Thompson (whose novel The Grifters, Westlake had adapted for the very successful 1990 film), a very hard-boiled writer, is known for – anchors the book in a greater level of criminal reality than anything since The Hot Rock.
Jimson’s really something of an inimical figure in Dortmunder’s world, which has over the past six books taken on something of a cartoon feel. We read the Dortmunder books because, whilst they are steeped in the reality of the criminal world, they are actually fantastic and improbable stories that are anchored to reality by that verisimilitude, when we know (but don’t want to understand) that neither these people nor these settings can actually exist. Jimson’s just that bit too much truthful, with too few comic edges to soften the blow.
Incidentally, there’s another crime fiction nod of the head in this book. Chapter 57 features the gang congregating in Dudson Center in a variety of stolen vehicles, one of which is a silver Cadillac, being pursued by a very intent repo man named Ken Warren, who has a speech impediment. Warren is intent on taking that car, but finds himself boxed in by vehicles on all four sides, not to mention Tom Jimson wanting to kill him. The moment he gets out that he’s a repo man, everybody is all smiles and clear his way.
This is, I understand, a crossover, or rather a ‘shared chapter’ with the book 32 Cadillacs by Joe Gores, part of his DKA series (novels featuring private detective Dan Kearney which apparently feature thinly-disguised accounts of Gores’ own experiences as a sleuth and a repo man). The same events appear in 32 Cadillacs, but from the point of view of Gores’ characters.
I’ve never read any of Gores’ books (apparently, Westlake and Gores had done this before, with a Richard Stark Parker book) though it would be interesting to see the other side of this. Unfortunately, whilst it’s a neat in-gag, the knowledge of it, for me at least, turns an otherwise throwaway gag into something of undue significance, blowing the gag.
Still, if Drowned Hopes was a minor disappointment, there would still be another story to come, of tighter length, even if there was a certain amount of familiarity to its theme…

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