Discovering Dortmunder: Thieves Dozen


Thieves Dozen, the Dortmunder short story collection, was published in 2004, later the same year as The Road to Ruin. It consists of eleven stories – hence the title – the first ten of which were all the Dortmunder short stories written to date, in chronological order, and the last a curious, previously unpublished experiment written as a contingency for something that, thankfully never happened.
Westlake’s bright and cheerful introduction lays out the circumstances of his first encounter with John Archibald Dortmunder – then intended as a one-off – and his subsequent long-standing acquaintance, before briefly summarising the several moments of interest and inspiration became the starting point of six or seven, widely spaced, unplanned individual tales.
Each story arrived with its own demand to be written, until Westlake had nearly enough for this collection. Once he’d decided to actively write a couple more, the well ran dry – but at last enough ideas leaked out and this book was made.
Mostly, they’re tales of Dortmunder doing single-os. Kelp’s at the other end of a phone in the first, and lends a hand in the next two or three, whilst Arnie Allbright makes an unexpected – and unwelcome – partner in several of the later tales.
They’re not novels-in-miniature, far from it. What they might have been is scenes from otherwise unwritten Dortmunder novels, sequences in which the main plot can be forgotten and, lacking the weight of a plot, excursions into simple humour building to hilarious plot-lines. But then, as such scenes, they’re individually too strong to be a mere diversion in a longer story.
Best to think of them as vignettes, other windows through which we see some of the off-peak times in Dortmunder’s life.
I’m not going to delve into each story in detail, but to give you the flavour, let’s examine the opener, “Ask a Silly Question”. Dortmunder, en route to an appointment uptown (at the O.J.), is taken off the street and brought to the home of an elegant man, who wants Dortmunder’s professional opinion on a crime he needs to commit that night.
It appears that, on divorcing his wife, the elegant man had to give up a very beautiful, very heavy, very expensive piece of sculpture. Unable to bear doing so, he had a fake made and bribed the assessor. Now, his ex- plans to donate the ‘original’ to a prestigious museum whose assessors cannot be bribed. Hence the urgent need to remove it, whilst the ex- is held up abroad, and some clear-headed, professional direction.
Dortmunder ends up being dragged along on the execution of this theft, his suggestion being to cut the fake up and make it easier to lift. After all, it’s only got to vanish. However (as opposed to Unfortunately), the elegant man’s strategy is deficient, the ex-wife turns up and goes into axe-wielding hysterics: it appears she too bribed the assessor, and not just with money, and that was the original that got destroyed.
With everyone distracted, Dortmunder fades away, phones Kelp and suggests he bring all their colleagues along from the O.J.: they have an opportunity back at the elegant man’s abode. As for which statue is real, John is confident he knows which way the assessor plumped…
The stories differ in settings and length. One of my favourites, “Too Many Crooks” sees the introduction of Dortmunder’s inadvertent Welsh alter ego, Diddums, whilst “Give till it hurts” indulges in a bit of cheery metafiction, as Dortmunder finds himself hanging out in a running poker game with four crime fiction writers and editors, who assume him to be “the man Don sent” when he couldn’t make it.
The standard is very high throughout, and whilst “Don’t Ask” may ramble, it rambles intentionally and still provides our man with a win, whilst “Art and Craft” even has Dortmunder playing Detective, as a prelude to another flash of the Revenge motif that so enlivens some of the later series.
The last story, “Fugue for Felons”, isn’t a Dortmunder story, except in a roundabout way. At one point, Westlake ran into legal difficulties dealing with a film company – he doesn’t go into detail, but the time-frame suggests this has to do with the film of What’s the worst that could happen? – as a result of which there was a threat of losing ownership of Dortmunder and his confederates.
The threat never materialised, but whilst it was still active, Westlake considered continuing the series by using renamed characters: John Rumsey (which is where the use of that name as Dortmunder’s cover in The Road to Ruin becomes such a massive in-joke), Algy, Stan Little (oddly enough, Murch means Dwarf in a Germanic dialect) and Big Hooper.
“Fugue for Felons” was an experiment in writing a Dortmunder story under these other names (including Rumsey’s faithful companion, June). But names have their own magic, as any writer will confirm, and halfway through Westlake found that this was not, and could not be, a Dortmunder story, even if he changed the names back and tried to continue.
No matter how much they corresponded with their originals, Rumsey was not Dortmunder (he was five inches shorter, to begin with), nor Algy Kelp, Little Murch or Big Tiny. And he’s right. The atmosphere is subtly different, and the feeling strange.
Thieves Dozen brings to an end the re-reading of the Dortmunder collection I’ve built up over those forty years, with which I’ve been long familiar. I’m now free to read the last Dortmunder story I can ever read, “Walking Around Money”.
If I say I have mixed feelings, would you understand?

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