One day in 1967 I was wearing my Richard Stark hat, looking for a story to tell about my man Parker, and I thought, he reacts badly to frustration, what if he had to steal the same thing four or five times? I started to work it out, then realized the idea was only comic and Parker wouldn’t stand for it. But I still liked the notion, and even–once it was comic–saw how to make it six thefts of the same elusive item. So I’d do it that way.
But if it wasn’t Parker, who was it? Who was this guy, dogged but doomed, and what was his name? Without a name, I couldn’t see him, and until I could see him, I couldn’t write about him.
For a long time I just couldn’t think of the right name, and then one day, I was in a bar–the only time in my life–and one of the neon beer logos on the back-bar said “DAB–Dortmunder Action Bier,” and I said, “That’s what I want, an action hero with something wrong with him,” and John Dortmunder was born.
Donald Westlake, from his introduction to the Mysterious Books reprint of The Hot Rock.
Oh, I dream about being Bugs Bunny, but when I wake up, I’m Daffy Duck.
It’s 1970. For ten years now, Donald Westlake has been writing and publishing crime novels–almost thirty in ten years. He started out publishing some pretty dark and bloody work in that genre, under his own name, but early on he began to distill two very different voices out of this approach, which he published under pseudonyms–the spare unemotional Richard Stark, and the confessional guilt-ridden Tucker Coe. If you’re out to read Westlake’s best work of the 1960’s, you’re mainly reading books bearing those two names.
But about halfway through the decade, he stumbled upon a third voice–the comic voice–which turned out to be his most successful in terms of book sales, and ended up being the only voice he employed under his own name for quite some time to come. In the 60’s he mainly wrote these comic crime novels in the first person, and the Coe books as well–while Stark played it closer to the vest in the third person.
His only comic novel written in the third person to this point had been The Busy Body, a frenetic farce about a luckless criminal trying desperately to outmaneuver the slings and arrows of his own outrageous fortune, and complaining loudly about it all the way through (Who Stole Sassi Manoon? is also in the third person, but he’d originally written it in screenplay form, and that book is terrible).
As Stark, he had mainly written about Parker, who was known to laugh occasionally, but never at himself. As an attempt at counterpoint, perhaps, he wrote several novels about Parker’s partner in crime, Alan Grofield, who kept up a never-ending patter of sardonic commentary, rather like Groucho Marx (or if you prefer, Spider-man), partly as a way of keeping people off-balance. Like the kvetchy protagonist of The Busy Body, Grofield had a tendency to be a mite aggrieved with his own often-uncertain fate, but took a more positive attitude, overall.
And why shouldn’t he? He was handsome, talented, successful with women, and usually walked away with a nice bundle of loot. He was, in short, a bit too cool for school–fun to read about, but never really funny. Stark, being a romantic, could not let his heroes become comic figures. His protagonists are too self-possessed to be clowns. There’s no comedy in a man who knows what he is.
No, comedy comes from identity confusion–which is why Westlake could succeed as a comic writer with his ‘Nephews’–young men caught up in ridiculous and usually life-threatening situations, that ended up teaching them who they were–the comedy of the picaresque, and while Westlake never measured up to the standards of Dickens, Fielding, or Twain in this area, he did pretty well, producing several first-rate books–only the thing about picaresque characters is that once you’ve told their stories, there’s not much more you can do with them. They don’t really lend themselves to sequels.
The ultimate writer of comic sequels was, of course, P.G. Wodehouse, who did his share of picaresque one-shot protagonists, but also created hugely successful series characters like Bertie Wooster–who were incapable of ever really learning anything about themselves. Who even in the most absurd scenarios, always took themselves quite seriously–and were all the more hilarious for it. Who never see the humor in their situations, because that’s your job.
And who were, of course, surrounded by a coterie of comic companions, each equally memorable in his or her own right. For this type of farce, you need a sort of revolving repertory cast, who readers will greet in turn with cries of joyful welcome, anticipating the chuckles and guffaws to come. Oh, and of course they need to have funny names. What makes a name funny? If you could explain it, it wouldn’t be funny.
