Westlake as Holt: the Sam Holt books

Sometimes, well-established authors look at their careers and wonder. Times, markets and tastes have changed since first they succeeded, and they wonder if they could make it again in current conditions.
I’m far from being an author in that category, but to me that’s got to involve at least a subconscious degree of insecurity: am I still selling on the strength of my writing, or is it that I have a conditioned audience who will buy my books irrespective of their quality?
If the writer wants to test this question, they have only one option open to them and that is to agree a Protected Pen-Name. This is a pseudonym known only to the Author, their Agent and the Publisher that agrees to accept it. Not to anyone else at the Publishing house, not editors, nor marketing. To them, the Pen-Name is a genuinely new author, a first time writer, and he will be marketed in that fashion.
In 1986, Donald E Westlake, author of the Parker books and the Dortmunder Gang series, went down that route. Westlake was used to working under a variety of pen-names: the Parker books were published as Richard Stark and his early career in soft core dirty books used a less famous pseudonym.
Westlake chose the name Samuel Holt and decided to write a series of books, narrated by Sam himself. Taking a leaf from Travis McDonald, when starting his Travis Bickle series, Westlake wrote the first three Sam Holt books simultaneously, building up the mode and the stories to ensure that he could create a consistent voice for his new approach.
Westlake planned a total of six books, with a numerical theme to their titles, and in due course delivered his first three: One of Us is Wrong, I know a Trick worth Two of That and What I tell you Three Times is False. Each book took on a different type of crime fiction, and Westlake was satisfied with his work and began the second trio on the same basis.
Then One of Us is Wrong appeared and the whole thing blew up in his face. The publisher had let slip Samuel Holt’s real identity to his Marketing Team, and the books were in the bookshop credited to Donald E Westlake, destroying the whole purpose of the exercise.
Samuel Holt was immediately poisoned in Westlake’s mind. Having signed a contract for four books, he had to go ahead and complete The Fourth Dimension is Death, but Famous for Five Seconds, in which Sam would have met a former Astronaut, and Now I am Six and Clever as can be, about which every trace of its concept has vanished, were doomed never to be written.
The books went out of print as soon as they could, and Westlake refused to allow them to be reprinted until twenty years later when, looking at them again with a bit more objectivity, Westlake decided that the debacle was not Sam’s fault, and he should be allowed his hour in the sun again.
Sam Holt was not a detective. Samuel Holt – real name Holton Hickey – was an actor who’d become both famous and rich through playing a detective on television, Jack Packard, academic and amateur criminologist. Though Sam never supplies specifics, the impression he leaves is that Packard was a Murder, She Wrote style show.
Packard lasted five seasons and was still popular, but was ended because everyone involved with it felt it had run its course. That was three years earlier. During the run, Sam caught the acting bug but unfortunately has found himself typecast as Packard, with no-one prepared to give him any kind of acting job. At the age of 34, Sam Holt finds himself unemployable. He doesn’t need the money, but the lifestyle is pretty boring.
All of this is established in each book, in which Sam gets exactly nowhere furthering his acting career, but finds himself being surrounded by situations, the nature of which vary from book to book, in which he has to act the part of a detective. One of Us is Wrong takes the form of a thriller.

The story starts with two Chevy Impalas, each housing two men of Middle Eastern extraction, trying to run Sam’s Volvo off the Freeway to his death. When the Police want to know who could want Sam dead, he has no idea, but one comes to him soon after.
Three months earlier, Sam’s scriptwriter friend Ross Ferguson came to him in a panic. Some time earlier, Ross had arrived at his Mailbu beach house to find the murdered body of his ex-girlfriend, Delia, who’d been trying to sue him for Breach of Promise. Scared that the Police would jump to the obvious conclusion, Ross had taken Delia’s body out to sea on his boat and dumped it, never to be seen again.
His current panic was down to the receipt of a videotape, recorded on Ross’s inhouse system, showing him murdering her.
Sam and Ross, being in the business, can tell how it’s been faked, but Ross still won’t go to the Police and swears Sam to secrecy. There’s no other possible connection.
Getting Ross to confirm it isn’t difficult, but getting him to explain what it’s all about is so much harder. Because Ross isn’t just being blackmailed, he’s now a willing co-conspirator in what is being sold to him as a plot to use Ross’s land to access a heavily-guarded political opponent who’s to be kidnapped and taken back home – wherever that is – for a show trial.
You see, Ross has a project. This is going to be an international best-selling book, written from the inside. Ross can’t see beyond that, and Sam’s concern is putting the project under threat. Ross is smart, and besides, he knows how to tiptoe through this because of the number of tricky Hollywood negotiations he’s successfully completed.
Sam, on the other hand, sees two things. One is that Ross isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, and the other is that it doesn’t matter even if he is, he’s still going to end up with a bullet in the back of his head, because that’s how guys like these cover their traces anyway.
One of Us is Wrong puts a pretty direct threat on the table. Even when that’s supposedly switched off by Ross, Sam has his doubts, and as things turn out he’s right to do so, but for a long time he’s trying to get his friend out of a situation he persists in failing to see as dangerous. As indeed Ross doesn’t get out of it, though not for the reason Sam’s been worried about all along (the scene’s a twist all right, but it’s one of the few points where Westlake lets himself down, not by making it so abrupt but by not letting the death have any impact on anyone, not even Sam).
I’ve also got to admit that I’m a bit uncomfortable with one aspect of Sam’s set-up, and that’s his two women. Sam’s a Native New Yorker whose career has taken him to Los Angeles, but he maintains a foot in both camps, spending summers and winters in LA, when NY is unbearable for its weather, but Spring and Fall in the Big Apple.
As a result he has a woman on each coast, restaurateur Anita Imperato in New York, scriptwriter Bly Danner in LA. The women, who are physical contrasts to one another, each know about their opposite number but leave the subject well alone. For the three of them, the arrangement works, for now and for some time, and Westlake leaves completely blank what might happen if either decided it was no longer for them. It simply wouldn’t work for me and whilst I’d normally treat such an arrangement non-judgementally, in this instance I can’t escape a degree of moral disapproval. I think it’s that, whatever emotion you attach to it, this is the bloke with two birds, having his cake and eating it at the same time that digs through the outer layer of skin. My impeccable liberal instincts can’t really approve.

