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!

Discovering Dortmunder: Don’t Ask

I don’t honestly know why, but whilst I’d remembered that Don’t Ask was based upon a similar premise to The Hot Rock, I’d completely forgotten just how funny it is. After the relatively paucity of laughs in Drowned Hopes, this book goes for the comedic jugular from the outset and provides more than its fair share of fun from start to tightly-plotted end.
Though there’s no formal division of the story into seconds, the book does fall naturally into two parts, the caper and the revenge. And the revenge is a true tour-de-force, not merely from Westlake, but also from the put-upon John Archibald Dortmunder. This time it’s a real shame that the much-expanded gang doesn’t get away with the loot.
But before we can get into just what Dortmunder wants revenge for, we need to get a handle on the caper.
We start, as always, with the failed heist. It seems to be a simple job, just the removal of a truckload of freshly caught fish to another destination. But Dortmunder, Kelp and Murch get stuck on the Williamsburg Bridge under the hot sun for four hours, with John in agony from the air-conditioning dripping ice cold water on his ankles. So he switches the A/C off. The reason for not doing so is duly revealed four hot hours later when they open the truck. So they lose it by parking it in some out of the way lorry park, waiting for someone to notice.
I don’t normally go into such detail about the failed heist, but I’d like you to remember this little incident, even though it’s not going to be mentioned again for a very long time.
In the meantime, Tiny’s got a job for them, as delivered by his cousin, Grijk Krungk, and it’s right up Dortmunder’s street. That’s because it involves these two countries that hate each other, because they used to be one country before they were two, and they had this national relic that both worshipped, only one country’s got it and the other country wants it and they want John to swipe it for them.
As it happens, the object is not an emerald but rather a bone: to be precise, the  femur of Saint Ferghana. And there’s something valuable as stake: whichever of these two Eastern European countries has the real bone will get the United Nations seat of the old country. Outlandish as this may seem, there is a perfectly good explanation for why this is so, which Westlake has taken the trouble to set down in the book, so that means I don’t have to go into that here, because you are going to go out and read this now, aren’t you?
The initial snag is that Tesrgovia is a poor country and, whilst Tiny’s prepared to do this one for the old country, payment in Tsergovian draffs, spendable only in Tsergovia doesn’t really live up to Dortmunder’s family crest, Quid lucrum istic mihi est (What’s in it for me?)
That snag is gotten past when Tsergovia take out a Bank Loan to pay in US Dollars (that is one loan application I’d love to see), but the second snag is that the Vostkojek Embassy is a converted tramp steamer moored on the East River, which means that to case it in any meaningful manner, the gang have to take to the waters.
Unfortunately, after recent events, Dortmunder has developed an aversion to large bodies of water. So much so that, partway through the voyage, he insists on being returned to dry land at the nearest point, which is basically the land attached to the Vostkojek Embassy.
However, here he meets Hradec Kralowc, the womanising Vostkojekian Ambassador. Hradec starts of by suspecting a Tsergovian invasion, but rapidly comes to sympathise with the sea-sick John Diddums (the first appearance, at least in the novels, of Dortmunder’s reluctant alias, being the only word that ever comes into his head when he has to give a false name: he claims it’s Welsh). So much so, he insists on giving his fellow sea-loather on a tour of the Embassy, showing him everything, including St Ferghana’s femur. It’s the first time John’s ever had the householder help him case the joint.
The caper is planned to perfection, leaving aside those unpredictable hitches that could happen to anybody. The scientist on the shift before ‘Dr’ Andy Kelp is a bit too meticulous over his tests, delaying Kelp’s departure with the purloined femur until Dortmunder’s diversion is almost done. Kelp panics, blows Dortmunder’s cover, makes his escape onto the boat Murch has stolen, but Dortmunder can’t bring himself to jump and is captured.
Matters are further complicated when Murch and Kelp land their boat, only to find themselves surrounded by a task force from the DEA: they’ve only stolen a noted drug-runner’s craft.
For a time, the story runs in parallel. Hradec doesn’t report the theft to the Police because the gang got away with the bone. Instead, he plans to use Dortmunder to get the bone back, but naturally a professional won’t crack. Not unless he’s been drugged by Doctor Zorn, flown out out the country to a far away land where he’s lodged in the dungeons and will be tortured until he cracks…
Several episodes of the Diary of a Prisoner ensue, intertwined with scenes of Kelp and Murch managing to convince the DEA that not only are they nothing to do with the drug-runner, they haven’t even stolen the boat. They get released but the boat does get impounded, as do any suspicious looking bones that got kicked out of sight under a tarpaulin, and are taken away.
Tsergovia makes it clear that it expects its bone, so Kelp and Murch have to go it alone in tracing the whereabouts of the bone and stealing it back, whilst worrying about the absent John. Meanwhile, Diary of a Prisoner turns into Diary of an Escapee, and when Andy and Stan finally deliver the bone to Grijk and his new Deputy Security Chief, they can’t understand why he doesn’t seem more excited.
Until they’re two blocks away and just recalling that Tsergovia is too poor to afford two Security Chiefs, and that Vostkojek has just stolen the bone back.
Well, everybody’s been paid, except Tiny, who’s been doing this for nothing, and it’s not the gang’s fault Tsergovia lost the bone, and besides, Dortmunder’s back. Except that Dortmunder is back not from Vostkojek but from Vermont, where Hradec and his good friend, and would-be investor in Vostkojek, Harry Hochman, have worked a con on him.
Dortmunder is not happy. He’s been played for a rube and he doesn’t like it. In fact, he wants revenge. Revenge on Hradec, Doctor Zorn, Harry Hochman, Vostkojek. Revenge that gets Tsergovia its bone and its UN seat, no questions asked. Revenge that, incidentally, involves the heisting of $6,000,000 in art treasures
And he’s only got about 72 hours in which to come up with a plan.
I said tour-de-force and I meant tour-de-force. It’s Dortmunder’s finest hour, a bigger theft than even the Byzantine Fire (Why Me? This book is full of references to old jobs: only Jimmy the Kid goes unrecalled). It requires three jobs in three locations, one of them overseas, a string of eleven, in violation of his sternest maxim – if a job can’t be done with five men, it’s not worth doing at all.
And it all comes out the way Dortmunder plans it, at high speed, especially the bit where the gang trains the staff at Harry Hochman’s chateau into ignoring the burglar alarm when it goes off. There’s a tremendous joy in watching all the dominos fall in the correct order, bringing down humiliation, exposure and destruction on Hradec, Zorn and Hochman, colapsing into deserved ruin and disgrace of which they’re each completely innocent. It’s a masterpiece.
All that’s left is to collect on the $6,000,000 in Art Treasures. The goods are being kept safe in a truck, parked in a lorry park out in New Jersey. Every couple of days, Murch takes the ferry over and moves the truck into another anonymous lorry park.
Are you hearing a ball ringing? Or, more appropriately, are you smelling anything fishy?
If you recall, that failed heist from nearly 340 pages back involved leaving a truck in a New Jersey lorry park. The smell’s gotten bad enough that the truck’s been found and the Police have come to tow it. Unfortunately, they tow the wrong truck…
And so the eternal verities of a Dortmunder prevail yet again and wesettle ourselves down in happy anticipation of the next one.
Good as the first half of this book is, it’s that gloriously plotted and executed revenge scenario that makes Don’t Ask an awesome success, and which undoubtedly inspired the next Dortmunder novel. Even if the job ultimately goes sour, the back half of the book is so rich and successful on every other level that an unusual degree of happiness surrounds the end of the story, especially when the seemingly unimportant detail that Vostojek’s application for independent UN admission is now queued behind that of Maylohda is discovered to come unusually close to home by the end.
There are just too many things in the book overall to give all of them away, but mention must be made of a couple of first en route. There are cameos for J.C.Taylor early on, listening in on the gang and Grijk, and taking her own inspiration from Tsergovia’s ambitions, and from Arnie Allbright, as obnoxious as before, providing credit cards with a strictly limited shelf-life.
There’s the rather solidly built Head of the Tsergovian Mission who turns out to be the only person on this Earth who can intimidate Tiny Bulcher, because she has a crush on him, and the rather matter of fact way in which we learn that Tiny’s first name is actually Tchotchkuss, though this is  not a matter to be repeated, and certainly not in front of Tiny.
Oh, and whilst he never graduates beyond a minor background character, we do have our first meeting with Ralph Winslow, a brilliant one-handed locksmith: one-handed because he always has in his other hand a glass of something amber in which ice cubes tinkle merrily. Always.
The next book I do remember as being one of the most hilarious of the series on first reading. I shall shortly confirm if it repeats the trick.