Self-evidently, The Hot Rock shares a common origin with The Black Ice Score–Westlake had started out writing a story where Parker would steal the same item over and over again, but Parker simply didn’t bend that way (Westlake would later write a study in professional frustration for Parker that succeeded very well, and is not the least bit comic in nature, but we’ll get to that in the fullness of time). It’s the same basic set-up, African politics and all, but the books could not be much more different from each other. And not for the last time, the comic heister surpassed his somber cousin. Or rather, the coyote surpassed the wolf.
Yes, Dortmunder is a coyote in human form. Well, don’t act so surprised, you must all know by now how much I love this type of metaphor–only I don’t quite see it as that–my meaning is somewhere between the figurative and the literal, as are Parker and Dortmunder themselves. Dortmunder is more seemingly human than the hard-eyed lupine Parker, his emotional reactions easier to comprehend, if only because we always find it easier to identify with comic foils. But underneath, he’s looking at the rest of us with this expression that says “You’re all crazy. I’m the only sane one there is.” That’s very Parker, and that’s because Dortmunder is the opposite side of the same coin–not the idealized beast of prey, the antihero, but rather the trickster and buffoon. Latrans, not Lupus.
The first Americans loved to tell stories of Coyote–who might take the form of the actual animal, a normal-looking man, or some hybrid of the two (they saw more clearly than us how thin the line between man and beast was)–and who was always getting himself into trouble. Always stealing something from the gods, from other beasts, or from men–always another scheme, frequently self-defeating, but ingenious for all that.
And when sufficiently aggravated, Coyote could be quite formidable–he might set himself against the most powerful opponents and come out on top. Often a figure of fun in the stories about him, Coyote always has the potential to transform himself in moments of high inspiration into The Trickster Incarnate. And when he does, the gods themselves might do well to fear his wrath. Reversals of fortune–in either direction–are his stock in trade. He is a child of luck, bad and good. And you never know which it’s going to be.
Long before Dortmunder, even before Looney Tunes, the great silent clowns had embodied this mythic type of comedy in modern form–Chaplin, Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, but most of all Keaton. The Great Stone Face–caught up in the machinery of life, alternately struggling against it and learning to work with it, but never once laughing at his troubles, because IT’S NOT FUNNY. We beg to differ, but we love him for refusing to see the joke, or at least to dignify it with a rueful grin (Dortmunder would not be quite so facially inflexible, but he came close at points).
And somehow, whenever Buster sees a cop, he ends up sidling nonchalantly away–then trotting–then running–because policemen, and authority figures in general, unerringly identify him as an instigator of chaos, their rightful prey, and set off in hot pursuit. There’s nothing anybody can do about it. It’s the natural order of things.
So not surprising that when we first meet John Dortmunder, he’s just getting out of prison, and suffering through a well-intentioned lecture from the warden, knowing all the while that he’s just going to go back to his thieving ways, because that’s his place in life. One wonders what he was like beforehand–we know that Stark protagonists can’t bear imprisonment–it eats away at their sense of self, breaks them down. Dortmunder seems to have survived two long spells of incarceration better than Parker or Grofield would have, but it still must have taken its toll.
One thing that strongly separates Dortmunder from Parker is that we learn a great deal about his background, thanks to one character’s compulsive need to compile dossiers on people he works with. We not only know his real last name, we even know his middle name (funny, of course).
In terms of facts, Major Iko knew quite a bit about John Archibald Dortmunder. He knew that Dortmunder was thirty-seven years of age, that he had been born in a small town in central Illinois, that he had grown up in an orphanage, that he had served in the United States Army in Korea during the police action there but had been on the other side of the cops-and-robbers game ever since, and that he had twice been in person for robbery, the second term having ended with a parole just this morning. He knew that Dortmunder had been arrested several other times in robbery investigations, but that none of these arrests had stuck. He knew that Dortmunder had never been arrested for any other crime, and that there didn’t even appear to be any rumors concerning any murders, arsons, rapes, or kidnappings that he might have performed. And he knew that Dortmunder had been married in San Diego in 1952 to a night-club entertainer named Honeybun Bazoom, from whom he had won an uncontested divorce in 1954.