Westlake was determined that each Sam Holt book should cover a different aspect of crime fiction, so I Know a Trick worth Two of That was written as a twist on the buddy-buddy story, the Maltese Falcon avenge-your-partner format.
In New York, Sam is contacted surreptitiously by Doug Walford, his old cop car partner from Long Island, looking to be hid for a while. Doug’s a PI, in over his head with some heavy guy who’s flagrantly not linked to the mob. That’s because he’s their shabbas goy, the one whose absence of ties means he can do things the mobsters themselves can’t. Doug’s a nuisance, a long way from getting anything that can lead to anything let alone prove anything. He’s kidding himself that he only needs a few more months, if he can stay out of sight. But people like Frank Althorn don’t let nuisances become more than nuisances. Sam shelters Doug, but at a party in Sam’s NY townhouse, Doug dies in the toilet.
The coroner rules it suicide, brought on by depression. There’s no evidence to contradict that, except what Sam knows, and what his reporter friend Terry Young and a couple of other read out of what Doug was like at the party. But it takes Bly Danner, back on the West Coast, to identify why Sam can’t let it go. Doug was killed by someone at Sam’s party. The killer was either a friend of Sam’s or someone brought by a friend. It’s a case of personal betrayal, and Sam has to find – and cut out – the guilty person. If only to clear the shadow of suspicion that otherwise will hang over the rest of his friends. Which includes Anita.
The culprit, ultimately, is the only one it could reasonably be, not that they’re the actual murderer, and Westlake leaves at least enough of a trail after the end of the book, in the hands of the professionals, to suggest that maybe yet the death can be brought back to the man who ordered it, but that’s no more the point of the story than the whereabouts of the real Maltese Falcon was too Sam Spade. Sam Holt has cleared his head of suspicion.

Though there was an element of locked-room mystery about the second Sam Holt book, Westlake developed the full-blown thing for What I tell you Three Times is False. Sam’s been persuaded by Anita to give his time to a Cancer Commercial, though it’s Bly who flies out to the isolated Caribbean rock where it’s to be filmed, in facilities that used to belong to a very proprietorial Colombian drug baron.
The pair are flow in in the teeth of a storm that kills the pilot, stranding everyone on the rock until it subsides, days later. Everyone here is the two Producers who know own the island, one servant, one Director and four actors, each associated with a particular famous detective; Sam’s out of his class here as Packard, since the other three are Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple and Charlie Chan. The line up is completed by the star’s wife and companions.
During the first night, Daphne Wheeler, companion to ‘Miss Marple’ is found dead, apparently of suicide after a vituperous quarrel at dinner. But ‘Sherlock Holmes’ spots the little clues that pinpoint this as a murder, triggering an investigation that puts the three operational detectives on the spot of having to be what they only pretend to be.
Westlake sidelines ‘Miss Marple’ possibly because this is a Ten Little Indians-style set-up, and an Agatha Christie creation might be too at home. For Daphne is only the first of, eventually, five victims, though one of these is only put into a coma, not killed. Westlake deftly plays the absurdity of second-hand contrast and collaborate, with ‘Sherlock Holmes’ gearing up to announce to everyone that he has solved the mystery, which will make for ideal publicity for his forthcoming revival series as the Great Detective.
Unfortunately, this is Sam’s book, and Sam takes the wind out of his sails with a vengeance by identifying the real culprit, whose motive has to be read to be believed.

The Fourth Dimension is Death was a straightforward murder mystery, with Sam being called upon to carry out his most intense and sustained investigation, in order to clear his own name. A struggling actor called Doug Walmsley who is Sam’s lookalike has been portraying Packard insultingly for a series of TV commercials, and Sam travels to New York for depositions in the lawsuit. Walmsley turns out to be obsessed with Sam and taking what is a normal suit personally. He confronts Sam physically twice, both times getting the worst of it. Sam’s next encounter is with the Police: Walmsley was beaten to death outside Sam’s townhouse.
Homicide likes Sam for the murder, and two unsympathetic detectives, trying to pressure him, say too much to the Press, leading to stories that he’s not cooperating, and is getting away with it because he’s a celebrity.
That brings down a civil suit from Doug’s mother, charging Sam with violating Doug’s human rights by killing him. It places Sam in an impossible situation, especially if he ever does wish to work again: he has no option but to investigate Walmsley and his background to find the real killers. And to do so, he has to go undercover, keeping his whereabouts unknown, especially from the New York Police, who won’t take kindly to an amateur doing their job, especially an actor who played a detective.
That gives Sam a second motive for staying incognito: if he is found out before he solves the case, he’ll be a laughing stock and he’ll never work again on that score either. So he goes down the pipeline, following Doug Walmsley, hoping that the tide will spit him out at the same place. Only, when it does, there’s a gun waiting…
As a Westlake fan, over and above the Dortmunder Gang books, I collected the four books in their reissued form and, given that the story’s pretty interesting, I wanted to give the books a few good words to complement the good words in them. Westlake does a good job of not sounding like Donald E Westlake, and whilst the Sam Holt quartet are not the best of his work, they are entertaining enough for it to be regrettable that there weren’t the originally-planned six.
It’s a shame that that publisher couldn’t have been introduced to Tiny Bulcher…


When you’re a writer – and it doesn’t matter if you’re published, it’s down to the internal obligation to yourself to write (being any good at it is not a factor, either) – the worst moments come when you’re blocked. When there’s a great gaping whole in your head that’s usually filled with words, only now it’s just an absence. A very palpable absence. Something has been removed, and it’s that instinctive drive to think about what you’re writing, about things you can and should be working on, the ongoing mental activity that’s part of the iceberg whose tip is the words you put on paper or pixel.

