Discovering Dortmunder: What’s the Worst that could Happen?

What’s the worst that could happen? was the point at which, for the first time in over twenty years, I caught up with the Dortmunder series in real time. I hadn’t gotten hold of Good Behavior at this point, but from here until the end of the series, I was grabbing each new book as it appeared on import to the Crime Fiction section of Waterstone’s on Deansgate, Manchester.
And the book is every bit as funny, and tight, and beautifully-plotted as I remember finding it first time round. And that’s because it’s based on a very simple, utterly gorgeous premise.
Let us lay out the setting. Dortmunder agrees with Gus Brock to join him on a visit, a visit here being a visit to a house whose owners are guaranteed not to be present at the hour of this social call. In this case, it’s out on Long Island and it’s a well-appointed, lavishly adorned property owned by a company in Chapter Eleven Bankruptcy, hence its lack of use.
However, the ultimate owner, of the company that owns the company that’s in Chapter Eleven is one Max Fairbanks, billionaire. Max comes from a shady European background that did involve killing people who got in his way, at least until he went legit and started collecting businesses, billions, art treasures, discreet mistresses. Max has a tremendous respect for the Law, until they try to apply it to him.
So, having been barred from the house on Long Island, Max is naturally there (with Miss September). And just as naturally, it is Dortmunder on whom he gets the drop, whilst Gus discreetly departs.
Dortmunder plays along. It’s the way of it: the arrest, trial, conviction. Third fall, habitual, life in prison. Not going back to May. He’s resigned to it. Until Max steals his ring.
Dortmunder is wearing a ring that arrived that very day for May: a sentimental keepsake from her late Uncle, the raceplayer, his ‘lucky’ ring. Naturally, given that John is maybe needing an uplift on the luck front, she gives it to him. And it fits perfectly, like it was meant for him. Until, later the same day, Max decides to thieve from the thief, to rub his nose in it that bit much more, to demonstrate his absolute power over the universe. And besides, the ring is decorated with Max’s personal trigram from the I-Ching, so obviously it was meant to be his all along.
That makes things different for Dortmunder. It’s not right. It’s outside the rules of the world he inhabits, and he’s not going to stand for it. There he was, all ready to go down for life,until this rich guy pulled this fast one, and John Archibald Dortmunder is not going to stand for that. He wants his ring back.
And, just as in Don’t Ask, Dortmunder surges into action. He escapes from the police car, evades detection and goes back to the house, though Max and his ring is gone now. So he has to complete the original visit, arriving back at the apartment with $28,000 in cash, and in disgust at his failure.
That’s the story of the book. Dortmunder grimly pursues Max Fairbanks, intent on getting back his ring. Each time, a whim or a chance diverts Max elsewhere, leaving Dortmunder frustrated, even though each failed raid nets an increasing amount of cash. All his associates are clustering about him, all aware of John’s little humiliation – gee, once you admit something to Andy Kelp, it really does go around – but all the more interested in these lucrative capers that are falling into his unconcerned and disappointed hands.
Meantime, Max cottons on to the fact that he’s made an inadvertently costly enemy of this ragged burglar and, in a bid to take control of the situation and win, as Max Fairbanks always does, he sets things up for one final crack at him, in Las Vegas, in Max’s casino/hotel.
Dortmunder has to take on the challenge, even though he knows it’s a trap. One thing though: by now he’s got so many associates rooting for him that a virtual criminal army travels cross-country to Nevada to take part in a plan whose principal difficulty is not getting in, nor getting out with a) everybody’s freedom and b) several million dollars in cash, nor even c) – which is A) in Dortmunder’s eyes – getting May’s ring back.
No, the real difficulty is finding something for everyone in a string this big to actually do.
Of course it comes off, not just like a dream for everyone concerned (even Dortmunder is happy with the payback), but in the process Max, like Frank Ritter and Harry Hochman before him, gets the kind of comeuppance that should more often happen in real life to smug, self-centred, grasping rich people.
Because, with loving irony, the Detective investigating the heist at the hotel/theatre in New York, where Max’s wife lives, is Andy Kelp’s occasional contact Bernard Klematsky. Klematsky, observing that Lutetia Fairbanks sleeps in this apartment every single night, except the one in which she goes with her husband to this Long Island house she’s never ever visited, and that’s the night they’re burgled of some serious art treasures, comes to the erroneous conviction that Max is in it and it’s all an insurance scam. It’s a conviction that Andy does nothing to discourage, as a result of which Klematsky stays on Max’s trail all the way to the end.
And whilst Max may be innocent of this one, there are things of which he is not innocent that will undoubtedly come to light if someone starts investigating…
Westlake’s increasing enthusiasm for seeing Financial Giants brought low for not observing the Law is almost socialist in its zeal, and adds another layer of delight to this outcome.
What else? Surprisingly, this is almost another Dortmunder/Kelp two-hander for most of the book. Stan and Tiny don’t come into the picture until the Casino caper, by which time we’ve reached page 200, and even then they’re just part of a bigger group.
There’s no Arnie Allbright this time round. Arnie has twice mentioned how people prefer to go to Stoon, even though he pays lower rates, just so they don’t have to talk to Arnie, and that’s what Dortmunder does throughout this book.
Of more importance to the series is the introduction of Anne Marie Carpinaw. Now Anne Marie is not of the profession (well, she’s a Congressman’s daughter so she’s no stranger to lies and law-breaking). Anne Marie is a more than attractive mid-western housewife on holiday in New York, whose marriage has just expired mid-holiday, and who’s staying on alone wondering what to do. Anne Marie is in the mood for change, for unpredictability and a certain amount of letting it happen.
Which is why she starts talking in the bar to Andy Kelp, starts seeing him and decides not to be shocked when he reveals that he and his pal John are crooks. This is because the next heist is going to have to be in Washington, DC. John and Andy have no local knowledge but Anne Marie does. She even goes to Washington with them, to help show them around the place where Max is staying.
Which is, of course, the Watergate Complex, and which leads to a running gag that goes over the disinterested Dortmunder’s head every time someone comments about planning a third rate burglary at the Watergate… You too? Shame on you.
By the end, Anne Marie isn’t entirely certain but she’s willing to extend her vacation a lot longer – until the end of the series, in fact.
What’s the worst that could happen? was filmed under the novel’s title in 2001, starring Martin Lawrence in the Dortmunder role (re-named Kevin Caffrey), with Danny DeVito as Max Fairbanks. I’ve never seen the film, though the synopsis (  in Wikipedia does show that the film did stick pretty close to the book. I can certainly see DeVito as Max.
Whether the film is any good or not, I can’t say, though the guy who wrote the filmscore regards it as the worst film he ever worked on, so you pays your money…
It’s also, to date, the last film made of any of the Dortmunder books.
Westlake wouldn’t write another Dortmunder book for five years, but that was the beginning of a fecund spell that saw the last five stories appear in a period of eight years. Hey, I wasn’t complaining!

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