Discovering Dortmunder: Bad News


We’re back on familiar turf at the start of Bad News, the first Dortmunder novel of the twenty-first century, as John’s latest heist flounders (naturally) as a consequence of an unseen alarm. Nevertheless, despite being cornered by the Police in a retail superstore at 2.00am, the genius at work in the two recent examples of revenge is still in full flow as Dortmunder cons everyone into believing he is a customer who fell asleep and got locked in: he almost gets a note from the Police to show May why he wasn’t home at the usual time.
But the rest of the story is different from the usual run of Dortmunder plots, in that our favourite gang finds themselves co-opting into someone else’s scam, and sitting back and watching another planner execute his scheme.
This book marks a sudden rush of Dortmunder stories, for which we can only be grateful. Prior to Bad News, Westlake had written nine novels over a period of thirty years, so it comes as something if a surprise to note that the final five novels of the series would be delivered in a space of only eight more years. Where Westlake had carefully rationed himself before, not wanting to overload the muse or go stale. Now he was going for broke.
The scheme in question this time around is an Anastasia: that is, the production of a false heir to a fortune (named after the claims of the supposed Princess Anastasia in the 1920’s, who was alleged to be the daughter of the Tsar of Russia who, contrary to popular belief, had not been executed after the Bolshevik Revolution.
Anastasia this time round is Little Feather Redcorn, nee Shirley Anne Farraff, former Vegas showgirl, blackjack dealer and, currently the last of the Pottaknobbees. The aforesaid Pottaknobbees are one of a group of Three Tribes – Oshkawa, Kiota, Pottaknobbee – who have had tribal lands returned to them and, in the fashion of many such Native Americans, immediately installed a very lucrative Casino on land which is not actually the United States. Unfortunately, the Pottaknobbees went extinct in the Forties, their last representative having headed out west, pregnant, and never been heard of again.
Little Feather is the grand-daughter of this last Pottaknobbee and, if her claim is accepted, will be entitled to a cool third of the Casino’s largesse, from day one.
The scam has been put together by the self-superior professional scam artist, Fitzroy Guilderpost, with the assistance of disgraced university professor, Irwin Gabel. Now Anastasia’s are difficult to pull nowadays, thanks to such things as DNA (the original ‘Anastasia’ has subsequently been conclusively proved to be a fake, incidentally). But Fitzroy has planned for this. Little Feather’s supposed Pottaknobbee great-grandfather (who fell off the Empire State Building during its construction, though the Tribes always believed he was pushed off by Mohawks) is buried in New York. In order to ensure that Little Feather will show up as genetically descended from Joseph Redcorn, Fitzroy plans to swap the coffins, inserting Little Feather’s actual grandfather.
Which is where we come in, or rather, via the Internet, the smug Fitzroy has hired an Andy ‘Kelly’ and his hangdog friend John, to do the actual grave-robbing, intending all along to dispose of their unwanted help. But John and Andy are the last people to do something like that to. So in order not to have their entire scam exposed, Fitzroy and co have to taken on unwanted partners, in Dortmunder, Kelp and Tiny Bulcher. Tiny’s very useful in negotiations, and don’t forget, John makes him laugh.
That’s where the book becomes different in tone. We stay close to the development of the scam, and in particular to Little Feather, who is out on her own for much of this, with the others making contact surreptitiously. And the scheme hits an immediate snag with an all-out, instant hostile response from the two casino Managers, Roger Fox (Oshkawa) and Frank Oglanda (Kiota) , the other Two Tribes).
It’s not just that Roger and Frank recognise a scam when they see one, and go through the usual process of warning off/buying off the nuisance. The problem is, Roger and Frank have been cooking the books until they’re positively crispy: they can’t afford for Little Feather to be real.
Their excessive response arouses the attention of everybody, including the upstate New York Judge, T. Wallace Higbee, who, faced with the most interesting legal case of his life, wants nothing more than to get back to boring and dull legal issues, and who is determined not to be messed around by all sort of high-powered New York legal tricks. The course of legal proceedings run somewhat differently.