You can always tell: when else are you driven to write about Block than when it’s the only thing in your head?

Somewhere in my pokey little flat is a book about Writer’s Block. It was the first book by Donald E Westlake that I ever read, it’s still my favourite of all his works, the Dortmunder Gang series notwithstanding, and it’s one of the few works I have ever read/seen that balances laughter and pain so completely. It’s called ‘Adios Scheherezade’.

The book, which appeared in 1967, is being told, or rather typed, by Ed Topliss. It is told in a series of chapters, each of fifteen pages in length, the majority of which are headed Chapter 1. Ed is a writer, officially, that is. Actually, Ed is a schlub.

You see, for the last thirty months, Ed has written dirty books for a living. Real, honest-to-god, cheap soft porn paperbacks, under the pen-name of Dirk Smuff (which encapsulates the entire, low-rent, cheesy milieu of the whole endeavour). To be frank, Dirk Smuff isn’t even Ed’s pen-name, it belongs to and was established by his college friend Paul. Now Paul is a writer. He wrote the first ten Dirk Smuffs for the money, to keep himself afloat whilst he pursued serious options, and now Paul has a career.

Ed, on the other hand, has no options open to him. He majored in English at college, emerged with no plans, no career, and married to Betty, his long-term girlfriend at college who never went all the way until it was nearly the end, and, guess what, she went and got pregnant. So Paul offered Ed an opportunity: take over the Dirk Smuff name, write a dirty book each month, collect $900 every month (Paul keeps 10%). And bear in mind: nobody can write this shit forever.

Ed wasn’t listening to that bit. Ed had his mind on Paul’s shit-hot girlfriend, or rather the thighs being unconcealed by her mini-skirt. As far as Ed’s concerned, it’s easy money, something to keep him going whilst he sorts out a real career for himself.

You see, there’s a formula to these things. There’s a limited number of plots, which you rotate, the books are 150 pages long, and consist of ten chapters, each fifteen pages long, one sex scene per chapter. Oh, and no dirty words: no f’s or c’s. Or even v’s.

And it’s easy work for easy money. One chapter a day for ten days, hammer it out, first draft only, you wouldn’t want to re-read this crap and then nearly three weeks to hang around. Once you learn the tricks of the trade to spin out those pages – and Westlake knows them all, having been in Paul’s position in the Fifties, when he was building his own career – the conveyor belt can roll.

So what if you’re just wasting those days off each month? So what if your wife and daughter are spending about 10% more than you’re bringing in every months? Ed’ll get down to doing something serious. Sometime soon.

But there was that thing Paul said, that Ed wasn’t listening to then. You can’t write this shit forever. Ed’s last three books have been delivered late. Progressively later each month. Ed daren’t deliver the next one late or he’ll be out on his ear. No income, no way of getting an income. Only, Ed needs those days off between writing sex scenes. And he’s ony just delivered the last one. He’s got something like twelve days to write the next one, or the house of cards collapses, not just himself but for his wife and his daughter too.

And Ed can’t do it.

All he can do is sit down at his typewriter and type, hoping to god that something, anything, will unlock that block, will turn into a publishable soft porn novel. And we’re reading what he is writing, as everything goes down the pan.

Because the first half of the book is funny but not yet tragic. Ed’s floundering around, splashing the water, equal parts telling us his life-story and spilling the secrets to writing cheap softcore porn, even to the extent of managing a complete opening chapter so we can tick off all the little tricks and tropes for ourselves.

But following Chapter 1 with Chapter 2 proves impossible, even before a casual lie cuts Ed’s life out from underneath himself, and there is a moment of extreme anguish as everything breaks down, as Ed tries to write a simple line but cannot get through it to the next set of words beyond, but it’s no longer possible.

And from that point on, we are following the tragedy, second-rate though it may be, of a man’s life spiraling out of all control, in which the only possible structure he has left is his compulsion to record things in chapters exactly fifteen pages long, though the need to supply a sex scene in every chapter has disappeared, along with the life he’s been leading all the time he could still write this shit.

There isn’t really an ending. Schlubs like Ed don’t get endings. His last chapter is typed in sections, fifteen pages built up on different typewriters in different places, before he vanishes, on something that you could maybe characterise as a quest. His last words are a variation on the title, adios and a word he can’t use in his books and that I don’t intend to use here. And he’s gone, and his story is essentially incomplete, we have to make up the ending for ourselves, and I don’t think any of us imagine good endings.

Adios Scheherezade is a fabulous formal experiment, and an incredibly successful one, despite its lack of any defined ending. Indeed, the nebulousness of it is a part of the book’s artistic success. It’s also virtually impossible to get hold of now.

It’s a book about Block, and doing what you can to get out of it, and it’s exactly what I’ve done: to write I’ve found something to write about, and the muscles are eased up, and the cavern inside feels less cavernous. I think I’m ahead of Ed right now. The proof will come later.

Discovering Dortmunder: The Hot Rock (film)

Don’t fret. All will be explained.

