Review: The Hot Rock, Part 2

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An ideally good gag, perfectly constructed and played, would bring the victim up this ladder of laughs by cruelly controlled degrees to the top rung, and would then proceed to wobble, shake, wave and brandish the ladder until he groaned for mercy. Then, after the shortest possible time out for recuperation, he would feel the first wicked tickling of the comedian’s whip once more and start up a new ladder.

From Comedy’s Greatest Era, by James Agee

“Nice doggy,” Dortmunder said.

The German Shepherd wasn’t buying any.  He stood in front of the stoop, head down, eyes up, jaws slightly open to show his pointy teeth, and said “Rrrrrr,” softly in his throat every time Dortmunder made a move to come down off the porch.  The message was clear.  The damn dog was going to hold him here until somebody in authority came home.

“Look, doggy,” Dortmunder said, trying to be reasonable, “all I did was ring the bell.  I didn’t break in, I didn’t steal anything.  I just rang the bell.  But nobody’s home, so now I want to go to some other house and ring the bell.”

“Rrrrrr,” said the dog.

Dortmunder pointed to his attaché case.  “I’m a salesman, doggy,” he said.  I sell encyclopedias.  Books.  Big books.  Doggy?  Do you know from books?”

The dog didn’t say anything.  He just kept watching.

“All right now, dog,” Dortmunder said, being very stern.  “Enough is enough.  I have places to go, I don’t have the time to fool around with you.  I’ve got to make my rent money.  Now, I’m leaving here and that’s all there is—” He took a firm step forward.

“Rrrrrrrr!” said the dog.

Dortmunder took a quick step back.  God damn it, dog!” he cried.  “This is ridiculous!”

The dog didn’t think so.  He was one of those by-the-book dogs.  Rules were rules, and Dortmunder didn’t rate any special favors.

From The Hot Rock, by Donald E. Westlake

In many ways, The Hot Rock reads like a Richard Stark novel.  Which isn’t surprising, given that it started out as one.  I’ve said several times already that the first two Grofield novels feel like Westlake ghost-wrote them for Stark–I would not go so far as to say Stark ghost-wrote this book for Westlake (nor do I really think Westlake was the literary equivalent of Sybil Dorsett, though he and his third wife both made jokes to that effect).

No, this is decidedly a Westlake, but one with a distinctly Stark-ian flavor and cadence–a hybrid approach that succeeds on many levels.   The prose is simpler, the dialogue more terse, the narrator much less inclined to extemporize.  Westlake hadn’t written much in the third person under his own name by this point.   He’d only written one heist book under his own name before now, and he knew that book had not been one of his crowning glories.  It’s not surprising he’d fall back on what he’d learned writing the Parker novels–for what is, in essence, an informal send-up of those books.

But not a true parody–not an attempt to mock the seriousness of Stark (the third Dortmunder came close to being a Stark parody, but we’ll worry about that when we get there).  Rather an attempt to loosen up, have fun with the same subject matter–the playful passage I quote up above is not something Stark would have written under any circumstances.  Stark wouldn’t see the humor in that situation with the dog at all.  Westlake sees the humor in just about everything.  This is the primary point of difference between them.

Stark would never put Parker in that situation–if Parker was confronted by a dog, the dog would end up dead (and Parker would not be peddling encyclopedias door to door).  Dortmunder yearns futilely for a club to beat the dog senseless with, but we know he’s never going to do that. When it comes right down to it, Dortmunder’s never going to hurt anybody–over 14 novels, he periodically threatens physical violence, and never follows through–he’s in one fist-fight that I can recall–from a much later book–and loses it.   Oh, and he hits Kelp now and again, but you can hardly blame him.

He’s not afraid to fight, if he’s got to–he certainly knows how–but violence isn’t really his thing–it’s there gathering dust at the bottom of his toolkit, often referred to, rarely employed.   A wolf in human form like Parker may relish a bit of close combat on occasion.  A coyote in human form like Dortmunder knows the better part of valor.

And this is something we love about Dortmunder.   He’s every bit as no-nonsense as Parker, but he’s so much less dire.  So much more like us, little as he’d like to hear it.  He doesn’t see the humor in his situation at all; he resists being made the constant butt of cosmic jokes, but in the main he simply rails against his misfortunes, indignantly complains about them to whomever might listen (even a dog)–in a word we shall ever be indebted to the Yiddish language for, he kvetches.  And that gives us license to laugh, not so much at him as at the absurdity of existence, and the perversity of fate.  At ourselves, really.

