Discovering Dortmunder: Don’t Ask

I don’t honestly know why, but whilst I’d remembered that Don’t Ask was based upon a similar premise to The Hot Rock, I’d completely forgotten just how funny it is. After the relatively paucity of laughs in Drowned Hopes, this book goes for the comedic jugular from the outset and provides more than its fair share of fun from start to tightly-plotted end.
Though there’s no formal division of the story into seconds, the book does fall naturally into two parts, the caper and the revenge. And the revenge is a true tour-de-force, not merely from Westlake, but also from the put-upon John Archibald Dortmunder. This time it’s a real shame that the much-expanded gang doesn’t get away with the loot.
But before we can get into just what Dortmunder wants revenge for, we need to get a handle on the caper.
We start, as always, with the failed heist. It seems to be a simple job, just the removal of a truckload of freshly caught fish to another destination. But Dortmunder, Kelp and Murch get stuck on the Williamsburg Bridge under the hot sun for four hours, with John in agony from the air-conditioning dripping ice cold water on his ankles. So he switches the A/C off. The reason for not doing so is duly revealed four hot hours later when they open the truck. So they lose it by parking it in some out of the way lorry park, waiting for someone to notice.
I don’t normally go into such detail about the failed heist, but I’d like you to remember this little incident, even though it’s not going to be mentioned again for a very long time.
In the meantime, Tiny’s got a job for them, as delivered by his cousin, Grijk Krungk, and it’s right up Dortmunder’s street. That’s because it involves these two countries that hate each other, because they used to be one country before they were two, and they had this national relic that both worshipped, only one country’s got it and the other country wants it and they want John to swipe it for them.
As it happens, the object is not an emerald but rather a bone: to be precise, the  femur of Saint Ferghana. And there’s something valuable as stake: whichever of these two Eastern European countries has the real bone will get the United Nations seat of the old country. Outlandish as this may seem, there is a perfectly good explanation for why this is so, which Westlake has taken the trouble to set down in the book, so that means I don’t have to go into that here, because you are going to go out and read this now, aren’t you?
The initial snag is that Tesrgovia is a poor country and, whilst Tiny’s prepared to do this one for the old country, payment in Tsergovian draffs, spendable only in Tsergovia doesn’t really live up to Dortmunder’s family crest, Quid lucrum istic mihi est (What’s in it for me?)
That snag is gotten past when Tsergovia take out a Bank Loan to pay in US Dollars (that is one loan application I’d love to see), but the second snag is that the Vostkojek Embassy is a converted tramp steamer moored on the East River, which means that to case it in any meaningful manner, the gang have to take to the waters.
Unfortunately, after recent events, Dortmunder has developed an aversion to large bodies of water. So much so that, partway through the voyage, he insists on being returned to dry land at the nearest point, which is basically the land attached to the Vostkojek Embassy.
However, here he meets Hradec Kralowc, the womanising Vostkojekian Ambassador. Hradec starts of by suspecting a Tsergovian invasion, but rapidly comes to sympathise with the sea-sick John Diddums (the first appearance, at least in the novels, of Dortmunder’s reluctant alias, being the only word that ever comes into his head when he has to give a false name: he claims it’s Welsh). So much so, he insists on giving his fellow sea-loather on a tour of the Embassy, showing him everything, including St Ferghana’s femur. It’s the first time John’s ever had the householder help him case the joint.
The caper is planned to perfection, leaving aside those unpredictable hitches that could happen to anybody. The scientist on the shift before ‘Dr’ Andy Kelp is a bit too meticulous over his tests, delaying Kelp’s departure with the purloined femur until Dortmunder’s diversion is almost done. Kelp panics, blows Dortmunder’s cover, makes his escape onto the boat Murch has stolen, but Dortmunder can’t bring himself to jump and is captured.
Matters are further complicated when Murch and Kelp land their boat, only to find themselves surrounded by a task force from the DEA: they’ve only stolen a noted drug-runner’s craft.
For a time, the story runs in parallel. Hradec doesn’t report the theft to the Police because the gang got away with the bone. Instead, he plans to use Dortmunder to get the bone back, but naturally a professional won’t crack. Not unless he’s been drugged by Doctor Zorn, flown out out the country to a far away land where he’s lodged in the dungeons and will be tortured until he cracks…
Several episodes of the Diary of a Prisoner ensue, intertwined with scenes of Kelp and Murch managing to convince the DEA that not only are they nothing to do with the drug-runner, they haven’t even stolen the boat. They get released but the boat does get impounded, as do any suspicious looking bones that got kicked out of sight under a tarpaulin, and are taken away.