This is a pretty belated addition to last year’s series of blogs on the Dortmunder series of comic crime novels by the late Donald E Westlake. I mentioned at the time that the first book, The Hot Rock, was filmed in 1972, though it was several years later before I saw it, on reissue, under its unwieldy British title How to Steal a Diamond (in Four Uneasy Lessons).
I’ve never seen it since, until making the effort to watch it again, with the intention of recording my thoughts.
The film comes with an impressive pedigree: it stars Robert Redford and George Segal, plus the inimitable Zero Mostel in a supporting role, it is directed by Peter Yates, the director of Bullitt and the screenplay is written by William Goldman, who was already noted for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. Hell, it even has a soundtrack by Quincy Jones!
Unfortunately, none of that makes this into a good film. It’s not a good Dortmunder film, for all that Goldman is faithful to the spine of the story, though in making that assessment, I’m hampered by my knowledge of fourteen books featuring our favourite hangdog planner and his fox-faced friend when this film is an adaptation only of the very first book – which was originally planned to be a hard-boiled crime story starring the ultra-serious Parker.
As a novel, The Hot Rock is very different from the series as a whole, much more serious in every respect, and the film reflects that position, as it had to: Bank Shot was only published in the year the film appeared.
But even despite this, the film doesn’t really cut it. In fact, I don’t think it really works all that well as a film, if you try divorcing it from who you personally think the characters should be.
Goldman’s script is fine in itself. Anyone who has read his two superb books about his life and work in Hollywood will see how his adaptation hews closely to the principles he sets out there (the books are Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell?: if you haven’t read them, do so).
For adaptations, Goldman works with the spine of the book, staying as close to that as film-making allows, but he is absolute about how film-making is compression, about the urgency of the story having to give as much information in as short a time as possible. Thus it’s no surprise to see that the gang, or string, is cut from five men to four, and the six phases of the crime also to four.
It’s Chefwick, the locksmith and model train nut, who goes, and with him the least plausible phase of the crime, involving breaking into a sanatorium with a life-sized model train. Kelp becomes the locksmith: he also becomes Dortmunder’s brother-in-law, setting up an instant connection between the characters that doesn’t requiring stopping the story to explain anything.
Similarly, the utility man, Alan Greenwood, becomes explosives expert Allan Greenburg, and the crooked lawyer, Andy Prosker, becomes Abe Greenburg (the Zero Mostel role), his father. This enables the lengthy and slow moving train sequence to be replaced by a much shorter and more direct scene where the gang force Abe Greenburg to hand over his Safe Deposit boxkeys by apparently killing his son.
Lastly, the final phase, where the gang have to steal the Balabamo Emerald (in the film, the Sahara Stone, a diamond) back from their double-crossing employer, is also by-passed. Instead, Dr Amusa sacks the gang, throwing in his lot with Greenburg Senior, before Dortmunder takes the diamond from the Bank. This sets up the statutory happy ending (Hollywood. 1972. Suck it up) as the gang get away with the Hot Rock.
Incidentally, there is an in-joke at the start of the film, when Goldman replaces the kleenex gag as Dortmunder leaves prison with a brief conversation between Dortmunder and the Governor about the former going straight, to which, after a short pause, Dortmunder openly says he can’t. Goldman was making use here of a real-life incident in Butch Cassidy’s career which he’d had to delete from that film.
Skilful though the adaptation is, and conscientiously as Goldman uses Westlake’s dialogue wherever possible, the problem is that, as Goldman himself admits, he can’t really do comedy. Strange as that may seem from the writer of Butch Cassidy, Goldman is aware of his limitations, and flat out comedy is not his metier. He can shape the story very creditably, but he’s not a atural for what is needed to make this film fly.
Nor, despite his track record does Yates – an English director who worked in Hollywood – do much to set this film up in the way it needed to be to work. His most famous work, Bullitt, a fast-paced, action-oriented Steve McQueen thriller, had demonstrated his ability with crime films, though Yates then went on to alternate action and comedy films for the next decade.
For someone so skilled at action, it seems strange that Yates allows the film to crawl along, when it’s clearly crying out for an injection of pace. But the action moves lazily at each stage, and the characters perform in a low-key, unhurried fashion throughout, never displaying any serious degree of liveliness, let alone urgency.
Indeed, when the helicopter comes into play, Yates lets the story virtually stop whilst we follow the copter on an aerial tour of New York City that lasts several minutes (thus directly contradicting Goldman’s principles). Considering that the gang are on their way to break into a Police Station via the roof, this in no way helps the tension.
How much of this is down to Yates seeking a specific approach for the film, and how much of it to the cast themselves, but with the proud exception of Ron Leibman as Murch, and a few bits of minor histrionics from Segal, everybody underplays their parts to the extent that the life is sucked out of Mostel’s bombasticism. You must have seen him as Max Bialystock in the original version of The Producers, and if you haven’t, what have you been doing with your life? Abe Greenburg is a slighter version of that, given less room to play, but Mostel is acting against a wet blanket here.
Paul Sand, as Allan Greenburg, is a nonentity. I know he’s supposed to be dry, but Sand could be the Sahara Desert (as opposed to Stone) on this evidence, whilst Redford is so reserved in his performance, underplaying when the film cries out for a more exaggerated, stylised approach, that  he kills any chance the story has of taking off.
Leibman at least is innocent of such charges. He’s a ball of energy, gum-chewing, always active, greeting every situation with gleeful absorption, as was the case in all his film appearances in that era. He’s what is needed, someone determined to get everything out of what he does, and as sucj he stands out like a sore thumb.
He’s probably the best thing about the film, but even that is skew-whiff, because he’s not Murch. That’s not Stan Murch there. You can hang the name of Leibman’s shoulders, but there’s no way he will ever be Murch.
Which leads us back to the one greatest problem with this adaptation. Ignore little things, like how Dortmunder and Kelp are too well-dressed, too expansively dressed in Kelp’s case, too expensively dressed in Dortmunder’s, and how in keeping with Seventies fashions Dortmunder is for a habitual criminal just released from his second prison term. Sure, these jar, they look wrong, but nothing s more wrong that when he gaze at Redford’s clean cut, handsome face, that well-styled fair hair, his perfectly proportioned body, and you try to call him John Archibald Dortmunder and you can’t. Fucking hell, that’s Robert Redford! Dortmunder’s no Redford, and Redford is not, could not ever be, a Dortmunder.
And this film can’t work.
For all that, I understand The Hot Rock to be the best of the five films made by adapting Donald Westlake’s book. Whether I have the nerve to try any of the others is debatable.

