Discovering Dortmunder: Get Real


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 He left behind one completed but unpublished novel.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

Discovering Dortmunder: What’s So Funny?


What’s So Funny?, the thirteenth Dortmunder novel, was the last to be published in Donald Westlake’s lifetime. In keeping with the prolificity with which he was getting Dortmunder ideas, it appeared in 2007, only two years after Watch Your Back. It’s a fairly simple story, divided into two phases, and maintaining its theme throughout, and it ends with one of the most satisfying twists in the whole series.
Once again, the story begins at the O.J., where things are not as expected. Dortmunder comes out of Pointers to find the regulars silent, Rollo distracted and Andy Kelp signally ignoring him (with the bottle of Our Own Brand Bourbon). This time it’s not the Mafia in the bar, but instead a Cop. Or a Was a Cop Until Seventeen Months Ago And Now a Freelance, but everybody agrees that it takes at least three decades for the stigma to elapse.
The Cop – let’s start referring to him as Johnny Eppick For Hire, that being the name on his business card – is here for someone. Inevitably, it’s Dortmunder, though given a free choice, Dortmunder would rather sit down in Ohio than in a booth with this Cop. But Eppick has two things: the first being a commission from a rich gent to retrieve an expensive item of family interest, for which an ingenious, non-violent crook is to procure from its recently discovered resting place, and the second being incriminating evidence of John Dortmunder shopping for computers at an hour when no other customers, nor staff, come to think of it, were about.
The fact that the job is utterly and completely impossible to do has very little effect on either Eppick for Hire, or his aged, ailing but still mentally agile patron, Mr Hemlow: nor can Dortmunder exercise his constitutional right to clear out to Chicago where no-one knows him, given the willingness of cops to co-operate via the Internet.
The object of all this coercion is one of the most valuable objects Dortmunder has been asked to steal, a solid gold chess set, inlaid with jewels, originally created as a gift for Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Unfortunately, the delivery date was 1917, when the Tsar was otherwise engaged. However, during the illegal,unacknowledged and decidedly dodgy post-1918 war against the Bolsheviks, ten US soldiers found the chess set and made plans to remove it to the States, where they could make it the foundation of their fortunes.
Until their Sergeant, Abel Northwood, disappeared with the entire chess set, robbing his nine men of their fantastic future.
The whereabouts of this fantastic item has been unknown for decades, during which time Hemlow – son of one of the disappointed men – has made a fortune of his own by becoming a genius inventor. But now his granddaughter Fiona, a very lowly lawyer at a very high law firm, has found the chess set.
Her firm represents the elderly Mrs Livia Northwood Wheeler, one of seventeen descendants of Abel Northwood, and heirs to his substantial fortune. But the Northwoods, and Livia in particular, are contentious and litigious folk, continuously suing and counter-suing each other and everybody else. One of the assets about which everybody is suing is the chess set, and it’s so contentious that it’s been placed into the joint custody of several of the relevant law firms, and is, in fact, in the intensely protected sub-basement of Fiona’s firm.
Fiona, being a bit of a history buff, has passed the story onto her grandfather, who has decided to put the snatch on the chess set, for the family.
Yes, it’s all a bit of an elaborate back-story, but at least the scene is set and, like Dortmunder, you will have understood that the job of entering this electronic pass-protected, heavily guarded, limited access, uptown vault and exiting it with a solid gold chess set that is too heavy for one man to lift, is simply not on.
If they could only engineer a situation where the chess set had to be brought out of that sub-basement to somewhere with less security…
Dortmunder is, however, forced to go through the motions. Fiona, despite her status as an officer of the court and her utter refusal to assist any criminal act, does provide Dortmunder with as much information as possible (which only goes to support the status quo ante). Unfortunately, the knowledge she has only feeds her compulsion, which leads her to overstep the mark by directly addressing Livia Northwood, just having to have some communication with the ‘enemy’.
As a consequence, she is fired without references, and a remorseful Hemlow calls off the hunt, much to Dortmunder’s relief and Eppick’s frustration, a frustration exacerbated when the offices of Eppick For Hire are neatly cleaned out by a professional burglar. Everything is removed: even the evidence against Dortmunder.
