Donald Erwin Westlake, prolific writer of crime fiction, died on 31 December 2008, aged 75. He was preparing for a New Year’s Eve dinner with friends in Mexico, when he suffered a heart attack. He left behind one completed but unpublished novel. Parker fans hoped for a final Richard Stark, Dortmunder fans for a last Dortmunder gang tale: we were the lucky ones.
What does it feel like when an open-ended series ends? What is the best way to leave the reader satisfied? Westlake didn’t know that this would be his final book, his final visit to the absurd but somehow very realistic world of the unluckiest gang of criminals ever, and if he had, how might it have affected his story?
There’s an interesting comparison with Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series, which was also brought to an end on the author’s death, with the final book being Midnight Fugue. The Dalziel and Pascoe books are, primarily, independent of each other, but there was an ongoing chronology, and events in one book would often have consequences in the next.
For instance, Hill had had Andy Dalziel caught in a car bomb explosion in one book and barely surviving, in convalescence but still active in the next and, in Midnight Fugue, about to return to duty. In his absence, Peter Pascoe had taken on Dalziel’s duties, meaning that there would be a new aspect to their relationship: this would have been tackled in the next book, but that went unwritten.
There would be no such issues with Westlake: each Dortmunder book ended with an ending, and nothing hanging over to be addressed in another book. If he had known this was to be the last, would he have written it differently?
That we’ll never know, but by a gloriously sentimental chance, Get Real ends with a rare win for the gang. They make their score, the cops know nothing, they leave full-handed and with the opportunity to repeat the job no-one but they knows they’ve pulled off. Dortmunder, Kelp, Murch, Bulcher and Blint go out on a high.
Get Real may not be the best Dortmunder book, but it’s got the biggest and most absurd notion that Westlake came up with: a reality TV series, starring our favourite gang in the planning, casing and commission of a job. Real crime, for a thirteen week prime-time slot.
It’s all because things are quiet. The twenty-first century and its technological advances, especially in the realms of CCTV, surveillance, and enhanced security has not been kind to the sort of crooks like Dortmunder and co, the ones who prefer cash-in-illicit-hand. Everyone’s in semi-retirement, making their way, bit by bit, but lacking that piece of something that provides a cushion, you know. Which is why, when Murch’s Mom gets TV producer Doug Faircamp in her cab on a run from the Airport into the city, she takes the chance to big up her boy Stanley, figuring he could do with a change of career.
And Doug Faircamp gets the idea of a lifetime.
Now, leaving aside any moral qualms about the fact that Get Real Productions are planning to aid and abet and indeed profit from a criminal enterprise – this is television: there are none – Dortmunder and co have some concerns of their own. Like the fact that they usually do their jobs at night, in the dark, and without 12,000,000 witnesses and footage for the cops to use in evidence. Not to mention that it wouldn’t go down well at the O.J. if they tried filming in the back room.
But Doug is full of assurances that they can get round that, that they’ll use side and back shots and head haloes, that the gang’s faces will never be seen, and besides, they’ll build the O.J. in the studio, and shoot the show there (there is an vein of pure cynicism about the ‘reality’-quotient of Reality TV running through this, rather like the Amazon runs through Brazil).
As far as the gang is concerned, they’ll only go ahead with this by planning two heists. The first is the one the TV company know about, that’s going to get filmed. The target’s going to be in the same building, another company from the same group: an escape hatch for if the Police get involved: it wasn’t a real robbery, the company were in on it.
But the more important job is the heist the company doesn’t know about. The one that turns upon how Doug has inadvertently revealed that there are large sums of cash to be found around from time to time, which the gang assume (rightly) to be on that floor which is shielded by massive security.
As far as Dortmunder’s concerned, the TV show is only a cover: once they’ve cased their real heist, they walk off the show, let things settle, then go in quietly at night. The way things should be done. Unfortunately (ahhh…), by that point the rest of the gang have seen the first rushes, have seen themselves on TV, and they kind of like it. They want to keep filming. And, when it comes to it, even Dortmunder gets the bug.
The jewel in this part of the story, and indeed the moment at which I laughed louder and harder than any other single moment in all this series, comes when the gang arrive for filming one day on the set of the O.J. to find Doug, production assistant and not-scripter Marcie and two cameraman having exactly the kind of cross-purposed, surreal and unfailingly inaccurate conversation as the regulars do in the real bar.
The gang stare in awe and amazement and it is Kelp who sums it up perfectly with the line, “If you build it, they will come.”
The cash, it turns out, is bribe money: bribe money for all those local agents and wheelgreasers in foreign climes, if one wishes to get anywhere with one’s enterprises. Since that is illegal under US Law, Dortmunder and co can feel assured that the crime will not be reported. Still, they go in with every intention of not leaving any traces of their presence, so it’s unfortunate that they disturb a large and suspicious Asian gentleman.
This leads to one of the very few moments of overt violence in the entire series and, ironically, it’s not even by Tiny: Kelp wangs the guy up the head with a frying pan. The cash in the safe being somewhat messily stacked, the gang are even able to extract nearly $170,000 without anyone even being sure a dollar is missing!
As winners go, this is a win.
The next day, the show is cancelled. Westlake’s used that as a cliffhanger twice and twice wriggled his guys out of it, but third time is the deal-breaker: the company is being shut down, the gang are paid off and they leave. It is, I’m sad to say, a weak and very perfunctory ending: our last look at our friends is as they wander off down the street forever, without fireworks or fanfare. For a moment, Dortmunder’s conscience seems about to assert itself: they’ve been paid off on top of everything they’ve made, but Marcie, who’s been invaluable to them on the show, is sacked with nothing. Should they give her something?
It’s a nice thought, but the ghost of Parker shines through John Archibald Dortmunder for one last time, and like the crook he is and has always been, he rejects the thought, and walks on.
So it ended. Like I say, it’s not the best of the series, but it’s plenty good enough and it’s very funny. There’s no place, this final time, for May or Anne Marie, and only cameos for Murch’s Mom and J. C. Taylor. There’s no Arnie Allbright either, sad to say.
The book was stated to be complete, but I wonder just how complete it was. Westlake was a very natural writer, a fast typist who caught his stories at the first go. All writers rewrite, to one extent or another though, and I have my suspicion that this book would have had another go through it to come, had fate not intervened.
I’m put in mind of P. G. Wodehouse’s final, unfinished novel, Sunset at Blandings. It’s unfinished in that Wodehouse was not more than three-quarters of the way through the story when he died, but it’s also unfinished in another sense. Wodehouse’s practice was to write the story as a whole, concentrating on working out the plot, and fitting everything together. He would then take a more relaxed approach to the manuscript, working through it and ‘thickening’ it: putting in those wonderful similes, those convoluted quips, the jokes and the fun, making the book into the rich brew it would become.
This is missing from that part of Sunset at Blandings that he had written, and I wonder if a similar process is missing from Get Real. The ending is so abrupt, so left-field despite the (over-) use of the shutdown device, twice already, so feeble, that it is a let-down. The book doesn’t end in a sense that feels complete, it just stops.
I wonder. But the question is moot. John Dortmunder, Andy Kelp, Stan Murch, Tiny Bulcher and, having not had half the development as a character that Westlake plainly intended for him, Judson “The Kid” Blint, went off into that good night of respected and beloved fictional creatures who will not be allowed to dragged back by foreign hands. The family will not allow their further use, and good on them.
There remains a total of eleven short stories and one rather unusual sidebar to the canon, all but one of which I’ll be discussing in the next entry, when I look at the one volume of collected short Dortmunder fiction.