Tsergovia makes it clear that it expects its bone, so Kelp and Murch have to go it alone in tracing the whereabouts of the bone and stealing it back, whilst worrying about the absent John. Meanwhile, Diary of a Prisoner turns into Diary of an Escapee, and when Andy and Stan finally deliver the bone to Grijk and his new Deputy Security Chief, they can’t understand why he doesn’t seem more excited.
Until they’re two blocks away and just recalling that Tsergovia is too poor to afford two Security Chiefs, and that Vostkojek has just stolen the bone back.
Well, everybody’s been paid, except Tiny, who’s been doing this for nothing, and it’s not the gang’s fault Tsergovia lost the bone, and besides, Dortmunder’s back. Except that Dortmunder is back not from Vostkojek but from Vermont, where Hradec and his good friend, and would-be investor in Vostkojek, Harry Hochman, have worked a con on him.
Dortmunder is not happy. He’s been played for a rube and he doesn’t like it. In fact, he wants revenge. Revenge on Hradec, Doctor Zorn, Harry Hochman, Vostkojek. Revenge that gets Tsergovia its bone and its UN seat, no questions asked. Revenge that, incidentally, involves the heisting of $6,000,000 in art treasures
And he’s only got about 72 hours in which to come up with a plan.
I said tour-de-force and I meant tour-de-force. It’s Dortmunder’s finest hour, a bigger theft than even the Byzantine Fire (Why Me? This book is full of references to old jobs: only Jimmy the Kid goes unrecalled). It requires three jobs in three locations, one of them overseas, a string of eleven, in violation of his sternest maxim – if a job can’t be done with five men, it’s not worth doing at all.
And it all comes out the way Dortmunder plans it, at high speed, especially the bit where the gang trains the staff at Harry Hochman’s chateau into ignoring the burglar alarm when it goes off. There’s a tremendous joy in watching all the dominos fall in the correct order, bringing down humiliation, exposure and destruction on Hradec, Zorn and Hochman, colapsing into deserved ruin and disgrace of which they’re each completely innocent. It’s a masterpiece.
All that’s left is to collect on the $6,000,000 in Art Treasures. The goods are being kept safe in a truck, parked in a lorry park out in New Jersey. Every couple of days, Murch takes the ferry over and moves the truck into another anonymous lorry park.
Are you hearing a ball ringing? Or, more appropriately, are you smelling anything fishy?
If you recall, that failed heist from nearly 340 pages back involved leaving a truck in a New Jersey lorry park. The smell’s gotten bad enough that the truck’s been found and the Police have come to tow it. Unfortunately, they tow the wrong truck…
And so the eternal verities of a Dortmunder prevail yet again and wesettle ourselves down in happy anticipation of the next one.
Good as the first half of this book is, it’s that gloriously plotted and executed revenge scenario that makes Don’t Ask an awesome success, and which undoubtedly inspired the next Dortmunder novel. Even if the job ultimately goes sour, the back half of the book is so rich and successful on every other level that an unusual degree of happiness surrounds the end of the story, especially when the seemingly unimportant detail that Vostojek’s application for independent UN admission is now queued behind that of Maylohda is discovered to come unusually close to home by the end.
There are just too many things in the book overall to give all of them away, but mention must be made of a couple of first en route. There are cameos for J.C.Taylor early on, listening in on the gang and Grijk, and taking her own inspiration from Tsergovia’s ambitions, and from Arnie Allbright, as obnoxious as before, providing credit cards with a strictly limited shelf-life.
There’s the rather solidly built Head of the Tsergovian Mission who turns out to be the only person on this Earth who can intimidate Tiny Bulcher, because she has a crush on him, and the rather matter of fact way in which we learn that Tiny’s first name is actually Tchotchkuss, though this is  not a matter to be repeated, and certainly not in front of Tiny.
Oh, and whilst he never graduates beyond a minor background character, we do have our first meeting with Ralph Winslow, a brilliant one-handed locksmith: one-handed because he always has in his other hand a glass of something amber in which ice cubes tinkle merrily. Always.
The next book I do remember as being one of the most hilarious of the series on first reading. I shall shortly confirm if it repeats the trick.

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