Stark did put Grofield in a situation where he was confronted by a menacing German Shepherd (on a leash), who looked longingly at his throat–in The Dame.  Grofield conversationally remarks “Hello, Fido”, similar to Dortmunder–if a bit more ironical.

But where Parker would have had to fight the dog, and Dortmunder simply stands there looking frustrated, Grofield avoids the conflict, walks right past it–the situation (which like the other two, stems from Westlake’s own obvious dread of canine-kind) goes unexploited, because the character is not sufficiently well-defined.  Grofield is an intriguing protagonist, but not really a compelling one.   He never quite did take on a life of his own.   Westlake has to tell him what to do–but a great character–a Parker, a Tobin, a Dortmunder–tells his or her author what to do.  Much simpler that way, no?

And who ends up rescuing Dortmunder from the jaws of the slavering beast?  His own fictional dimension’s equivalent of Grofield, Alan Greenwood, who will have taken the name Grofield by the end of the story.  He just tells the dog to sit, and the dog obeys.  Dortmunder would have never thought of that.  Westlake once again referring to other books of his he has no reason to assume his readers are familiar with–simply to amuse himself.   But you don’t need to have read The Dame to be amused.  Like all good in-jokes, it’s thrown in for lagniappe.

The best jokes in this book are not private ones.   Westlake has gotten the range now–he’s figured out how to be funny.   He’s not just stringing isolated gags together anymore–like the great silent comedians William Agee wrote about in the famous essay I quoted from up top, he’s going to build a framework of laughs, a precarious geometric structure of hilarity, each new gag proceeding from the previous with inexorable logic, a sort of absurdist chain reaction, where he’ll enticingly dangle the bait in front of his characters, then jerk it out of their reach, over and over.

He wants to test their mettle–their professionalism, their camaraderie–but also their capacity to absorb punishment–to gaze sadly at us, like Oliver Hardy after an especially humiliating setback, and silently ask “Was this really called for?”  Then try try again.

One problem I’m going to have with the Dortmunders is that I may not always want to discuss their plots as thoroughly as I do the Parker books.  For one thing, to thoroughly explain a joke notoriously kills it.  For another, they’re generally much longer and more involved than the Parkers.  But it’s hardly a spoiler, 45 years after the book came out, to say, like the cover of that British reprint you see above, that it’s about a gang of thieves stealing the same thing over and over again.

Only that’s not quite accurate, is it?   They steal it once, and lose it before they even get out of the building.  Then they have to steal the guy who knows where it is.  Then they go where he says it is and find somebody else stole it first.  Then they have to steal that guy, and make him say where it is.   Then they finally steal it for real, only in a way no real thief ever stole anything.  Then they have to steal it again–so they can give it back to the people they originally stole it from.   That’s the book.   Contrived, yet simple–and so ingenious, no summary can ever do it justice.  You have to experience it–and I can say now with authority that the story–and the laughs–hold up to repeated readings.  Much better than Westlake’s earlier comic novels did.

The problem is never Dortmunder’s plans, all of which work to perfection.  One could argue Dortmunder is actually a better planner of heists than Parker, at least in this book.  But when things go wrong, he doesn’t seem to know how to adapt, improvise, tweak.  He’s not so good under pressure as Parker–not a great troubleshooter, which is Parker’s other talent.  When Dortmunder’s plans fall apart, he has to go back to the drawing board and start over again from scratch.  He plans, God laughs.  Oh God, how God laughs.

Dortmunder is not much of a self-starter–as a general rule, his big jobs are usually somebody else’s idea.  Also true of Parker, to be sure.   And frequently true of Donald Westlake, when you think about it.  How many of his books were originally pitched to him by someone else?  I’ll have to do a count sometime.  It’s quite a few.   Really, all the Parker novels but the first were technically Bucklin Moon’s idea.  Creativity is not such a solo venture as people often imagine.   We all bounce ideas off each other–hell, I’m only doing this blog because Nick Jones of Existential Ennui told me to, mainly so I’d stop clogging up his blog with my endless responses to him.  Hi Nick! (waves).

Dortmunder’s #1 fan, partner-in-crime, agent, life coach, and general pain in the neck is Andy Kelp, and as I think I mentioned before, I am moved to wonder who Westlake modeled him after.  He’s never very well described in this book, and his descriptions in the later entries are generally quite vague.  And yet he feels very real and vivid–almost as if Westlake has a very specific person in mind, but doesn’t want anyone to know who it is.  Well, possibly a composite.   But I bet it was a fellow writer.  Unless the character is simply a summation of mannerisms Westlake found in himself that irritated his core personality–come to think of it, he’s the only member of the string who drinks bourbon, other than Dortmunder.

