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which were all the Dortmunder short stories written to date, in chronological order, and the last a curious, previously unpublished experiment written as a contingency for something that, thankfully never happened.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?

Discovering Dortmunder: Watch Your Back

Throughout his career, Donald Westlake had avoided writing Dortmunder novels (or Parker books as Richard Stark) too frequently, fearing staleness. He was a prolific writer who, including his several pseudonyms, wrote over 100 books without ever getting the bestseller that he frequently deserved, and the continual switching of angle and character helped keep things fresh and inventive.
Until 2005, when Watch Your Back followed directly on from The Road to Ruin, without any intervening material (not to mention that the novella I’m keeping myself from reading was also written in 2005).
All this has to be taken into consideration when I admit that, though I thoroughly enjoyed reading Watch Your Back, I didn’t find myself laughing all that often.
It also has to be taken into consideration that I was off work ill, during a heatwave that brought back memories of the great Drought Summer of 1976, so let’s be fair and suggest that in my mentally dulled state, I wasn’t giving the novel a fair suck of the pineapple (sorry about lapsing into Australian, there, but the Ashes are on).
This time round, the book begins with the usual meeting at the O.J. Bar & Grill, to discuss a job being brought in by Ralph Winslow, he of the perpetually clinking ice cubes in his rye and water. The job’s a bust: Winslow’s been talking to some Police and is leaving town for a while, but things are a little off-kilter for once at the O.J. The regulars are arguing at their perpetual cross-purposes,  but Rollo’s building some pretty strange drinks for five women. They’re nothing to do with the plot, just an indication that things are not as we always see them.
The job of the book is actually brought in by none other than the obnoxious Arnie Allbright. That’s right, the fence is back from Club Med, thoroughly tanned, and dammit if he isn’t actually less obnoxious (he even cleans his apartment).
But Arnie was a deal to propose. Down there at Club Med he’s seen a lot of a guy called Preston Fareweather. Preston is this book’s Obnoxious Rich Guy Who Gets His Comeuppance. Preston is basically a mean (in both senses), supercilious, snide guy who enjoys making cutting comments to everyone he regards as inferior (everyone) playing ‘practical jokes’ on people who want something from him.
This latter trait is especially directed at women. You see, Preston’s been married and divorced four times. His ex-wives have banded together to pursue him, through the law, which is why Hall’s in permanent exile from his New York apartment and its extensive art treasures, and is staying outside the jurisdiction. Where, every week, he has an eye out for attractive woman who are happy to become his ‘companion’ for a week, putting up with all his little japes and humiliations, because they fondly think that this rich guy might be willing to take them on as Mrs Fareweather V.
Not a nice man is Preston, and he’s rubbed Arnie up so much that not only is Arnie feeding this guy’s apartment to Dortmunder and Co, he’s going to let them have one hell of a percentage.
As the job goes, it’s a straightforward one, calling for no excessive ingenuity on Dortmunder’s part. Unfortunately (a-ha!) there’s a fly in the ointment. Dortmunder can’t get into the back room of the O.J. to plan. It’s off-limits. There’s these strange guys. Young guys, slicked-up, a bit distant, hanging around the O.J. The regulars aren’t talking at all.
In short, the Mob’s moved into the O.J. and are running it as a bust-out joint (take a clean commercial enterprise, use its clean credit to order in as much supplies as you can, supplies that you have agreed to sell to others at a healthy profit margin, based on the fact that you’re not going to be paying for the goods in the first place, because once you ship the gear out, the business is left as a commercial wreck that rapidly shuts).
That’s what’s happening to the O.J. and nobody likes it. Meeting at John and May’s apartment is a bust, and the alternate venue suits no-one. But Dortmunder takes it to heart more than the others – especially Tiny – and instead of concentrating on this golden opportunity of a heist, John’s efforts are concentrated on saving the O.J.
At which he succeeds, eventually, tracking down and dragging back the bar’s owner from Florida (though the bit where the useless nephew, obsessed with mixing music and sounds, gets railroaded into a mental institution was for me a rare moment of disquiet. This is the twelfth book of a series focussing on amoral crooks who go around robbing from people, many of whom are far from being Obnoxious Rich Guys Who Deserve Their Comeuppance, and finally something grates queasily). The bust-out joint is busted back, the back room becomes available, and Dortmunder can finally concentrate on Preston Fareweather’s apartment..