That’s more like it.

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: Get Real

Donald Erwin Westlake, prolific writer of crime fiction, died on 31 December 2008, aged 75. He was preparing for a New Year’s Eve dinner with friends in Mexico, when he suffered a heart attack. He left behind one completed but unpublished novel. Parker fans hoped for a final Richard Stark, Dortmunder fans for a last Dortmunder gang tale: we were the lucky ones.
What does it feel like when an open-ended series ends? What is the best way to leave the reader satisfied? Westlake didn’t know that this would be his final book, his final visit to the absurd but somehow very realistic world of the unluckiest gang of criminals ever, and if he had, how might it have affected his story?
There’s an interesting comparison with Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series, which was also brought to an end on the author’s death, with the final book being Midnight Fugue. The Dalziel and Pascoe books are, primarily, independent of each other, but there was an ongoing chronology, and events in one book would often have consequences in the next.
For instance, Hill had had Andy Dalziel caught in a car bomb explosion in one book and barely surviving, in convalescence but still active in the next and, in Midnight Fugue, about to return to duty. In his absence, Peter Pascoe had taken on Dalziel’s duties, meaning that there would be a new aspect to their relationship: this would have been tackled in the next book, but that went unwritten.
There would be no such issues with Westlake: each Dortmunder book ended with an ending, and nothing hanging over to be addressed in another book. If he had known this was to be the last, would he have written it differently?
That we’ll never know, but by a gloriously sentimental chance, Get Real ends with a rare win for the gang. They make their score, the cops know nothing, they leave full-handed and with the opportunity to repeat the job no-one but they knows they’ve pulled off. Dortmunder, Kelp, Murch, Bulcher and Blint go out on a high.
Get Real may not be the best Dortmunder book, but it’s got the biggest and most absurd notion that Westlake came up with: a reality TV series, starring our favourite gang in the planning, casing and commission of a job. Real crime, for a thirteen week prime-time slot.
It’s all because things are quiet. The twenty-first century and its technological advances, especially in the realms of CCTV, surveillance, and enhanced security has not been kind to the sort of crooks like Dortmunder and co, the ones who prefer cash-in-illicit-hand. Everyone’s in semi-retirement, making their way, bit by bit, but lacking that piece of something that provides a cushion, you know. Which is why, when Murch’s Mom gets TV producer Doug Faircamp in her cab on a run from the Airport into the city, she takes the chance to big up her boy Stanley, figuring he could do with a change of career.
And Doug Faircamp gets the idea of a lifetime.
Now, leaving aside any moral qualms about the fact that Get Real Productions are planning to aid and abet and indeed profit from a criminal enterprise – this is television: there are none – Dortmunder and co have some concerns of their own. Like the fact that they usually do their jobs at night, in the dark, and without 12,000,000 witnesses and footage for the cops to use in evidence.  Not to mention that it wouldn’t go down well at the O.J. if they tried filming in the back room.
But Doug is full of assurances that they can get round that, that they’ll use side and back shots and head haloes, that the gang’s faces will never be seen, and besides, they’ll build the O.J. in the studio, and shoot the show there (there is an vein of pure cynicism about the ‘reality’-quotient of Reality TV running through this, rather like the Amazon runs through Brazil).
As far as the gang is concerned, they’ll only go ahead with this by planning two heists. The first is the one the TV company know about, that’s going to get filmed. The target’s going to be in the same building, another company from the same group: an escape hatch for if the Police get involved: it wasn’t a real robbery, the company were in on it.
But the more important job is the heist the company doesn’t know about. The one that turns upon how Doug has inadvertently revealed that there are large sums of cash to be found around from time to time, which the gang assume (rightly) to be on that floor which is shielded by massive security.
As far as Dortmunder’s concerned, the TV show is only a cover: once they’ve cased their real heist, they walk off the show, let things settle, then go in quietly at night. The way things should be done. Unfortunately (ahhh…), by that point the rest of the gang have seen the first rushes, have seen themselves on TV, and they kind of like it. They want to keep filming. And, when it comes to it, even Dortmunder gets the bug.
The jewel in this part of the story, and indeed the moment at which I laughed louder and harder than any other single moment in all this series, comes when the gang arrive for filming one day on the set of the O.J. to find Doug, production assistant and not-scripter Marcie and two cameraman having exactly the kind of cross-purposed, surreal and unfailingly inaccurate conversation as the regulars do in the real bar.
The gang stare in awe and amazement and it is Kelp who sums it up perfectly with the line, “If you build it, they will come.”
The cash, it turns out, is bribe money: bribe money for all those local agents and wheelgreasers in foreign climes, if one wishes to get anywhere with one’s enterprises. Since that is illegal under US Law, Dortmunder and co can feel assured that the crime will not be reported. Still, they go in with every intention of not leaving any traces of their presence, so it’s unfortunate that they disturb a large and suspicious Asian gentleman.
This leads to one of the very few moments of overt violence in the entire series and, ironically, it’s not even by Tiny: Kelp wangs the guy up the head with a frying pan. The cash in the safe being somewhat messily stacked, the gang are even able to extract nearly $170,000 without anyone even being sure a dollar is missing!
As winners go, this is a win.
The next day, the show is cancelled. Westlake’s used that as a cliffhanger twice and twice wriggled his guys out of it, but third time is the deal-breaker: the company is being shut down, the gang are paid off and they leave. It is, I’m sad to say, a weak and very perfunctory ending: our last look at our friends is as they wander off down the street forever, without fireworks or fanfare. For a moment, Dortmunder’s conscience seems about to assert itself: they’ve been paid off on top of everything they’ve made, but Marcie, who’s been invaluable to them on the show, is sacked with nothing. Should they give her something?
It’s a nice thought, but the ghost of Parker shines through John Archibald Dortmunder for one last time, and like the crook he is and has always been, he rejects the thought, and walks on.
So it ended. Like I say, it’s not the best of the series, but it’s plenty good enough and it’s very funny. There’s no place, this final time, for May or Anne Marie, and only cameos for Murch’s Mom and J. C. Taylor. There’s no Arnie Allbright either, sad to say.
The book was stated to be complete, but I wonder just how complete it was. Westlake was a very natural writer, a fast typist who caught his stories at the first go. All writers rewrite, to one extent or another though, and I have my suspicion that this book would have had another go through it to come, had fate not intervened.
I’m put in mind of P. G. Wodehouse’s final, unfinished novel, Sunset at Blandings. It’s unfinished in that Wodehouse was not more than three-quarters of the way through the story when he died, but it’s also unfinished in another sense. Wodehouse’s practice was to write the story as a whole, concentrating on working out the plot, and fitting everything together. He would then take a more relaxed approach to the manuscript, working through it and ‘thickening’ it: putting in those wonderful similes, those convoluted quips, the jokes and the fun, making the book into the rich brew it would become.
This is missing from that part of Sunset at Blandings that he had written, and I wonder if a similar process is missing from Get Real. The ending is so abrupt, so left-field despite the (over-) use of the shutdown device, twice already, so feeble, that it is a let-down. The book doesn’t end in a sense that feels complete, it just stops.
I wonder. But the question is moot. John Dortmunder, Andy Kelp, Stan Murch, Tiny Bulcher and, having not had half the development as a character that Westlake plainly intended for him, Judson “The Kid” Blint, went off into that good night of respected and beloved fictional creatures who will not be allowed to dragged back by foreign hands. The family will not allow their further use, and good on them.
There remains a total of eleven short stories and one rather unusual sidebar to the canon, all but one of which I’ll be discussing in the next entry, when I look at the one volume of collected short Dortmunder fiction.