Discovering Dortmunder: Drowned Hopes

At 453 pp, Drowned Hopes is by a stretch the longest Dortmunder novel (it’s more than two and a half times as long as Jimmy the Kid) and if it has a failing it’s a sense that it’s got the usual amount of laughter in it, but having to fend for itself in more open territories.
It’s not a bad book, and I’m not suggesting that Westlake has stretched his idea out beyond its natural length. Rather, it’s the technical problem that Dortmunder has to solve that, perfectly naturally, requires time and space to tackle. Added to that a genuine sense of menace from the book’s seriously bad apple, and overall, Drowned Hopes, turns out to be an unexpectedly serious book, in amongst the absurdities.
Other than that, it’s what we all expect and look forward to. The gang is now fixed as a core quartet with an off-beat fifth member performing as a descant. May is once again something of a conscience for the book, Murch’s Mom plays a part – as well as giving up her first name as being Gladys – and it’s made perfectly clear that Tiny and J.C.Taylor are a shared-apartment item, even though the lady herself stays offstage this time.
Time has moved on, the big score the gang made last time out has gone the way of all money, and Dortmunder’s again working on the small heists that are bread and butter. This time his job goes wrong even before the book starts: the jeweller’s moved away, the antiques shop has switched to Disney collectibles, the cheque-casher’s got in a mean dog. It takes a page or two before May can get through to him that he’s got an even bigger problem: he has a visitor.
The newcomer is Tom Jimson. He’s not an old friend, but an old cell-mate: a bony, grey, tall guy notorious for being the only guy to come out of capers in which his erstwhile colleagues end up either in the hands of the Law or those of the Grim Reaper. And he’s not supposed to be here: he’s serving seven life-sentences. But, on account of prison overcrowding, and as a seventieth birthday present, the state has sent Tom Jimson out once more into the outside, where he intends to collect a $700,000 stash from a long ago job and head off to somewhere the other side of Acapulco.
Jimson is the sort of guy that nobody will miss having around. He calls Dortmunder Al, not John, on account of John’s middle name being Archibald, which he hates: Jimson knows that. However, he has a proposition for ‘Al’. It seems that, not long after he did the job that enabled him to bury that $700,000 behind the library in Putkin’s Corners, the New York State Government put a reservoir on top of it: the stash is protected by fifty feet of water. If Dortmunder, with or without whoever he calls in, helps Jimson retrieve his stash, he can have half.
This presents Dortmunder with two problems in the long and short terms. The long term problem is the way Jimson’s partners never really get to enjoy their share of the cut. The short term one is that Jimson doesn’t really want him for his skills at planning jobs. Tom has a plan: he just wants Dortmunder to help him place the dynamite when he blows the dam. That way, they don’t have to worry about the water, and they won’t get disturbed because people are just naturally going to be ore concerned about this great big wave of water sweeping down-valley and engulfing these half-dozen or so towns along the way.
Dortmunder is horrified. Actually, he’s appalled too. And he finds himself forced to take on this job, to find away of getting the loot, under the reservoir, under fifty foot of water, out without killing thousands of people in doing so. After all, it’s not going to be that difficult for Jimson to find partners whose desire for $350,000 won’t be hindered for a second by other considerations.
That’s where a lot of the book’s length comes from: you just can’t come up with simple, straightforward plans to tackle a job like that, and there’s a familiar Hot Rock-esque aspect to seeing the gang pulling the same job several times over. Westlake makes sure we don’t get bored with this repetitive task by providing several amusing distractions that weave themselves into the story.
The first of these is Wally Knurr, a four and a half foot tall, naïve but highly intelligent butterball of a computer geek who is, naturally, an acquaintance of Andy Kelp. Wally, who is not a crook, lives in a world of computers and interactive games, and is brought in by Kelp to ‘assist’ Dortmunder’s planning by running things through a very accurate model of the valley. Wally starts out being an innocent, but given that he’s very far from stupid, soon works out what’s going on (primarily through conversations with his computer, which tends to reduce things to the level of an interactive game, involving the hero (Wally), the warlord (Jimson) and the princess.
The Princess is Myrtle Street, who lives on Myrtle Street in Dudson Center, a town down-valley of the dam. Myrtle, a pretty but somewhat unformed girl of twenty-five, is a librarian, taking after her elderly, bad-tempered, fault-finding mother Edna, who’d borne her out of wedlock. Myrtle’s never really thought about her birth-father, not until her mother launches into some uncharacteristic obscenities one day in the car because she’s just unexpectedly seen Myrtle’s father again.
Edna’s shock is every bit as great as Dortmunder’s, and for the exact same reason: Myrtle is the daughter of Tom Jimson. And when strangers start turning up and showing an interest in the same long ago, pre-reservoir robbery that Myrtle’s already worked out is the probable cause of her father’s absence from her life, her already-fixated interest grows insatiable.
One of those strangers is Wally, but another is Doug Berry, a diving expert who, having gotten intrigued by Dortmunder and Kelp’s need for compressed air from a registered diver who won’t ask too many questions, is trying to muscle on on their job (and is soon trying to muscle in on what’s underneath Myrtle’s cotton dress). Doug has to be incorporated in the job, just like Wally.
Unfortunately, the job is not going well. It might have seemed easy just to suit up and walk in to find the stash, but Dortmunder and Kelp are complete novices at diving (even when they’re not diving) and Dortmunder soon develops a healthy and not entirely irrational fear of a reservoir that, quite seriously, is out to kill him.
Indeed, Dortmunder wants out. In an unusual twist, the extended gang stays behind, still trying to make the job work, whilst he goes home to New York. Until the day he returns to the apartment to find Stan Murch waiting for him with the news that May has moved out. No, she’s not left him, she’s just taking a holiday, her and Murch’s Mom. They’re renting a house in a nice, relaxing, upstate New York community. In Dudson Center. In front of the dam.
So now John has an incentive to come up with a plan that will keep Tom Jimson away from the dynamite.
That’s when things start to get complicated, when Westlake starts drawing together all the strings he’s been running out, including the more-than-crazed ex-partner of Jimson’s who wants revenge, and everything comes to a head out on the reservoir, in a boat, with the job working smoothly and everything going right, and Jimson preparing his usual double-cross.
Oh, it goes wrong of, course, and this time the twist is that Dortmunder’s the one who blows it, and there goes the $700,000 and this time no more chances. Still, Tom Jimson isn’t going to be bothering anyone any more, and the dam is still in one piece, even if the gang’s return for all their efforts is zip, zilch and nada.
Somebody does profit, however, as the final chapter reveals, much to everyone’s disgust.
Drowned Hopes is still a good book, and I wouldn’t suggest overlooking it, but don’t expect the same degree of fun as with others in this series. Whether he intended to or not, Westlake’s decision to use a character like Tom Jimson – who is a satire of the kind of people the late writer Jim Thompson (whose novel The Grifters, Westlake had adapted for the very successful 1990 film), a very hard-boiled writer, is known for – anchors the book in a greater level of criminal reality than anything since The Hot Rock.
Jimson’s really something of an inimical figure in Dortmunder’s world, which has over the past six books taken on something of a cartoon feel. We read the Dortmunder books because, whilst they are steeped in the reality of the criminal world, they are actually fantastic and improbable stories that are anchored to reality by that verisimilitude, when we know (but don’t want to understand) that neither these people nor these settings can actually exist. Jimson’s just that bit too much truthful, with too few comic edges to soften the blow.
Incidentally, there’s another crime fiction nod of the head in this book. Chapter 57 features the gang congregating in Dudson Center in a variety of stolen vehicles, one of which is a silver Cadillac, being pursued by a very intent repo man named Ken Warren, who has a speech impediment. Warren is intent on taking that car, but finds himself boxed in by vehicles on all four sides, not to mention Tom Jimson wanting to kill him. The moment he gets out that he’s a repo man, everybody is all smiles and clear his way.
This is, I understand, a crossover, or rather a ‘shared chapter’ with the book 32 Cadillacs by Joe Gores, part of his DKA series (novels featuring private detective Dan Kearney which apparently feature thinly-disguised accounts of Gores’ own experiences as a sleuth and a repo man). The same events appear in 32 Cadillacs, but from the point of view of Gores’ characters.
I’ve never read any of Gores’ books (apparently, Westlake and Gores had done this before, with a Richard Stark Parker book) though it would be interesting to see the other side of this. Unfortunately, whilst it’s a neat in-gag, the knowledge of it, for me at least, turns an otherwise throwaway gag into something of undue significance, blowing the gag.
Still, if Drowned Hopes was a minor disappointment, there would still be another story to come, of tighter length, even if there was a certain amount of familiarity to its theme…