Only, the Mob are unhappy at being frustrated in this fashion, and wish to make that displeasure known.
Meanwhile, as is Westlake’s wont, things have been happening elsewhere, and we have been privy to Preston’s  machinations in respect of his next target, Pam, or, to give her her real name, Roselle. Roselle is a woman on a mission, a mission paid for by the four former Mrs Halls, which is to get Preston off the island and into the jurisdiction of process-servers again.
At this she is partially successful. Preston does indeed find himself back in the United States but, being a resourceful little weasel, manages to get all the way back to his New York apartment, unseen. On the very day of Dortmunder’s robbery, and with Arnie around in person to point out what items he would most like to fence.
All goes swimmingly, but for Arnie discovering Preston asleep in his bed and going into a flat-out tail-spin. So everybody piles out, and Kelp and Murch take off in the truck with all their pickings, completely unaware that the Police are already on their tails.
And so is the Mafia too.
I’ll not give away the ending, save to say that the gang come out of it beyond suspicion and still free to rob again, but empty-handed. Well, not entirely empty-handed.
For me, the biggest delight about this book is that it paves the way for a return to Dortmunder’s maxim of the five-man string. Ever since Good Behavior, we’ve been following the adventures of a four man gang: Dortmunder, Kelp, Murch, Bulcher. There have been a couple of one-off fifth mans, such as Wilbur Howey or Wally Knurr, but generally it’s been the four associates.
In Watch Your Back, sadly very close to the end of the series, Westlake introduces a fifth member in Judson “The Kid” Blint.
Judson is a nineteen year old fresh out of Long Island who, now he’s finished High School, has made a bee-line for New York to fulfil his lifetime ambition of breaking into the business. Of being a crook. His starting point is the Avalon State Bank Tower, room 712, home of Allied Commissioners Courses, Inc, not to mention Intertherapeutic Research Service, Super Star Music Co, and the Commercial Attaché for the country of Maylohda. That’s right, J. C. Taylor.
Josie pins him for a scam artist straight away, but his resume is impressive enough so, instead of closing her mail order businesses down, as she was about to do, having too much to concentrate upon with her fictional United Nations registered country, she takes the kid on to manage that for a percentage.
She also takes Judson under her wing and, to some extent, under Tiny’s, which leads to meeting the rest of the gang. Ever eager, Judson offers his help, and is allowed to do one or two things on the Fareweather heist, but he’s not included in the denouement.
That doesn’t stop him from dropping by on his lunch break, just to see if he can help. The gang has gone by then, as has the loot, but as a souvenir, Judson extracts a painting that he identifies with. It only happens to be a Breughel, and the only score the gang makes out of the whole caper. So Judson gets accepted as part mascot, part-trainee, and is even admitted to the back room at the O.J., carrying a drink identical to Tiny’s.
But where Tiny’s is vodka and red wine, the Kid has to settle for strawberry soda: he’s under age, and Rollo doesn’t want the owner dropping by again any time soon.
So, a fun book, and one that has brought me more laughter on better occasions. It’s also an interesting variation in that the gang’s downfall is entirely due to Dortmunder’s obsession with saving the O.J. holding things up until, in the grand fashion of the best Dortmunder novels, someone else’s life awkwardly gets in the way of the stream-lined criminal plot
By this time, the series has taken on the role of a very comfortable and reassuring experience. We know the characters through and through, we know the running gags, and whilst Westlake always provides twists in the type of caper that underpins the action, we are here to see a performance that covers all the expected bases.
It’s the fate of all long-running series. What we as an audience demand of the books is that they give us an evening with old friends, doing their party pieces. The edge of the first two books has long since gone, that initial recognition of The Hot Rock‘s roots in hard-boiled crime, in Parker. There’s a more comfortable air to events. We read in recognition, not in suspense.
Some will say that that is a bad thing, that it makes series safe, predictable. You know that nothing will happen that changes the status quo, that prevents the beginning of the next book from being radically different from this one.
But this is a comedy series, a comedy set in a milieu that, no matter how much it takes of the everyday, inconvenient, awkward life, is still in an elevated state of absurdity, where we not only tolerate implausibilities but embrace them as cornerstones of the atmosphere Westlake induces. The gift is in maintaining that interest in recurring themes so that they are greeted with a laugh and not a yawn.
Westlake, thirty-five years on from the first book, still does this.

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!