What makes the book unusual, different enough to notice, is that it’s all about somebody else’s scheme. We’re used to Dortmunder’s kind of jobs, and how he approaches them, but this is Fitzroy’s scheme. John and Co are peripheral figures. Very influential and essential background figures when it comes to minutiae and areas of expertise that the equally professional Fitzroy (who, despite the evidence throughout, persist in thinking of himself as a considerably superior, and more intelligent person than his new partners) doesn’t think about.
But it’s somebody else’s con, and Dortmunder has nothing to do, and he starts to fret about it.
The case takes a twist when, with DNA having been put on the table, Dortmunder foresees that the Three Tribes are likely to repeat the grave-moving trick that started this story. Swapping coffins over and over again is impractical, and it’s Tiny who comes up with the ingenious solution: swap[ the headstones. Fox and Oglanda can swap coffins with a total stranger (literally: the grave they rob is of one Buford Strange), and Dortmunder and Co will just put the right gravestone back in time for the official exhumation.
Unfortunately, Fox and Oglanda send Fox’s incompetent nephew Benny Whitefish to do it, and there’s been so much activity round the graveyard by now that they’re caught – and the ostensible Redcorn grave ends up with a twenty-four hour guard to prevent further grave robbing. And restoration of the correct headstone.
This is where John can really get involved, and bring in Stan Murch and Murch’s Mom. The body that’s going to get DNA tested is Buford Strange, who is in no way an ancestor of Little Feather. Simple solution: provide DNA from one of his descendants. Is this getting confusing yet?
By a stroke of luck, Strange’s son was a famous artist whose preserved mansion, full of art treasures, is being curated by one of his daughters. So Dortmunder concocts a scene that involves stealing a sand-spreader and driving it from Cleveland, Ohio to upstate New York. A convenient storm saves them the job of knocking out the electrics in pretence of a storm so the security systems are down. Stan drops off his Mom at the house as a supposed stranded motorist seeking shelter until Stan finishes his sand-spreading duties, she keeps the family together whilst certain small and portable treasures vanish and, just before leaving, collects some hair from a hairbrush.
She also engages in some impromptu marriage counselling that results in saving a rocky marriage and, as a bonus side effect, concealing the fact that anything’s been stolen at all.
After that, it’s plain sailing. Dortmunder and Co offload their ill-gotten gains to a prozaced-but-still-obnoxious Arnie Allbright, Little Feather palms off the purloined hair onto the DNA expert, and the scam succeeds gloriously
Sadly, Fitzroy and Irwin are not around to see this, having embarked on long trips to the West Coast, on account of their having still believed themselves to be smarter than Dortmunder and Co and believing that their allies wouldn’t expect being bumped off now their usefulness was over. In their separate ways, both come to bad ends.
Little Feather is welcomed with open hearts to the Three Tribes as a long lost Pottaknobbee. This warmth does not extend to Fox and Oglanda, who react in different fashions. Fox empties out every bank account and decamps via Canada to commence a life of keeping himself and the money one step ahead of investigators. Oglanda gets drunk, tries to burn the books, and burns the casino down.
The casino that, in Fox and Oglanda’s greedy urge to skim absolutely everything off that they could, was uninsured.
No casino, no one-third share, and an eight-year wait until the Indians can get a licence to build another.
So ends another Dortmunder job. Mind you, there’s the money from the art treasures so our gang at least make something out of it. And Little Feather has a tribe to belong to, and Benny Whitefish wrapped round her little finger. And Fitzroy and Irwin brought it all on themselves, after all. And Judge T. Wallace Higbee can go back to having to deal with simple, straightforward cases involving nothing more than the blatant stupidity of ordinary people.
It’s enough of a happy ending.
As for the peripherals, Andy and Anne Marie have now settled into a solid relationship, like John and May, and Tiny and J.C. (this is demonstrated by an unusually domestic Thanksgiving Dinner that even John enjoys), whilst the O.J. Bar and Grill meeting makes explicit a little meme that’s been emerging inchoately over the last couple of books, that nobody (except Tiny) wants the chair with its back to the door.

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