Discovering Dortmunder: Watch Your Back


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

Discovering Dortmunder: 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.