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 – 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.