Discovering Dortmunder: Good Behavior

Good Behavior was the only Dortmunder novel I read out of sequence. For some reason, it seems to be the rarest of the books, having apparently not been included in the Mysterious Press uniform re-issue of the series in the early Nineties, from which I draw the majority of my collection, the covers of which I’m trying to use as illustrations.
I’d originally read The Hot Rock and Bank Shot from the library, in English hardback publications, but Westlake’s works have rarely since then been available in the UK and I’ve had to rely on imports thereafter. In 1977, in a long ago closed London bookshop of good repute, I got hold of the next three of the series, but it was easily another decade before I found it had continued. I managed to get hold of the seventh and eighth books, and then the two after these as they were published and imported into the Crime Section at Waterstones in Manchester, but I had to wait until the Amazon era before I could backtrack to this missing gem.
Once again, the story opens with Dortmunder out on a job that quickly goes wrong, and when I say quickly, I’m talking within the first ten words here. Dortmunder’s partner here is not, for once, Andy Kelp but instead Jim O’Hara, a rather colourless fellow who is shortly going to have the opportunity to work on his prison pallor. Dortmunder takes off in a different direction, only to fall off a roof.
The scene quickly shifts to inside a convent, a convent of nuns devoted to contemplation, prayer and a vow of silence that only allows them two hours off every Thursday afternoon to talk. One nun in particular is sat there, Contemplating, whilst praying for long life to the Pope, forgiveness of the souls in Purgatory, the conversion of Godless Russia and the return of Sister Mary Grace. Suddenly, burglar’s tools start dropping from the rafters. Which is where John Dortmunder, with a badly sprained ankle, is perched. Thank you Lord, our prayers are answered.
This unlikely thought is gradually unravelled, through the medium of good will, patience and charades. Sister Mary Grace is the convent’s newest and youngest nun, faithful, devoted and determined. Unfortunately, outside the convent, she’s the youngest daughter of a very rich industrialist/financier/businessman, Frank Ritter, whose plans for her life are somewhat more conventional, and directed towards expanding the family empire, so he had her kidnapped, imprisoned on the 76th floor of the Avalon State Bank Tower, behind impregnable security, and is having her worked on (unsuccessfully) by the world’s leading deprogrammer.
It’s not a question of barter, but in unspoken exchange for not shopping Dortmunder to those very busy policemen at the other end of the block, the nuns want him to steal Sister Mary Grace back.
This improbable, but somewhat uplifting scenario makes for a strangely positive book, the first of the series, since for once – perhaps because they are working on the side of the angels – the gang gets an all-points win,including a pay-off that’s spectacular enough to see Dortmunder and May on holiday in Bermuda by the final pages. But, naturally, it’s not an easy ride.
Leaving aside the practical difficulties of breaking into a high security, 76 storey, downtown business centre to rescue Rapunzel from the apartment on the top floor (which only becomes possible because Rapunzel is not just faithful, devoted and determined, but resourceful and smart too, and gets the security spec books smuggled out to the nuns) there’s the question of manpower.
Sure, Andy Kelp – who has taken to using his credit card to bypass the lock whenever he drops in on John and May – will help, for old times sake, but Stan and Tiny will want a profit motive. However, given that the building is just chock-a-block with import and jewellery businesses, the prospect can be made tempting enough. And John’s plan is ingenious to say the least.
For the building includes, amongst its many tenants, several mail order businesses. And it is well known that wherever you get mail order businesses, you get people running scams. One such is J. C. Taylor, who is willing to allow the gang to hole up for the weekend in Taylor’s offices, breaking out on Sunday to relieve the 26th floor of its goodies, and sending these out of the building on Monday as part of J. C. Taylor’s everyday post.
The nun will be taken out separately.
It’s Tiny whose contacts have uncovered J. C. Taylor, and it’s Tiny who’s most affected by the discovery that J. C. is actually a woman: an attractive, albeit hard-faced woman, aged about thirty: self-confident, brash, cynical, and capable of having a very unusual effect upon Tiny Bulcher, hormonally, that is.
Indeed, though she’s cynical and uncaring enough to make him almost resentful of her, it’s not really surprising that, by the end, he’s calling her Josie (which nobody else ever does), and it’s clear the relationship is heading for blue waters.
J. C.’s not part of the gang, though her curiosity puts her on the scene in the latter part of the book, and she’s instrumental in driving the remaining members of the gang into doing the right thing.
The gang is, however, complete on this occasion by another of Westlake’s weird and wonderful locksmiths. Chefwick’s retired, Herman X. is now Vice-President of Talabwo (remember the Balabomo Emerald?), so Tiny brings in little old Wilbur Howey, a little old man who spends virtually all his time singing and dancing, and panting after women.
You see, Wilbur once got caught and sent down for ten years but, on account of his insistence on escaping over and over again, it’s taken forty-eight years for him to get out. Wilbur’s been locked away from women for forty-eight years and is eager to impress himself on them, though the fact that his tastes, talk and general demeanour are still set to forty-eight years ago, he’s not destined to have much luck.
You’ll remember that I said something about “the remaining members of the gang” just now? That’s because the plan is working perfectly, everybody’s busy filling their boots (almost literally) with precious items (Kelp keeps diverting himself into the Magic Shop, until Stan has to have a word about it), and Dortmunder, with Wilbur’s help, is off to the 76th floor to retrieve Sister Mary Grace, and you know how every time there’s some little obstruction, some unforeseeable detail that the plan doesn’t cater for?
This time it’s the fact that Frank Ritter has it in for some South American country which has defied him. So he plans to have its government overthrown by a small army of extremely violent, homicidally maniacal, volatile mercenaries, who are staying in the Avalon State Bank Tower before flying out on Monday.
Sister Mary Grace is on the 76th floor. They’re on the 75th…
I’ll leave the rest of it to your good idea to get Good Behavior and read it. All I shall say is that Ritter gets his proper comeuppance, the mercenaries are arrested, Sister Mary Grace is reunited with her convent (whilst supplying some assistance to the rebels of Guerrero along the way) and, in a delightful precursor of Sister Act, a bunch of singing nuns get the gang out of the building, under the not very watchful eye of our old friend, Chief Inspector Francis X. Mologna. Pronounced Maloney.
More even than Why Me?, Good Behavior represented a pivot in the series. From this point on, though Dortmunder still finds life sticking spokes in his wheel all along the way, the gang will usually come out of their capers with something for their trouble, other than the freedom to plot the next job without the attention of warders.
And the gang is a gang now, John, Andy, Stan and Tiny. Though they all continue to earn their daily bread in their own manner, with or without other professional colleagues, when there’s a serious caper going, this is the quartet that will do it. Tiny’s initial fearsomeness, though it still has plenty of rope, begins to be tempered a little in this book, a process we understand will be accelerate once Josie starts to rub a few rough edges off him (not too many, Tiny being composed entirely from an overstock of rough edges).
But the moment J.C. shamed the other four into going to rescue Dortmunder, which even Kelp had agreed wasn’t going to happen, a sense of loyalty was created.
As usual, Good Behavior is very funny. There’s a lot of charades, which Westlake handles very skilfully, keeping it funny as Dortmunder (and others) have to interpret it, but not overusing the device until it stifles. There’s also a pragmatic degree of moral relativity among the nuns in the aid they lend to the gang, especially at the end, and May – who abruptly gives up cigarette smoking near the start of the book, only to start scratching her head a lot – even has a sub-plot of her own, scaring off the guy who wants to sue Dortmunder in court to recover the fee he paid John to commit the failed robbery of page 1.
It would be another five years before Westlake returned to his gang of oddballs, during which he would publish six other novels, four of them under the pseudonym Samuel Holt. It was one of the ways in which he would keep the series fresh, and fend off the risk of dipping too much into self-parody. Because next time out, in the longest book of the series, Dortmunder would find himself again doing the right thing, and this time without a convent of nuns spurring him on.

Discovering Dortmunder: Why Me?