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.

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: The Road to Ruin

The eleventh Dortmunder story, The Road to Ruin, though frequently funny, was something of a disappointment on first reading, and whilst it improves on closer acquaintance, it’s still one of the weaker efforts in the canon, for much the same reason as Bad News: John Dortmunder, the ingenious planner, simply doesn’t get enough to do.
It’s not the case that Dortmunder and Co are inserting themselves into someone else’s heist, although the job is brought to them from the outside. Once the idea arises, the gang approaches the job in their usual fashion. But the plan Dortmunder devises to achieve their ends is surprisingly simplistic, and its inevitable frustration has none of the usual sparkle and wit Westlake usually brings to the workings of fate and the real world.
The Road to Ruin begins with a double break with tradition. Firstly, Dortmunder is not on a job that’s either failed or, within moments, is about to fail. Indeed, he’s in the apartment he shares with May, watching the 6 o’clock news.
The second breach is that the street-bell rings, and it’s Kelp: the same Andy Kelp who usually lets himself into their apartment so as to spare John or May the trouble of opening the door. Kelp’s being formal today because he’s not heard from Dortmunder in some time, and he’s worried that John has cut him out, is running with another bunch of guys. Dortmunder can reassure him on that: he’s not even pulling single-os at the moment. Things are pretty dead.
Until Anne Marie phones from Kelp’s apartment, which has just been invaded by this guy, giving no name, wants to see Kelp, is prepared to wait. Dortmunder returns with him, to lend moral support, but there’s nothing to fear: the interloper is Kelp’s old buddy, Chester Fallon, a driver.
Chester’s led an interesting life. First, he was a stunt driver for the movies, until he got replaced by CGI, then he used to work driving away from banks, which is how he knows Kelp. After getting parole, he went to work as chauffeur to Monroe Hall, a rich guy who has a great collection of vintage cars, $6,000,000 worth: perfect job, with house, medical benefits and pension thrown in through Hall’s company, SomniTech.
Until Hall was found to be embezzling SomniTech, and pretty much everyone under the sun, in a deeply greedy and omnivorous fashion. So now Monroe Hall is a pariah, unable to leave his estate in Pennsylvania on account of all these people hanging around wanting to have discussions with him about the staggeringly large sums of money they’ve lost. And the cars have been turned over to a charitable foundation in Florida, even though they’re still ‘displayed’ at the impenetrable, security-wrapped Pennsylvania estate.
Except that the Foundation can’t employ ex-cons, so that’s Chester out on his ear; no job, no house and, thanks to SomniTech having been sucked dry, no pension or medical benefits. So now Chester hates Monroe Hall, like everybody who ever meets him, with the exception of his still-loving wife Alicia. Chester would like some revenge. $6,000,000 of vintage cars-worth.
Naturally, after another trip to the O.J. Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue, the regulars are in the midst of another of their endless cross-purpose rambles, Stan Murch and Tiny Bulcher are on board and the gang head for Pennsylvania in another of Kelp’s doctor’s cars – nice and spacious, to suit Tiny – to case the joint. The security is, however, impenetrable. No-one can get in, and whilst Alicia Hall and the cook come out, Monroe Hall doesn’t.
Dortmunder’s solution is surprisingly simple. Hall, being both a pariah, and a man who offends people as easily as you or I click on a blog, is desperately short of staff: the gang will get themselves hired.
This isn’t quite as easy as it sounds, given the no ex-cons barrier, but this is where Anne Marie – who has adapted with surprising smoothness to this unusual life – comes in. Among her friends from her Washington days as a Senator’s daughter is the deliberately anonymous Jim Green, former FBI Agent and specialist at creating unbreakable new identities for people. Green costs too much for the gang to buy four lives off him, and four’s too many for freebies, but he can let them have four existing identities that the recipients no longer use.
The only risk is that if any of the original inhabitants of these identities created any enemies, any revenge might be directed against these temporary users, but it’s probably only a small risk, eh?
(You’re getting ahead of things. Slow down.)
So Monroe Hall gets four new staff simultaneously: Warren Gillette, a carroty-haired chauffeur, Judson Swope, a man-mountain security guard, Frederick Blanchard, a sharp-featured private secretary, and John Rumsey, a hangdog-looking, slope-shouldered butler. (There’s an in-joke here, but you’re going to have to wait for me to get to the right book before I explain it).