Thus ends part 1, “Knight’s Errand”, during which very little has happened, though Westlake has kept things moving along nicely, and with a lot of comic touches in and amongst the cast, which includes Judson Blint as an accepted, but still in training member of our favourite gang. Fiona’s involvement is an appropriate diversion from the main line, but there’s a seemingly irrelevant tangent surrounding the intended hiding place for the purloined chess set, a compound in upstate New York. This has been invaded by two post-High School slackers, who are systematically eating all the frozen food and screwing incessantly in undeserved comfort, who overhear this plan to bring in a gold chess set.
The story is not, however, finished, and part 1, “Pawn’s Revenge”, picks things up three months later. Fiona Hemlow has not suffered from losing her job, far from it: she is now Mrs Wheeler’s personal assistant and much happier as a result. Unbeknownst to her, Jay Tumbril, who fired her, is suspicious that a scam is being set up. He hires a top-flight Private Agent (Jacques Perly, who appeared in The Road to Ruin) to investigate and, when Fiona proves to be squeaky clean, start looking at her live-in cartoonist boyfriend, Brian.
But Mrs W hasn’t forgotten the chess set, and decides to set Fiona onto researching it: where did it come from? What was its provenance before Abel Northwood first put it on display in 1948? Concealing her private knowledge, Fiona discovers that there is no information whatsoever. And that one rook is several pounds lighter than the other. There’s nothing for it but to have the chess set out for examination.
This puts the caper back on again, and Dortmunder signs up to take a crack. The chess set is to be moved to Perly’s high-security offices, by means of an elaborate transport plan (included Police cooperation from our old friend Chief Inspector Francis X. Mologna, pronounced Maloney) with detailed schedules, the very details of which are obtained by Dortmunder when a preliminary casing of the exterior of Perly’s offices goes badly wrong, and a disoriented John ends up breaking in accidentally.
The plan is simple: get into Perly’s offices ahead of time, intercept the delivery and drive away. Unfortunately (it’s like an old friend, that word) a number of things go wrong. First, Perly gets twitchy and turns up an hour early, leading to a superb Marx Brothers-esque scene as five conspirators get themselves out of the office without being seen.
Then everything goes so swimmingly with the rest of the plan that they decide not to wait until 2.00am to move and turn up nearly an hour ahead of schedule (much to the disgust of Dortmunder and Co, who are playing poker to pass the time).
And then finally the truck carrying the chess set turns out to be just too big for the tight turn on the ramp from the parking garage and gets stuck. This inspires a brilliant piece of improvisation by Dortmunder, who casts the gang as internal security, cons the travelling security into transferring the chess set into a smaller truck, which can get the gold upstairs once the big truck has been backed out, but which, unaccountably, locks the garage door shut and drives off.
There’s an awful lot of fall-out to be dealt with, especially as Jay Tumbril is still convinced that Fiona and Brian are behind everything. But Fiona is too canny and Brian too traumatised to give away anything incriminating,and when Perly’s evidence of their being led by a ‘tough old broad’ turns out to be Mrs W wearing a masquerade costume, the case collapses like an undercooked souffle.
But despite all the evidence to the contrary, there are once again no happy endings. Sadly Fiona learns that the Northwoods haven’t finished stealing from her family, whilst her grandfather, after waiting so long for just a glimpse of the fabled chess set, suffers a sad loss almost immediately after.
And Andy Kelp’s propensity for Doctor’s cars play a strange part in the ultimate, and some would say appropriate, destiny of Tsar Nicholas II’s chess set.
The curious thing about What’s So Funny? Is that Westlake originally set out to write about a completely different heist, one brought to the table by, of all people, Stan Murch (drivers do not bring in jobs). Stan’s idea also involved gold, being the removal of the dome from a mosque whose construction was being held up by New York’s way of doing things. The dome is fifteen feet across and twelve feet high. It is, of course, impossible to steal, which is why Westlake didn’t take that plot any further, but he did use it as the reason everyone was in the O.J. to begin with. And Stan got over it. Eventually.
This is, when you think about it, a pretty slim story kept buoyant by the characters and their habits. There’s an awful lot of background in the foreground, which is another late-series characteristic: we are here for the show and the plot is merely a link that justifies our favourites doing their respective souflethings. But it’s an engaging and funny book, and the set-up is a new twist from the ever-inventive Westlake, and everybody makes you laugh, and on the whole this is a pretty good book.
Unfortunately, there would only be one more to come.

Discovering Dortmunder: Watch Your Back


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