After four Dortmunder novels in seven years, there wasn’t a fifth for six years,the longest gaps between books in the series. It was a fallow period for Westlake, with only two books under his name during that period, one of them the very serious novel Kahawa. Part of the time was taken up with writing the screenplay of the rather unsuccessful comedy crime caper film, Hot Stuff for director/star Dom DeLuise, as well as a pilot episode of the unsuccessful TV series Supertrain.
So by the time Why Me? appeared in 1983, Dortmunder fans were more than ready for it. And Westlake had a brand sparkling new angle to feed them.
I must confess to having a faulty impression about this story before I came to re-read it. The slowly deteriorating relationship between Dortmunder and Kelp, with the former being increasingly reluctant to work with the latter as caper after caper crashed, is reversed in Why Me?, setting things up for the two to work harmoniously ever after. After all, Kelp comes willingly, and at no little risk to himself, to Dortmunder’s aid in this book.
But what I’d forgotten is that whatever reconciliation had taken place has already been and gone before page 1, when Dortmunder is trying to contact Kelp to invite him to join in on this little job he has set up, and which is to be the start of all his troubles.
It’s just a burglary at a jewellers, is all, out near the Airport, a jewellers with a ‘going on holiday’ sign in the window, which is practically an invitation to do your shopping whilst it’s quiet, except that partway through the job the owner pays a late visit, no lights, to put something in the safe, and leave again. Dortmunder, whose interest in that part of the world that doesn’t affect him directly is less than total, shrugs it off, opens the safe and helps himself to all manner of pricey trinkets.
Almost as an afterthought, he takes this massive ruby ring that’s obviously a fake: nothing real could be that big: maybe it’s worth something? Unfortunately, the ring is real. In fact, it’s the world famous Byzantine Fire, and it’s definitely worth something. It was being given up by the United States after ninety years to go to Greece, but all sorts of Nationalist and Terrorist organisations, Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian etc, had contradictory opinions as to the propriety of that, and the ruby had been stolen in order that a certain well-trusted and calm Greek jeweller could take it out of the country the next day. A jeweller who planned to keep the Byzantine Fire in his safe overnight. A calm man who folds and confesses the moment the FBI arrive.
Of course, Dortmunder being Dortmunder, he knows nothing of this. New York throbs with excitement over the theft of this famous diamond, the FBI, various security organisations and the New York Police collaborate (in a riven by distrust, jealousy and plain loathing manner) to find the Ruby, and the man who has it doesn’t read the papers or watch the news and doesn’t even know there’s a fuss at all.
Whilst the FBI doggedly pursue the idea of secret and competing organisations, the Police, in the form of Chief Inspector Francis X. Mologna (pronounced Maloney) have the right idea, and the might of the NYPD is turned loose upon the poor unsuspecting criminal fraternity of New York (though virtually all of it is less unsuspecting than Dortmunder).
The blitz affects everybody, very rapidly. Dortmunder narrowly escapes being swept up with the proceeds of the robbery on him, whilst he’s at his fence (a first appearance from the unloved Arnie Allbright), and when he is hauled in for questioning, just a few moments after May has broken to him that he’s the cause of all this ado, and what it is he actually stole, he’s actually got the Byzantine Fire stuck on his finger and effectively in his hand all throughout his sojourn at the station.
The real problem for Dortmunder, and the point at which Kelp unselfishly and unhesitatingly weighs in on his buddy’s side, is that all this hassle has got the backs up of the afore-mentioned criminal fraternity, as presided over by Tiny Bulcher (he didn’t go back to prison after all: the gorilla didn’t press charges).
Tiny, as we already know, is not a man-mountain that takes kindly to anyone who interferes with the smooth and efficient running of his life, and the unlucky person who has brought this shitstorm of discomfort down on Tiny is an irritation not to be borne.
Accordingly, whilst the crooks are running around looking for the guy with the diamond, the crooks are sitting very still – in the back room of the O.J. Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue, where else? – running a parallel investigation into what everybody was doing on Wednesday night. And their powers of subpoena, though not backed in any official way, are vastly more effective.
The real problem for Dortmunder is not so much that confession and restitution will considerably diminish his standing among his confreres, not to mention get him into jail for life, but that Tiny Bulcher insists on having certain dealings with the guy who’s causing all this ruckus, before handing him over to the Police.
So, with only the assistance of Andrew Octavian Kelp, Dortmunder has to work out away of divesting himself of the Byzantine Fire in such a manner as will clear his reputation as the man who everybody – police, crooks, press and all manner of fervently nationalistic and religious groups – is coming to believe has stolen it.
That’s all you’ll get from me, because how Westlake plays out this nearly impossible situation, delivering all manner of comeuppances to everyone whose behaviour deserves it, should not be marred by spoilers. Let’s just say that Dortmunder does, in the end, walk free, walk tall (even with his stooped shoulders) and with his reputation clean, and that there’s no more fallings-out with Andy Kelp so long as the series lasts.
Why Me? is effectively a two-hander, like the final part of Nobody’s Perfect, rather than a gang caper, fleshed out by a great many diversions into the concerns and actions of all the forces seeking the recovery of the Byzantine Fire. Stan Murch has a cameo role, calling Dortmunder up to consider a job he’s found, which has to be put on the back burner during the crisis, but which is still there to be picked up in the aftermath. Tiny Bulcher, as we know, has a central role, but not on Dortmunder’s side, and he ends up in hospital sick from having eaten all the crook’s files on everybody, to prevent the police getting their hands on them.
Arnie Allbright is a new addition to the list of characters in this book. Arnie, as I’ve already mentioned, is a fence. He’s Dortmunder’s regular fence because he gives the best rates, and Arnie gives the best rates because he’s such a repulsive personality, he’s got no friends, so if he didn’t give the best rates no-one whatsoever would visit him, because he repulses them so much, they’d rather go to Stoon even though he doesn’t give such top dollar.
Arnie lives in a top floor apartment in a run-down building that he seems to be doing his best to run down further. He collects calendars: they’re everywhere, every size, shape and subject, even the incompletes.
And mention must be made of the truly monstrous Chief Inspector Mologna, who, like the Security Guards from Bank Shot, is just too vivid a personality not to bring back. Mologna, a mass of old school, Irish cop prejudices, instinctively hating his FBI opponent Zachary as much as Zachary hates him, shifting his immovable belly about the place and, gloriously, refusing to let Dortmunder give the ruby back and insisting on catching him.
Westlake adds another running set-piece in the opening scene, a set-up that permeates the whole story and which goes on to be developed throughout the rest of the series. It’s a mini-masterpiece: Dortmunder rings Kelp to ask him to come on this job but Kelp doesn’t seem to be listening to him so he hangs up. It’s not until he tries a second time, and Kelp’s saying all the same things that Dortmunder realises what we immediately understood, which is that Kelp’s got an answering machine, though for why Dortmunder can’t understand. So he tries to leave a message, completely ignoring the fact that the machine is still talking to him, in fact Kelp has picked up and is trying to get through to John that it’s actually him now, though John is doggedly ignoring that detail!
It’s the beginning of Andy’s ongoing urge to not merely surround himself with all manner of energy-saving gadgets but also to surround Dortmunder with them too, in the face of John’s determination not to want, or even see the point of another one of these crazy contraptions that just make everything more complicated than it really oughta be.
But even if I misremembered the exact circumstances, Why Me? still represents something of a turning point in the series. From this point onwards, the endings do get a bit more positive. There are no great scores, no complete victories and the capers continue to run up against misfortunes and snags that turn them into pain-in-the-ass trials, but from here on there’s usually something in it, and with the next book the gang turns itself into a gang that automatically looks to its partners in whatever jobs might come up.