Once inside, the plan is, once again, utter simplicity. Tiny is doing the graveyard shift as the new boy, so he’ll open the gate whilst the other three drive the cars off to a handy holding space whilst the gang dicker with the insurance company.
I mean, that’s it. In terms of Dortmunderian ingenuity, this is kindergarten stuff. I could plot a crime novel with this plan, and I don’t even write crime novels.
So the book, which is already reliant on the little details along the way – the best of which being the discovery that Arnie Allbright’s family, who mainly go in for counterfeiting, have staged an intervention and sent Arnie to Club Med on one of them islands, to get his personality cleaned out –  becomes ultra-dependant on the foil. How will this one screw up?
Westlake takes his time getting there. Given the simplicity of the gang’s part in it, the story stretches to encompass lots of other viewpoints. There’s Chester, for one, taking a (hopefully temporary) job as driver to a drunken sales-rep, under constant bombardment by sales-rep jokes. There’s Monroe and Alicia Hall, at different times: he an unthinking, unheeding monster of selfishness, contemptuous and callous of all, she an attractive, intelligent, perceptive woman doomed by the fact she still loves him.
There’s Hall’s personal trainer, Flip Morriscone, trying to get somewhere with a suet pudding of a man, who Hall betrays to the IRS. Henry Cooper, old ‘friend’ of Hall’s and owner of the Employment Agency to whom the gang apply.
And then there’s Mark and Os, and Buddy, Mac and Ace.
These are people who have been wronged by Hall, people who have been stalking the estate, people who want to get hold of Hall, just for a while, for some monetary redress (Hall, though technically making redress for his embezzlements, is in control of substantial, hidden assets offshore). Mark and Os are brokers, privileged men from privileged families, who want to be put back where they were. Buddy, Mac and Ace are union men, trying to get money back for, not directly themselves, but rather the ACWFFA.
These two sets join forces – tentatively, with piles of mistrust on both sides but no actual double-crossing – and with the assistance of Morriscone, they get onto the estate in a horsebox (Hall wants to take up horse riding) and they get off the estate with Hall in the horsebox.
Unfortunately (that word crops up rather often when discussing a Dortmunder story, doesn’t it?), they also have to take the witness to the kidnapping. The butler, John Rumsey.
Now Dortmunder is not unresourceful, as we have seen. Dortmunder escapes from captivity using a chair (he smashes it into the face of the guy coming into his room, and runs). Monroe Hall, however, is even more resourceful, and escapes from the hunting lodge in which they’re being held. Unfortunately (that word again), he doesn’t so much jump from the window as fall out of it. As a consequence, he hits his head, hard, on a head-sized rock. And loses his memory. Permanently.
Including all the passwords and codes to those off-shore holdings.
And everything just drains away like water. Whilst Dortmunder is making his way back to Pennsylvania, Kelp, Murch and Tiny have to watch the Foundation driving all the cars off the estate, to go to Florida, leaving nothing.
Which, sadly, is the feeling this denouement leaves.
As for the amateur conspirators, whose blunderings across Dortmunder’s path have led to this disaster, the fall-out takes different outcomes, with a pleasingly blue collar twist. And Dortmunder and Co. return to New York dogged by the realisation that they have actually spent two days working in a job!
Westlake does throw in one final plot twist, as we near the end of the book. As Jim Green warned, there is indeed an enemy, a foreign assassin no less, seeking the whereabouts of Fred Blanchard. However, this final twist gets untwisted with such perfunctory and unexpected ease, that it just becomes the reddest of red herrings.
Despite all of this, I like the book, and it’s still plenty funny. But I like it because I know Dortmunder and his friends and associates and hangers-on so well, because their skewed perceptions and the slightly surreal atmosphere that surrounds them is comfortable and engaging, because I like hanging around with them.
In that sense, The Road to Ruin is an archetypal late series book, getting by on familiar routines and tropes, but beginning to have some difficulties in finding fresh things for the cast to do. It might have been the point at which the series began to run into the ground, especially as – breaking his inviolable rule of thirty-odd years – Westlake was going to be writing another Dortmunder story immediately after this one.
But The Road to Ruin would prove to be no more than a stumble, as the series would pick up into its final, compressed years.
Strictly speaking, the next Dortmunder book, published later the same year as this novel, is the short story collection, Thieves Dozen, collecting together all the Dortmunder short stories then published. But I’m leaving the short stories until next to last, after we’ve covered all the novels. You’ll have to wait for me to explain that in-joke.

