Discovering Dortmunder: What’s So Funny?


What’s So Funny?, the thirteenth Dortmunder novel, was the last to be published in Donald Westlake’s lifetime. In keeping with the prolificity with which he was getting Dortmunder ideas, it appeared in 2007, only two years after Watch Your Back. It’s a fairly simple story, divided into two phases, and maintaining its theme throughout, and it ends with one of the most satisfying twists in the whole series.
Once again, the story begins at the O.J., where things are not as expected. Dortmunder comes out of Pointers to find the regulars silent, Rollo distracted and Andy Kelp signally ignoring him (with the bottle of Our Own Brand Bourbon). This time it’s not the Mafia in the bar, but instead a Cop. Or a Was a Cop Until Seventeen Months Ago And Now a Freelance, but everybody agrees that it takes at least three decades for the stigma to elapse.
The Cop – let’s start referring to him as Johnny Eppick For Hire, that being the name on his business card – is here for someone. Inevitably, it’s Dortmunder, though given a free choice, Dortmunder would rather sit down in Ohio than in a booth with this Cop. But Eppick has two things: the first being a commission from a rich gent to retrieve an expensive item of family interest, for which an ingenious, non-violent crook is to procure from its recently discovered resting place, and the second being incriminating evidence of John Dortmunder shopping for computers at an hour when no other customers, nor staff, come to think of it, were about.
The fact that the job is utterly and completely impossible to do has very little effect on either Eppick for Hire, or his aged, ailing but still mentally agile patron, Mr Hemlow: nor can Dortmunder exercise his constitutional right to clear out to Chicago where no-one knows him, given the willingness of cops to co-operate via the Internet.
The object of all this coercion is one of the most valuable objects Dortmunder has been asked to steal, a solid gold chess set, inlaid with jewels, originally created as a gift for Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Unfortunately, the delivery date was 1917, when the Tsar was otherwise engaged. However, during the illegal,unacknowledged and decidedly dodgy post-1918 war against the Bolsheviks, ten US soldiers found the chess set and made plans to remove it to the States, where they could make it the foundation of their fortunes.
Until their Sergeant, Abel Northwood, disappeared with the entire chess set, robbing his nine men of their fantastic future.
The whereabouts of this fantastic item has been unknown for decades, during which time Hemlow – son of one of the disappointed men – has made a fortune of his own by becoming a genius inventor. But now his granddaughter Fiona, a very lowly lawyer at a very high law firm, has found the chess set.
Her firm represents the elderly Mrs Livia Northwood Wheeler, one of seventeen descendants of Abel Northwood, and heirs to his substantial fortune. But the Northwoods, and Livia in particular, are contentious and litigious folk, continuously suing and counter-suing each other and everybody else. One of the assets about which everybody is suing is the chess set, and it’s so contentious that it’s been placed into the joint custody of several of the relevant law firms, and is, in fact, in the intensely protected sub-basement of Fiona’s firm.
Fiona, being a bit of a history buff, has passed the story onto her grandfather, who has decided to put the snatch on the chess set, for the family.
Yes, it’s all a bit of an elaborate back-story, but at least the scene is set and, like Dortmunder, you will have understood that the job of entering this electronic pass-protected, heavily guarded, limited access, uptown vault and exiting it with a solid gold chess set that is too heavy for one man to lift, is simply not on.
If they could only engineer a situation where the chess set had to be brought out of that sub-basement to somewhere with less security…
Dortmunder is, however, forced to go through the motions. Fiona, despite her status as an officer of the court and her utter refusal to assist any criminal act, does provide Dortmunder with as much information as possible (which only goes to support the status quo ante). Unfortunately, the knowledge she has only feeds her compulsion, which leads her to overstep the mark by directly addressing Livia Northwood, just having to have some communication with the ‘enemy’.
As a consequence, she is fired without references, and a remorseful Hemlow calls off the hunt, much to Dortmunder’s relief and Eppick’s frustration, a frustration exacerbated when the offices of Eppick For Hire are neatly cleaned out by a professional burglar. Everything is removed: even the evidence against Dortmunder.