Discovering Dortmunder: Nobody’s Perfect

Nobody’s Perfect, which was published in 1977, continues the fun, with absurd yet strangely realistic situations and Westlake’s ear for funny yet natural lines.
The fourth book of the series has an awful lot in it: a lot of people too. There’s a bit of a Homecoming Week feel to it, especially in the Second Chorus, with return cameos for folks like Victor Kelp, Herman X and even Alan Greenwood, playing tiny but essential roles in a looping, multi-phased story that takes off in several different directions around a well-constructed and essentially linear story.
In some respects, it resembles The Hot Rock, with a stolen-then-lost valuable at the heart of it, but Westlake’s angle is far looser this time round (on the surface: the plotting is snare-drum tight). The book’s divided into musical pieces: three choruses and a bridge, with shifting casts for different sections and, uniquely, in the final part, a trip abroad. Dortmunder outside the US! In England, and Scotland.
The book starts in cracking form with Dortmunder in court. He’s been caught in mid-heist, red-handed, 100% guilty, and he’s not going back to May’s apartment any time soon. Except that, for no apparent reason, one of the most famous trial lawyers in the country sweeps into the cells, takes over Dortmunder’s case, pro bono, and, with the aid of the complete plot of a local sex film and some spectacularly hilarious court room theatre, bluffs Dortmunder out of the charge.
Naturally, there’s a catch. The catch is Arnold Chauncey: rich, handsome, well-connected, spendthrift. Periodically, Chauncey – an Art collector and connoisseur – supplements his impressive but somehow inadequate income with an insurance scam. This time, having been to that well a little too often, the theft has to be real. So Chauncey has had this expert lawyer find him two professional criminals.
One, Dortmunder, is a professional thief who will steal the painting in question, keep it until the insurers pay up, then hand it back in exchange for his fee. The other, to ensure that Dortmunder doesn’t get any ideas about selling the painting in the meantime, is a professional killer.
The painting, incidentally, is by Veenbes and is called Folly Leads Man to Ruin. The name is not without significance.
So Dortmunder goes back to the OJ to discuss matters with his string. This, of course, includes Stan Murch (who gains a physical description for the first time in four books, as a stocky, open-faced fellow with carroty hair), Roger Chefwick (clearing up that nonsense about hi-jacking a train) and a new guy, Tiny Bulcher. Tiny is a smash-and-grabber with the emphasis on the smash, a man with very high standards in his professional colleagues and a habit of explaining exactly what it is he did to colleagues who fell short of those lofty heights. In short, Tiny terrifies everyone, and Dortmunder is not being entirely facetious when he thinks of him as the beast from forty fathoms.
Tiny’s only around for the First Chorus: he turns up ten days out of jail, and shortly after the disaster, he’s on his way back. For punching a gorilla. Westlake doesn’t seem altogether too sure of his new creation but take it from me: we are looking here at the début of the fourth permanent member of the gang.
Speaking of permanent members, you will have noted the absence of a certain name from the string. Kelp’s been left out and he’s seriously offended at it. After all those jobs he’s brought Dortmunder. All those jobs that Dortmunder promptly starts to list. Nevertheless, under May’s prompting, he relents and lets Andy in.
And when the job goes wrong, it isn’t even Kelp’s fault. This time it’s down to the mark, failing on his promises to keep security off the upper floor, and to keep the elevator from being used. But the team of seven security guards – who are trying to rebuild their reputation after that disaster two years ago when the Bank they were guarding was stolen out from underneath them – insist on doing things their way, and the overcurrents (it’s all too blatant for undercurrents) of Chauncey’s dinner party send one guest howling upstairs.
So, between Dortmunder getting trapped in the elevator shaft, and the rest of the gang getting mixed up in a foyer of drunken, fighting Scots, it’s hardly a surprise that the painting goes walkabout. Which means that,in about six months time, when Chauncey has his money and starts asking for it back…
Thus ends the First Chorus. The cast changes for the Second Chorus. Chefwick retires and moves out west. Murch, who hasn’t had anything serious to do anyway, fades out. Tiny, as I’ve already mentioned, goes back inside. Dortmunder’s got maybe six months to live, but somebody’s determined that there’s got to be a way out of this, and that is Andy Kelp – who, incidentally, also acquires a physical description now, as a wiry, sharp-nosed fellow. Dortmunder, incidentally, is still only tall, thin and depressed looking.
Thanks to Victor, the possibility is raised of obtaining a top-notch forgery and selling that back to Chauncey. But the artist, Griswold Porculey (who has come to the FBI’s notice by his incredibly accurate but extremely low-productivity forging of $20 bills by hand-painting them), points out that it would be impossible to produce a forgery that good that it would fool a connoisseur owner.
On the other hand, at a Thanksgiving party in which all Dortmunder’s friends come round to talk (not to plan heists or discuss marks, just talk: it’s a strange idea), Kelp suggests that the copy doesn’t need to fool Chauncey for more than a couple of seconds, not if a gang got in and stole it just when Dortmunder was handing it over.
And if the other guy, the killer, was decoyed out of the way, and if whilst this gang was getting away, Chauncey were to catch a glimpse of the killer (played by that TV star, Alan Greenwood), and Dortmunder and May were to move overnight, it all ought to work.
Which it does, until halfway into The Bridge, when a dissatisfied Chauncey and an impatient club-footed killer who have compared notes, re-enter Dortmunder’s life.
The new complication is one of those drunken Scotsmen, Ian McDough (pronounced MacDuff, but not by anybody he meets). McDough wound up with the painting, not to mention a dead aunt (totally unrelated, move along now, nothing to see) whose ‘inheritance’ gives him the fake provenance to claim that his family has had the real original for over 150 years.
There’s nothing for it: Dortmunder and Kelp are going to have to accompany Chauncey (and the killer, Zane)  to see if there’s anything that can be done to restore the painting to its rightful, though hardly deserving owner.
The book’s Final Chorus takes place in a very well-observed and accurately described London, not to mention a long drive along all the right roads, up into the Highlands where the final scene, including as it does the arrest of a surprisingly large number of guilty parties, but not Dortmunder and Kelp (who escape by disguising themselves in suits or armour).
It’s a Dortmunder and Kelp two hander for this phase, and even with the added burden of being fish out of water away from New York (the experience of Kelp learning to drive on the right should not be missed, although Westlake’s only false note in this sequence is his apparent belief that in British cars, the gear lever, or stick-shift, comes out of the steering column, like the indicator arm), they pull off yet another great caper, only for the painting to, one more time, be stolen from them, this time by Zane for real.
The ending, when it comes, is done quickly and decisively, whipping the rug out from under a situation that was nearing the point of having no plausible get-out. By which I don’t mean to suggest that Westlake as pulled a flanker or anything, only that he’s dropped in a kind of deus ex machina, that saves the day in a manner that doesn’t really help our two crooks any.
As the story fades out, there is strong evidence that Dortmunder has decided where the blame for this farrago once again lies.
Nobody’s Perfect hasn’t been filmed, and it’s unusual story-structure and constantly shifting cast would be difficult to make work on the screen: a three part television series, maybe? It’s a long way, now, from the hard-boiled feel of The Hot Rock. Though almost everything that happens could be made to work in a serious crime story, the combination is just too improbable to work. Westlake’s hit his stride, with an exact understanding of exactly how far he can push as plausibility and still keep things real within the world of Dortmunder and Co.
But that rift between John and Andy has now reached a point from where it would be impossible to make people believe that Dortmunder would ever work with Kelp again. This much was clear to Westlake. What’s needed is something pretty convincing to change his mind. Fortunately for the series, he had the very dizzying thing right up his sleeve.