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.

Discovering Dortmunder: That Shared Chapter

So, here’s the deal. After writing about Drowned Hopes, and its shared chapter with Joe Gores’ 32 Cadillacs, I got curious for the first time about the other side of the coin, and what this shared chapter means in the other book. Using that tainted source of cheap books, Amazon, I ordered a copy of 32 Cadillacs for the princely sum of 1p, and my curiosity is now satisfied.
32 Cadillacs is a relatively early part of Gores’ DKA series, the DKA being Dan Kearney Associates, a San Francisco based firm of repomen. Which, for those unfamiliar with the term, means that their job is to repossess cars whose owners have fallen behind on the payments. And, whilst not technically being private detectives, having to use all the skills of such beings when dealing with skip-traces, i.e., tracking down delinquent car owners who have fled into the night.
Personally, whilst I’ll read anything readable once, I can’t imagine wanting to read a whole series, but then I’m not American, and I don’t have the same kind of relationship with my cars, and especially in the symbolic sense of how they relate to my masculinity/psycho-sexual self-image. This sort of stuff just goes deeper with Brother Jonathan.
Either way, Gores, like other crime-writers before him, was a repoman and a PI for many years so all the stuff that happens in his books is based on actual incidents, which much less tweaking than  you might fondly imagine. Not that I found myself boggling at, well, anything in this novel, not like in Homicide – Life on the Street, where some of the crimes are utterly bizarre, yet are based, sometimes word for word, on a book of non-fiction.
Anyway, to 32 Cadillacs: the story starts by setting up an ingenious scam by two tribes of Gypsies to simultaneously acquire 32 Cadillacs. Their purpose, apart from the fact that Gyppos (I am using the word bandied about freely in the book, this once) scam the Gadje as a way of life, is because the King of the Gypsies is dying as a result of a fall, so the Gypsies will need to choose a new King, or Queen, and everyone is seeking to impress the outgoing King, who will choose his successor.
(The back cover blurb promises “the ultimate scam of all”, and you don’t have to read far to realise that the King is not going to die, he’s just scamming the entire world).
But there are 32 Cadillacs that require repo-ing, which means that Dan Kearney puts his top men (and one woman) on it, and, give or take some sub-plots and a generous amount of Gypsy – let’s say Rom instead – scamming, that’s more or less the story.
Where our favourite gang come in is incredibly late in the story, chapter 42, pp 304-311 out of 335. As we already know, from Drowned Hopes, the Dortmunder gang come into this because of Andy Kelp’s propensity for stealing cars with MD plates. On this occasion, the Cadillac might have Doctor’s plates, but they’re fake, part of a Rom scam.
The guy trailing this particular Cadillac is Ken Warren, who we only know from Drowned Hopes as having a serious speech impediment, that makes him sound like Donald Duck. Warren’s only just been taken on at DKA, to cover the ordinary cases whilst the top team binge on Cadillacs. Warren turns out to be a phenomenal repo machine, breezing through repos in quantity and quality, which is why he’s seconded to the Cadillac team.
We already know what happens: the action and the dialogue are identical to Drowned Hopes and this brief chapter is an hilarious insert into a story that, according to the cover blurb, was supposed to be funny, but which wasn’t making me laugh. Even when they’re being looked at from the outside, the Dortmunders are inherently absurd and recognisable, and Gores sort of sums this up by having Warren leave the scene deflated that he hasn’t had anything resembling a fight to get the Caddy, and thinking that the only one who got things right in that episode was Tom Jimson.
Funnily enough, the scene is funnier and works better in 32 Cadillacs  than in Drowned Hopes. In both books, it’s an in-joke, albeit a big in-joke, but in Westlake’s book it’s wholly unrelated to the story, and it’s an interruption to the flow, whilst in Gores’ book, it’s an episode that, whilst calling attention to itself in a manner that interrupts the story, is structurally more acceptable, because the book is strongly episodic in its nature.
I’m reluctant to be dogmatic about this, since this is the only shared chapter I’ve ever come across, but my immediate impression is that they’re not really a good idea, because they are so detachable. The scene is more naturalistic in 32 Cadillacs but calls attention to itself in a slightly ‘how clever am I?’ manner but is an irrelevancy in Drowned Hopes. In both cases, the book stops whilst you admire the trick. And even if you don’t know that this is going on, the atmosphere changes as the two completely different milieu drift past each other, and you’re jolted, ever so slightly, out of the reality of whichever book you’re reading, which is always detrimental to the story.
I can think of circumstances in which the trick could be employed more seriously, and thus more successfully, but unless the authors were collaborating to an unlikely degree in their separate plotting, I can’t see it working as an integral part of both stories. As a serious part of the plot of one, and a convenient moment in another (e.g., disturbance created in book A to further protagonist’s plans also provides cover for protagonist in book B, who just happens to be in the same place), but it would take a lot of hard work to stop the exercise being, well, just a diversion.
At least I know now. And as for Gores’ work, based on this single example, it’s ok but it doesn’t pull me back for more. And, to be honest, the description of the activities of the Rom in this book as being a racial thing, does repel me.
Back to the Dortmunder gang!