Thus ends part 1, “Knight’s Errand”, during which very little has happened, though Westlake has kept things moving along nicely, and with a lot of comic touches in and amongst the cast, which includes Judson Blint as an accepted, but still in training member of our favourite gang. Fiona’s involvement is an appropriate diversion from the main line, but there’s a seemingly irrelevant tangent surrounding the intended hiding place for the purloined chess set, a compound in upstate New York. This has been invaded by two post-High School slackers, who are systematically eating all the frozen food and screwing incessantly in undeserved comfort, who overhear this plan to bring in a gold chess set.
The story is not, however, finished, and part 1, “Pawn’s Revenge”, picks things up three months later. Fiona Hemlow has not suffered from losing her job, far from it: she is now Mrs Wheeler’s personal assistant and much happier as a result. Unbeknownst to her, Jay Tumbril, who fired her, is suspicious that a scam is being set up. He hires a top-flight Private Agent (Jacques Perly, who appeared in The Road to Ruin) to investigate and, when Fiona proves to be squeaky clean, start looking at her live-in cartoonist boyfriend, Brian.
But Mrs W hasn’t forgotten the chess set, and decides to set Fiona onto researching it: where did it come from? What was its provenance before Abel Northwood first put it on display in 1948? Concealing her private knowledge, Fiona discovers that there is no information whatsoever. And that one rook is several pounds lighter than the other. There’s nothing for it but to have the chess set out for examination.
This puts the caper back on again, and Dortmunder signs up to take a crack. The chess set is to be moved to Perly’s high-security offices, by means of an elaborate transport plan (included Police cooperation from our old friend Chief Inspector Francis X. Mologna, pronounced Maloney) with detailed schedules, the very details of which are obtained by Dortmunder when a preliminary casing of the exterior of Perly’s offices goes badly wrong, and a disoriented John ends up breaking in accidentally.
The plan is simple: get into Perly’s offices ahead of time, intercept the delivery and drive away. Unfortunately (it’s like an old friend, that word) a number of things go wrong. First, Perly gets twitchy and turns up an hour early, leading to a superb Marx Brothers-esque scene as five conspirators get themselves out of the office without being seen.
Then everything goes so swimmingly with the rest of the plan that they decide not to wait until 2.00am to move and turn up nearly an hour ahead of schedule (much to the disgust of Dortmunder and Co, who are playing poker to pass the time).
And then finally the truck carrying the chess set turns out to be just too big for the tight turn on the ramp from the parking garage and gets stuck. This inspires a brilliant piece of improvisation by Dortmunder, who casts the gang as internal security, cons the travelling security into transferring the chess set into a smaller truck, which can get the gold upstairs once the big truck has been backed out, but which, unaccountably, locks the garage door shut and drives off.
There’s an awful lot of fall-out to be dealt with, especially as Jay Tumbril is still convinced that Fiona and Brian are behind everything. But Fiona is too canny and Brian too traumatised to give away anything incriminating,and when Perly’s evidence of their being led by a ‘tough old broad’ turns out to be Mrs W wearing a masquerade costume, the case collapses like an undercooked souffle.
But despite all the evidence to the contrary, there are once again no happy endings. Sadly Fiona learns that the Northwoods haven’t finished stealing from her family, whilst her grandfather, after waiting so long for just a glimpse of the fabled chess set, suffers a sad loss almost immediately after.
And Andy Kelp’s propensity for Doctor’s cars play a strange part in the ultimate, and some would say appropriate, destiny of Tsar Nicholas II’s chess set.
The curious thing about What’s So Funny? Is that Westlake originally set out to write about a completely different heist, one brought to the table by, of all people, Stan Murch (drivers do not bring in jobs). Stan’s idea also involved gold, being the removal of the dome from a mosque whose construction was being held up by New York’s way of doing things. The dome is fifteen feet across and twelve feet high. It is, of course, impossible to steal, which is why Westlake didn’t take that plot any further, but he did use it as the reason everyone was in the O.J. to begin with. And Stan got over it. Eventually.
This is, when you think about it, a pretty slim story kept buoyant by the characters and their habits. There’s an awful lot of background in the foreground, which is another late-series characteristic: we are here for the show and the plot is merely a link that justifies our favourites doing their respective souflethings. But it’s an engaging and funny book, and the set-up is a new twist from the ever-inventive Westlake, and everybody makes you laugh, and on the whole this is a pretty good book.
Unfortunately, there would only be one more to come.

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