That’s more background data in one paragraph than we got about Parker in 24 novels. Making the reasonable supposition that the book takes place at the time it was published, his age would put his birth year at around 1933–same year Westlake was born (hmm!). Parker would have been born maybe 1927-28, and served in WWII in his very early teens, which as I’ve remarked in past is not that hard to believe with regards to that war–there are many documented cases.
Dortmunder would have been just about legal age to join the army when the Korean ‘police action’ began–I guess the orphanage could have given consent for him to sign up at 17? He was almost certainly drafted, in any event. Though I guess if he did join of his own volition, that experience could have taught him never to volunteer for anything. But he keeps right on getting forced to participate in operations he wants no part of, throughout the series. Early life patterns, once established, can be damnably persistent over time.
I’ll be synopsizing the book in Part 2 (Hey, Parker always gets a Part 2! Fair is fair!), but will mention now that it’s remarkable to me how many elements of the series as a whole were established right from the start. Just as he walks out of the prison, Dortmunder meets up with Andy Kelp–his #1 fan, and single biggest headache–and often I’ve wondered who Westlake used as the model for him. I’m going to guess a fellow writer, and leave it at that–there’s a fair few potential candidates. Kelp isn’t that well-developed in the first book, but all the basic elements are there, up to and including his penchant for stealing cars with MD plates.
We also meet the stoic barkeep Rollo, of the O.J. Bar and Grill–and how many times have I walked down Amsterdam Avenue in the 80’s, hoping to run across it? If I won the Lotto (which I never play), I’d be strongly tempted to create it–much further uptown, of course–Harlem maybe, or Washington Heights–it makes sense to me that it would shift location, fleeing an increasingly unsatisfactory clientele. That section of Amsterdam is all glitzy singles bars now–back in 1970, that was a real blue collar working class nabe, seedy and low-rent. Westlake couldn’t have known that it would transform itself almost overnight into an overpriced yuppie enclave in the late 70’s (I oughta know, I was living there when it happened). But as the years passed, the O.J. somehow survived, a timeless relic of the past, as is Dortmunder himself. A rebel against ‘progress’ at all times, is our John.
We also meet the redoubtable getaway car driver, Stan Murch, and his even more impressive cab driver of a mom (would any Richard Stark heister ever live with his mother? And like it?)–also the less frequently appearing Alan Greenwood, who in the course of the book’s events is forced to change his name to Grofield. He’s not really that much like Stark’s Grofield, other than his eye for the ladies (he has to work a lot harder than Stark’s Grofield to land them), but Westlake delighted in pointing out the odd connections between these two felonious fictional universes he’d created.
Dortmunder was no more supposed to be a series character than Parker, originally–at least if Westlake is to be believed. After having come up with Parker, Tobin, and (in short story form) Levine, Westlake probably felt like it was time to liberate himself of the albatross of series fiction–having to keep coming up with new ways of writing the same story–he was always wary of being pigeon-holed.
But the book sold too damned well for him to let the character go–there were other stories to tell about him, though he ended up with slightly over half as many novels as Parker (and some very good short stories, including Westlake’s one and only Edgar winner in that category). Comedy–good comedy–is a lot harder to write than a straight crime novel. Building from one gag to the next, keeping it all logical within certain boundaries–writing all those Nephew books, and that one lousy comic caper about a movie star’s kidnapping, had prepared him for this. He’d merely been a journeyman humorist before–with Dortmunder, he became a master of the art. He had the characters, the voices–and the audience to sustain them, while he fleshed them out, made them a bit more vivid and alive with each book, until the thought of a world without Dortmunder & Co. became unbearable.