Discovering Dortmunder: Jimmy the Kid

When I first read the third Dortmunder novel, I knew very much less about Donald E Westlake that I do now, so I was ignorant for years of the magnificent in-joke that underwrites Jimmy the Kid.
A year has passed since the events of Bank Shot and Dortmunder has been studiously avoiding Kelp. It’s not that he blames Kelp for the last two disasters. I mean, he does, but more importantly, as far as Dortmunder is concerned, Kelp is a jinx. Even when he’s executing an everyday heist of furs from a clothing store, the mere presence of Kelp on the same block makes the caper go wrong, to hilarious effect.
But Kelp has an idea: of course Kelp has an idea, though he’s not keen to share the circumstances in which it came to him, involving, as it did, five days imprisonment in a town jail upstate for carrying implements. Kelp is thrusting a book on everybody, everybody here being Dortmunder and May, Murch and Murch’s Mom. No place for Victor or Herman X.
Those assembled enjoy the book to one extent or another – hell, it’s at least nice to read a crime novel in which the criminal gets away with it – but nobody sees what Kelp sees until he blurts it out. It’s not just a book. It’s got all the details, the set-up, the equipment, everything. It’s a blueprint. It’s a plan, and all they have to do it follow it.
The name of this book? Child Heist. And it’s author is Richard Stark.
Nowadays, we call this sort of thing metafiction. For those who missed the introduction, Richard Stark is a very successful pen-name for Westlake, and his series character, Parker, is the original, and decidedly serious model for Dortmunder.
Sadly, Child Heist does not exist, except in three widely-spaced chapters inserted herein, which Westlake uses, in part for context, but primarily to demonstrate the difference between a tightly plotted Parker novel and the way things happen for the Dortmunder gang (which is unfailingly but believably ridiculous). Though there’s a (possibly unintentional) undercurrent that suggests to me a commentary on the slickness of serious crime fiction, which always works perfectly, and is never hindered by unco-operative human beings caught up in their own causes, or the happenstance of real life.
Needless to say, Dortmunder won’t play ball. It’s not about Kelp-the-jinx this time, instead it’s the insult to his skills. He’s the planner, he’s the one who devises the jobs, and he’s not standing for Kelp suggesting it can be better done by some damned crime writer!
Once again, May has to wheedle him into it, though her task becomes more complicated when Dortmunder’s next job falls to pieces on him: between the final case of the joint and the night of the heist, the company goes bust and moves all its stock out, so yeah, it is still a bit about Kelp-the-jinx. But kidnapping, and kidnapping a minor at that, is serious stuff. It’s federal, which means life for everybody, and it needs Dortmunder to keep his ‘friends’ out of that hole, and also ensure that nothing happens to the kid.
So Dortmunder agrees to head things up, on the strict understanding that the book is not a blueprint, but a guide-line, a list of suggestions maybe. That the book then turns out to be an exact match for a viable caper is uncanny. And very misleading.
Because where it all starts to seriously go wrong for Dortmunder and Co. is in their selection of kidnappee. It isn’t just that Jimmy Harrington is twelve years old, instead of the eight year old of Child Heist, it’s more that he’s emotionally independent, has been in therapy for six years, has a very high IQ and, to be frank, is about three times as smart as all the rest of the gang put together.
So, leaving aside the many ways in which reality has suddenly chosen not to imitate art, hardly has the ransom demand been rung through to Jimmy’s Dad – a Wall Street broker who, unconsciously and automatically, starts to negotiate down the sum – the supposed victim has obtained the key to his locked room, worked out how to get out of it without anyone being aware how, and would be halfway back to civilisation if it weren’t pitch-black at night in the country, and pouring with rain and he’s walked in a circle back to the abandoned farm (which was so hard to find in the first place, abandoned farms being so attractive to developers and the ancestors of Yuppies).
But the gang do not take Jimmy’s sudden arrival at the back door as the omen they should, so the caper goes on to the collection of the ransom, during which things again refuse to conform to the security of Parker’s world. Harrington’s sent out in his car, which contains a rare-for-the-times mobile phone, to travel the freeway. He’s to be contacted en route and told where to drop the case of money except that, being a Wall Street broker, he’s straight onto the phone to start catching up on routine business, whilst he has a spare half hour or so, and Murch’s Mom doesn’t get through to him until he’s past the drop place, requiring him to u-turn and drive back, over the speed limit, thus attracting an irascible local speed cop whilst approaching from the wrong direction…
Suffice to say that the case with the money does eventually get into Dortmunder’s possession, though not quite in a manner that he anticipates. If only he’d looked up…
All that remains for the gang is to drop Jimmy off somewhere, safe and sound, where he can be found. Much as Dortmunder would like to do that immediately, May is not having a 12 year old being dumped on the streets of New York at night. So everyone settles in for the night, except for Jimmy, who gets out a second time and would be off home but for the fact that, unanticipated by everyone, the FBI has stuck a tracer in the case and the whole place is surrounded.
There’s only one thing for it: Jimmy has to go back, alert the gang, and get them out by his private route. After all, it’s not their fault: they’re just victims of their environment, he can see that clearly.
So everybody gets away safely, and Jimmy gets back to his Dad (via a trip to his psychiatrist first). There’s just three things left.
First is that, somehow or other, the case the gang gets away with is no longer carrying $150,000, but two pieces of brick rapped in a blanket – and a grand that Jimmy’s left them. For their time and trouble.
Second is that writer Richard Stark learns that there’s a movie coming out which is ripping off his novel Child Heist, only playing it for laughs, and gets mad. Unfortunately, Kid Stuff is an independent film directed by a thirteen year old whizz-kid named Jimmy Harrington, which is based on his real-life experiences, which can’t be copyrighted.
And lastly, a year and a half later, when Dortmunder finally agrees to do another job with Kelp-the-jinx, and it all goes wrong only it’s Dortmunder’s fault this time, the guys decide to take in a movie, having more time on their hands than they expected. Kelp’s heard about one that’s supposed to be funny, so they’ll go see that. Apparently it’s called Kid Stuff.
Jimmy the Kid, at 174pp, is probably the shortest novel of the series but its absurd premise, and the careful contrast between serious and comic approaches to it, make it one of the most concentratedly funny. Like it’s predecessors, it has been filmed, in 1982, starring Paul le Mat as Dortmunder (under that name) and child-star Gary Coleman (best known for the TV series Diff’rent Strokes and his catch-phrase “What’chu talkin’ about, Willis?”: the film appeared halfway through the series’ eight year run). It was not well-received. I saw part of it once, when it was shown during a midweek afternoon: I caught about ten minutes from somewhere in the middle that resembled nothing in the book, and which suggested the film was being played as broad slapstick. It was aimed at a child/family audience apparently, so my switching it off was only right and proper.
The story has also been filmed twice overseas, in Italy in 1976 as Come ti rapisco il pupo (literally, “As the pleasure takes you away the baby boy”) with Dortmunder renamed Elia, and in Germany in 1999 under the book’s title and Dortmunder’s own name.
As for the series in general, the cast is beginning to resolve itself into a consistent team. The gang, even with May and Murch’s Mom, still meet at the O.J. Bar & Grill, where the regulars’ bar conversations are staring to take on an increasingly familiar shape, although Rollo getting all gallant towards May is a one-off development.
You’ll have noticed the increasing tendency of Dortmunder being reluctant to work with Kelp after some of the things they’ve gone through, which isn’t all that unreasonable but, given that the two are a double-act, is a potential problem.
Let’s just say that Westlake doesn’t do anything to improve that in the next book.

Discovering Dortmunder: Bank Shot

Obviously you can’t look inside here.

