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.