And yet at times he seems to have begrudged Dortmunder the time and effort he could have spent on other books. He was increasingly eager to branch out, test his wings, write fiction that couldn’t be so easily categorized. And he did, frequently–the 70’s were, in many ways, his most creative period. But I think having Dortmunder to keep coming back to kept him honest, in a way–particularly in that long gap between the sixteenth and seventeenth Parker novels. Writers don’t always know what’s good for them, which is why we the readers have to keep telling them–otherwise, A. Conan Doyle might have spent much more of his career writing turgid historical romances about the Hundred Years War.
One last point, before I break this off, and start work on Part 2–Westlake was fond of saying that Dortmunder lived much more in the real world than Parker. I don’t agree. Parker certainly lives in a brutally romanticized reality, where he gets away with far too much, and Parker himself is an impossible creature–an amalgram of man and wolf that I don’t believe exists in reality, though I’m sure there must be those few who come close at times.
Westlake said that if Parker was robbing a bank, he’d find a convenient parking spot right in front, but if Dortmunder was robbing the same bank, he’d have to park several blocks away. Fair enough, but when Dortmunder robs a bank in The Hot Rock, he does so by means of a hypnotist called Miasmo the Great. Earlier in the book, he employs a helicopter–to rob a police station! Then he mounts an assault on a mental institution via a portable locomotive. This is the real world? Parker’s heists, even the wildest of them, could actually happen in the real world–and have. Dortmunder’s could only happen in a Dortmunder novel–or maybe a Rube Goldberg cartoon–his stories are no more realistic than Buster Keaton’s–and no less believable when you’re engrossed in them.
The difference is Dortmunder himself–he’s more real than Parker, because he’s closer to us–and to his creator–in his reaction to his many misfortunes. Parker has endless runs of bad luck–much worse than Dortmunder’s–think of all the times he gets betrayed, shot, left for dead–and he takes them all with a stoicism that the philosopher Zeno might envy. Nothing like this ever happens to Dortmunder, whose colleagues (with one noteworthy exception) are all deathlessly loyal and steadfast–perhaps a bit reluctantly so, at times, but they stick by him, through thick and thin. Dortmunder experiences fewer real calamities than Parker, but many more embarrassments–he’s the comic foil that Parker steadfastly refused to be. Dortmunder would refuse if he could, but he’s not allowed to. He was made for this life.
And you can almost see him casting the occasional aggravated sideways glance at his creator–“you wouldn’t do this to the other guy.” No, he wouldn’t. But he would do a lot worse, knowing the other guy could take it. The younger of his kleptomaniacal alter egos he treated much more protectively. Like a father shields his prodigal son from the consequences of his mistakes–but rejoices all the more when the screw-up makes good, as Dortmunder so often did (he actually heisted a LOT more money than Parker per book, believe it or not–then blew it at the racetrack).
Parker lives outside the world of men–only visiting it to gain the necessary cash to sustain his abstracted wolfish lifestyle–but Dortmunder–like the coyotes who have invaded America’s urban spaces–is a creature of this crazy modern world we live in, forced to march to its beat, however out of step he may be.
And he takes insults much more personally than Parker ever did. Parker will just kill you if you cross him in some materially significant way–one way or other, your troubles will be over. Dortmunder, if he gets angry enough, will make you wish you were dead. Over and over, we’ll see him strip some wealthy powerful tormentor of everything, and leave him naked to the wind–the Trickster Incarnate is not to be taken lightly when he takes his aspect upon him, and directs the full force of chaos against you. And then, of course, he goes back to being the same poor schmuck he was before. Power doesn’t stick to him, any more than money does.
Laugh at him if you will, ye mighty of the earth, but the last laugh shall be his. Because much as he may not know it, he is our champion–Robin Hood in a shabby suit, carrying a Smith & Wesson Terrier in place of a longbow, marshaling his not-so-merry men to some new enterprise of great pith and moment, whose currents often turn awry and lose the name of action. But we the readers feel merry, watching them stubbornly ply their trade. Because thieves though they are, they’re our thieves. The heisters of our discontent.
For the eight years, Donald Westlake had dreamed that he was Parker. But then he woke up and he was John Dortmunder.
Aren’t we all?
See you in a week or so.