A ‘bank shot’ is an American pool term for what we, over here, call a double: you know, potting the ball by doubling it off a cushion into the pocket.
There’s nothing to do with pool in the second Dortmunder novel, published in 1972, despite the running gag of Kelp practising pool shots every time he goes to the Talabwo Embassy, but the title is perfect for the set-up Westlake comes up with to reunite the Dortmunder gang, or at least three members of it.
There’s nothing to suggest how long has passed since the Balabomo Emerald job, but whilst Dortmunder’s personal circumstances have improved slightly – he is now living with May, a tall, thin chain-smoker who works as a cashier at Bohack’s supermarket: the spark of romance struck when she caught Dortmunder shoplifting – it seems that if Major Iko did ever come up with the money, it’s long gone and no-one’s really the better for it.
Dortmunder’s back on the Encyclopaedia scam although, not to put too fine a point on it, he’s about to be picked up by the cops for it, until Kelp finds him, and even then Kelp would rather argue about Dortmunder being not where he said he would be than actually get away.
The truth is, Dortmunder needs a score. He also needs something to occupy his mind and keep him from being even more morose than usual. And, despite his reluctance to get involved in one of Kelp’s ideas again, he’s got nothing else going. It doesn’t hurt to take a look, does it?
This time, the idea comes from a different Kelp, Andy’s nephew, Victor. Though he’s thirty, Victor looks so young he still gets asked for ID when in a bar. He’s also an FBI Agent, or rather a former FBI Agent, who’s been thrown out for putting in a series of memos continually suggesting the FBI should have a secret handshake so that Agents could recognise each other.
And he smiles all the time, which really gets on Dortmunder’s nerves.
Victor’s idea is the Bank Shot. The Capitalist’s & Immigrant’s Trust is knocking down one of its banks to rebuild it. During reconstruction, the business of finance is taking place in an immobilised mobile home on the other side of the street. No money is kept here overnight, except on Thursdays, when it’s late shopping. There’s a modern safe, seven security guards, it’s on a busy traffic junction with the Police Station only seven minutes away: anyone can see that a robbery just isn’t practical.
But Dortmunder’s missing the point that Victor has seen. They’re not going to rob the Bank, they’re going to steal it. As in lift up the mobile home and take it away to somewhere that bit more private, where the safe can be cracked and all that money divided into equal piles.
The very idea sees Westlake hitting that note of ridiculousness that’s the key to the Dortmunder stories. Who in their right mind would try to rob a Bank that way? Only Dortmunder and Co. And only Dortmunder and Co. would be able to devise a plan that sounds as if it might actually work.
So it’s back to the O.J. Bar & Grill to start putting it together. There’s the first, albeit brief, in a series of cross-purpose conversations among the regulars when Dortmunder arrives, the usual business over Rollo identifying the gang by their drinks and the soon-to-be-very familiar trip to the back room.
Chefwick and Greenwood are out, more or less permanently. Chefwick is impliedly inside, having hijacked a subway train to Cuba (literally, as it happens, though Westlake wisely doesn’t give us all the details),whilst Greenwood has now got a TV series. Instead, Victor gradually slips into the utility role, despite Dortmunder’s reservations, whilst the new locksmith is Herman X. This being 1972, older readers will already have worked out that Herman is black, and divides his time between personal jobs and jobs for ‘The Movement’, where the cash goes to the Brothers. There having been too many of the latter recently, Herman needs a score of his own.
On the other hand, Stan Murch is still everybody’s driver of choice.
Actually, as the plan develops, a feminine aspect is added to the team, with both May and Murch’s Mom being brought in to add colour to the eventual hiding place for the mobile home during that unfortunately extended period during which Herman is going to be working his magic upon it. Murch’s Mom is not at her sunniest: to add to the natural temperament of a New York cab-driver, she is currently pulling an insurance scam with a neck-brace that she loathes putting on.
The actual theft of the Bank is carried out with the professionalism we already associate with the gang – one of the hallmarks of the series is that these people are good at what they do, and it is through no fault of their own that things continually refuse to go exactly as is planned: did they know it was going to rain?. Even the initial hiding place for the mobile home is a stroke of genius, especially when it becomes clear that the safe is very safe indeed.
But it’s when the gang are forced into moving, and when they find an utterly ingenious and inspired new place to hide, that Westlake really turns the screw, when it becomes apparent that the perfect place to stop and quietly drill/blow holes in this super-safe is actually the worst place of all to do so, that the story turns into its seriously hilarious and somehow inevitable endgame. And, needless to say, once what money that is taken, wet and charred as some of it is, is divvied up, the take turns out to be sadly not worth it.
Bank Shot has an overall lighter feeling to it, consciously avoiding anything hard-boiled from the outset. It’s a shorter book than The Hot Rock, which a much more linear story in which all stages of the job are more closely integrated. And Westlake obviously feels more comfortable about drifting off at tangents, or approaching the storyline more obliquely: there’s a comparatively long sequence centring on the Thursday night Security Guards gearing up for their usual uneventful, card-playing evening, which establishes the Guards as just as much ordinary nebbishes as the gang,unsuspecting of the moment when the Bank is going to be ripped out from underneath them. Literally.
But Westlake hasn’t got the tone wholly right, not just yet. Herman X. is played pretty straight, but cannot escape being a symbol of his times: everything about him signals the coming edge of blaxploitation and as such he can’t be allowed to be as openly funny as the rest.
Victor, however, who also wouldn’t survive into future novels, is entirely too much of a cartoon. The FBI Agent secret handshake is a great one-off gag, but it positions the character as being just that too much of a joke. His almost unconscious habit of starting to quiz everybody he meets about their political affiliations is a considerably more subtle, and character-depictive gag, but add on that his garage has been converted into a recording studio where he single-handedly (voicedly?) creates old-style radio crime dramas, complete with sound effects, and he becomes just too much of a caricature.
But these are just stepping stones on the way to perfecting Westlake’s technique with these novels, and better is to come.
Bank Shot was filmed in 1974 with George C. Scott in the lead role of Ballentine. There are also characters named Al Karp and Victory Karp, whilst Hermann X. (with an extra ‘n’) is the only character out of the book to retain his proper name. It’s described as ‘loosely’ adapted from the novel, though the only outline references I’ve found to it do correctly identify it as being about stealing the Bank and looting it at your leisure.
I started watching it one Saturday evening but switched off after about ten minutes. Scott’s age (and intrinsic character) made him nothing like Dortmunder and the failure of any of it’s gags to make me so much as smile suggested that I wasn’t going to miss anything. Nobody online seems to suggest I was wrong.

Discovering Dortmunder: The Hot Rock

You know, it’s getting on for forty years since I first read this book: to still be laughing at the jokes this much later should give you some idea how good this story is.
It’s also the first time I’ve read the book with an analytical eye, assessing how it’s put together, and how it fares as the opening book of a series, which has led me to some intriguing discoveries.
The first thing anyone who goes on to read the entire Dortmunder series will realise is that the tone of The Hot Rock is very different from its successors. This is very often the case with series – compare Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic to any of the more recent Discworld novels – and is even more so here because this book was planned as a stand-alone.
And let’s not forget that this was originally a Parker plot. The Hot Rock was conceived as a hard-boiled crime novel, and more so than any other of its successors, its story strays not too far from that model.
Let me illustrate that by looking closely at Phase One (the novel is broken into Six Phases, each dealing with a stage of the continuing heist). We meet Dortmunder on the last day of his second prison term, escorted to the gate by the Warden, who talks about redemption but, underneath it all, has no belief that Dortmunder will change.
He’s met outside by Kelp, a colleague (these kind of people do not have friends), in a stolen car. Kelp has a job lined up. They are hired to steal the Balabomo Emerald by Major Iko, Cultural Attache at the Talabwo Embassy. Until recently, Talabwo was part of a British colony with what is now Akinzi. On Independence, the two tribes warred before splitting into separate countries. Both tribes worship the Emerald. Akinzi has it, Talabwo wants it back. It’s currently in New York, on Exhibition.
Dortmunder brings in three more men: Stan Murch, driver, Roger Chefwick, locksmith and Alan Greenwood, utility man. The gang study the museum, draw up and execute a scheme to get hold of the diamond. The plan works perfectly, up to a point: the gang get the Emerald but an alarm is set off and they have to flee. Everyone but Greenwood gets away: Greenwood is carrying the Emerald.
So far, this is a straight crime novel plot. But this isn’t that kind of book. Whilst keeping strictly to a realistic plot, Westlake makes certain that we know this is not for real by the character of the players.
It starts with the first line: “Dortmunder blew his nose.” He blows his nose into a kleenex, which he has to hold in his hand as he listens to the Warden lecturing him, all the way from the office to the gate, incidentally costing Dortmunder the $300 he was due for ‘selling’ his cell, which was going to be handed over just before he was let out. So Dortmunder shakes hands with the Warden. With the hand into which the kleenex has been soaking.
Then there’s Kelp. Kelp prefers luxury cars. Doctors have luxury cars with all the latest gadgets, like electric windows. So Kelp only steals cars with M.D. Plates. Unfortunately, he’s so busy trying to work out which switch is which, he ends up attracting Dortmunder’s attention by nearly running him down.
The rest of the gang are similarly not quite conventional when it comes to crooks: Murch is a car nut who lives with his cab-driver Mom, plays LPs of engines revving, roaring and screeching at Indianapolis and always explains what route he’s taken to get anywhere, Chefwick is a model railway nut, with an extensive home layout in his basement, and Greenwood has eyes for the ladies.
This section also includes our first visit to the O.J Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue, where we meet Rollo the barman, tall, meaty and balding, who knows his customers by their drinks, our first walk down the little passage with the payphone and the toilets, and our first meeting in the back room whose walls are invisible due to the cases stacked, leaving space for a table, a light with a reflector and a half dozen seats.
But throughout Phase One, to borrow Clive James’s words in discussing Alan Bennett, the jokes are decoration, not architecture. The plot is completely realistic, whereas the characters are just that bit off-centre. That is, until the last page of this Phase, with Greenwood trapped on a mezzanine floor, with guards approaching ahead and behind, no concealment, no cover, no escape.
So he eats the Emerald.
At that moment, the book lifts out of the realistic story and starts to follow its own, slightly skew-whiff logic. It’s not just the characters who display their idiosyncrasies, but now the plot starts to wobble off-centre. It may stay pretty close to the hard-boiled milieu throughout Phase Two, in which the gang have to break Greenwood out of prison to find out where he’s stashed the Emerald, but as soon as we learn that this is not the end of the caper, the plot breaks free of its realistic tramlines and starts to head towards improbability.
Westlake judges carefully how to up the ante at each stage. Having started with a pretty straight crime story, he takes care to make each step an extension of the earlier path until the part with the life-sized model train and the mental sanatorium becomes perfectly plausible because the ground has been so expert;y prepared.
He even puts into words the gag that sums up the whole, ridiculous story, when the crooked lawyer Andy Prosker comments that he has heard of the habitual criminal, of course, but that this is the first instance in the world of the habitual crime.
By the time the job is done, and the gang have in their hands the Balabomo Emerald, the audience is just waiting for something to go wrong. And it does. Westlake’s hinted at it in advance, so it comes as no surprise, in fact with a roar of recognition, when Iko plots a double-cross, intending to return to Talabwo with the Emerald – and Talabwo’s new Government Legal Advisor, E. Andrew Prosker – without paying the gang. Having finally got the diamond after so many efforts, Dortmunder and Co. have to steal it again. This time, from their own client.
All that trouble, and they don’t get paid after all.
Dortmunder, however, is not a planner for nothing. Iko has promised to find the money and pay them, given time, and Dortmunder knows he can rely on that. In the meantime, he turns the Emerald in at the Akinzi Embassy, not for money but in return for two things: one of Akinzi’s perfect replicas of the Balabomo Emerald, and a promise that they won’t announce they’ve got the real jewel until Dortmunder says so.
Which is going to be right after Major Iko has paid him $200,000 for a piece of glass…
The Hot Rock was an immediate success and it has stayed in print since first appearing in 1970. It was optioned and filmed, with a screenplay by William Goldman. It was the first of five films (so far) to have been made from Dortmunder novels, and is distinctive in being the only one to use Dortmunder’s name. It starred Robert Redford as Dortmunder, which is casting against type to say the least and, this being a Hollywood film, the ending was changed to allow the gang to get away with the Emerald themselves.
Coming out ahead, except in being still out of jail, is not going to be a common characteristic of this series.
It’s a fine start. Of course, it lacks the multitude of mannerisms, schticks and tics that the characters accumulate in future books – interestingly, there are no physical descriptions of any of the gang, with the exception of Chefwick, who is in late middle-age, skinny and short: it’s not giving away too much to say here that Chefwick doesn’t make the cut into the second book of the series, Bank Shot.
But overall, The Hot Rock does everything to establish the laconic, pared down, low-life world of Dortmunder and Co. If it’s more serious and hard-boiled here than the series as a whole, if the gang are more prone to wield guns and threaten (though not actually perform) harm than they are later, if the plot is more serious than the story, it’s still a superb, and very funny book for all those contradictions.

Discovering Dortmunder – Introduction

One of Westlake's many crime novels
One of Westlake’s many crime novels

I’ve just gone hang-the-expense crazy on Amazon (1p plus P&P) and bought the crime fiction collection Transgressions, edited by Ed McBain.
I’m not generally a crime fiction fan. I’ve read and enjoyed many crime books and series – McBain’s 87th Precinct stories for one, and the late Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe books, but overall it’s a take-or-leave field for me. Indeed, I’ve only bought Transgressions for one of the dozen stories collected, “Walking Around Money”, by the late Donald E Westlake.
Westlake was a very prolific writer, with over 100 novels to his name, including those published under a variety of pseudonyms. He died on New Year’s Eve 2008, still far less well known in the UK than he deserved to be. In his native America, he was tremendously successful, Grand Master of the National Crime Writers Association, and one of only three writers to win the prestigious Edgar Award three times, and the only one to do so in three different categories (Best Novel, Best Short Story, Best Screenplay).
Like many writers of his generation, Westlake made his first sales in the 1950s dirty book industry, writing soft porn novels at a rate of one a month, under the bland pseudonym of Alan Marshall. He later used this experience to great effect in the painfully funny novel Adios Scherezade, which was the first of his books that I read, and which is still my favourite of all his work.
Then, in the early Sixties, he gained attention and success with his series of hard-boiled, stripped down books about the professional thief, Parker, under the pen-name Richard Stark. The Parker books are still selling today, and the recent Jason Statham film Parker is adapted from this series.
When Westlake began to establish himself under his own name, in the mid-Sixties, his work took on a quirky, comic aspect. He was still an expert at depicting the criminal world, its mindset and its characters, but his books would focus upon losers and oddballs, nebbishes and innocents, dragged into situations beyond their control. He would frequently experiment with form, in order to enhance the laughter he could quickly induce.
Adios Scherezade is an unusual, but superb example of what Westlake could achieve. The story is told, literally, by Ed Topliss, in an increasingly obsessive series of fifteen page Chapters, most of which are headed and numbered Chapter One.
Ed, a (very) average New Yorker, writes dirty books for a living. One a month, each to the formula of 150 pages, divided into ten 15 page chapters, with one sex scene per chapter. He writes a chapter a day for ten days every month, and does nothing the rest of the time.
Unfortunately, when Ed’s friend Paul – a real writer – offered him the chance to ghost write Paul’s series whilst Paul went on to write real books, he gave Ed a warning: nobody can write this shit forever. Ed wasn’t listening: he was too busy staring at Paul’s girlfriend’s mini-skirted thighs. But, thirty months later, Ed is realising that Paul was right. His last three books have been increasingly late. If he blows a fourth deadline, he’s out, and that means no income, nothing he can do, and a wife and daughter to support.
But the deadline is in twelve days, Ed’s only just finished the one before, and he’s dry. Not an idea in his head, facing disaster, and desperately writing something, anything, in fifteen page chapters in the hope it will trigger something he can use, as the immensity of his disaster builds up around him.
It’s a painfully funny book in both meanings of the phrase: it can be so funny that it hurts to laugh, but it’s also a book that finds laughter in an improbable but all-too-real situation of real pain. And Westlake’s knowledge of the dirty book industry is put to use in establishing the authenticity of this book.
The same year, Westlake published another crime novel, The Hot Rock. The story was started in 1967 as another Richard Stark/Parker book, one in which Parker would be hired to steal a diamond with religious significance on behalf of an African nation. Unfortunately, due to a series of unforeseen events, the jewel would stay out of reach, requiring Parker and his team to go through a series of plans to get hold of it.
The book got only so far before Westlake realised that it was just not possible: Parker was a strict professional, and he would have soon given up, refusing to throw good time after bad. Besides, whatever he tried to do, Westlake couldn’t keep the story from developing a funny streak.
So he put it in a drawer and forgot about it for two years, until he found it again, re-read it and liked the premise. All it needed was a suitable protagonist, a kind of anti-Parker who, like the original, would be a professional criminal, a planner, very successful, but dogged by misfortune, and by the company he keeps.
And when Westlake saw a billboard advertising the popular DAB beer by using it’s full name, Dortmunder Action Bier, he had a name for his character.
The Hot Rock was a big success, and was optioned and filmed within eighteen months, starring (incongruously) Robert Redford and George Segal in the leading parts, although in Britain it was billed as How to Steal a Diamond (in Four Uneasy Lessons).
The book was intended as a one-off, but Westlake liked his little band of hapless and somewhat quirky crooks, and he was delighted to resurrect them in 1972, for a sequel titled Bank Shot, which was equally popular.
For the rest of his career, every few years he would produce a new novel featuring Dortmunder, Kelp, Murch and a slowly growing cast of professionals who, each time, would find themselves in another, frequently improbable, but always entirely believable caper, that usually ended with the gang staying ahead of the law but not ahead of the game.
And when Westlake died, there was one completed but unpublished novel to appear posthumously, and, most fittingly, it was the fourteenth and last to feature Dortmunder. And it had a glorious idea behind it: way to leave on a high.
I’ve by no means read all Westlake’s output (though if you read the unjustly overlooked Adios Scheherezade, you’ve read all the ‘Alan Marshall’ books you could ever want.
But I’ve been collecting the Dortmunder novels for many years, and I have these and Thieves’ Dozen, a short story collection compiling all ten short stories featuring the hangdog John. It’s only lately that I’ve properly realised that there was one more story I hadn’t read, namely, “Walking Around Money”.
Transgressions has arrived, but I’m going to keep it back for a while. In the meantime, I’m going to re-read the entire collection, and only then sit down to enjoy the last Dortmunder story I’ll ever read for the first time.
And I’m going to blog the series as well, in the hope of alerting a few more people to the sheer delight of Dortmunder & Co. Keep your eyes open: I’ll be re-reading The Hot Rock very soon.