One could say Kelp is to Dortmunder as Sancho Panza is to Don Quixote, but I’m not sure it isn’t the other way around.  Far from being dragged along on yet another absurd quest, Kelp is constantly exhorting his goodly knight to joust at yet another windmill, and Dortmunder keeps resisting–never successfully, but he keeps trying.  Kelp is nothing if not persuasive, and he knows a secret–Dortmunder wants to be persuaded–he needs to practice his avocation.  He can’t exist without work, and there’s only one kind of work he knows how to do.  But left to his own devices, he mainly goes out on his own to rob small appliance or jewelry stores.  Without Kelp, his heists would be rather desultory affairs.

In this book, having originally left prison vowing to the warden that he was a reformed man, knowing all the while he was going to go right back to his old ways, he gives up in mid-book–he’s had enough.   He tells his breathlessly delighted parole officer that he’s not going to associate with his felonious former friends anymore–he doesn’t tell the poor naive fellow that his idea of reform is to run short cons on householders, selling them nonexistent encyclopedias.   To him, that doesn’t even count as stealing.   A master of the mental reservation, is Dortmunder–you can tell he was raised a good Catholic boy.

Kelp knows better–Dortmunder can’t give up stealing–he just has to keep pitching, and Dortmunder will come back to the fold.  He really is Dortmunder’s alter-ego–the eternal cock-eyed optimist to Dortmunder’s confirmed pessimist.  The tech-crazy early-adopter to Dortmunder’s old school conservative, who despises change of any kind.   He’s a better thief than Dortmunder in most respects, nerveless as a sponge, slippery as an eel–but he lacks the one thing Dortmunder has–imagination.

Dortmunder can visualize a way to get at the goods, whatever the goods may be–Kelp lacks this talent.  And he knows it, cheerfully cops to it, and thus must continue to attach himself to Dortmunder, like a remora to a shark, keeping him company on his endless swim.  Whether the shark wants the remora’s company is entirely beside the point, of course.   It’s you and me to the end, pal.   Hey, any beer in the fridge?   Ya gotta love the guy.   But you can also understand why Dortmunder really doesn’t, most of the time.

In the same profession, living basically the same life, they perpetually misunderstand each other, which bothers Dortmunder quite a bit, and Kelp not at all–there in his dingy hotel room, Dortmunder tries to explain that he really is going straight, and his parole officer told him to stay away from criminal types, and this is the result–

“You don’t need me,” Dortmunder said.  “Besides, I been warned away from bad companions, and that means you bunch.”

Kelp waved his hands in negation. “That horoscope stuff doesn’t mean a thing,” he said.  “I got hooked on that stuff once, my second wife was a nut for all that.  The only fall I ever took, I did what the horoscope told me.”

Dortmunder frowned at him.  “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Horoscope,” Kelp explained.  He moved his hands like a man shuffling jigsaw puzzle pieces. “Bad companions,” he said.  “Tall dark trips.  Afternoon is good for business marriages.  All that stuff.”

Dortmunder squinted, trying to see Kelp clearly enough to understand him.  Finally he said, in some doubt.  “You mean horoscope?”

“Sure,” Kelp said.  “Naturally.”

Dortmunder shook his head, still trying to understand.  “You believe in horoscopes?”

“No,” said Kelp.  “You do.”

Dortmunder thought about that for a few seconds, then nodded heavily and said to the room at large, “I hope you guys’ll be very happy here.  I’ll let you know where to send my stuff.”  He turned and headed for the door.

So what gets him back on the job?  Well, this funniest of fictional thieves just can’t stand being laughed at.  Now, I’ve taken such an ass-backwards approach to talking about this book (plus I know most of you reading this already know the plot by heart), I haven’t even explained that this job is basically work-for-hire (which is obviously one big reason why it keeps going sour, since this is a Donald Westlake book).

Major Iko of the small fictional African country of Talabwo (the Westlake Atlas continues to grow) wants Dortmunder to steal the famed Balabomo Emerald from its current owners, the equally fictitious country of Akinzi (Dortmunder thinks that’s the guy who wrote the sex book that he could never get out of the prison library).  The Major promises to pay each member of the string thirty thousand dollars upon delivery of the emerald.  Dortmunder insists he pay living and work-related expenses as well.  He’s driving a shrewd bargain, but failing to grasp that Iko may not feel like he has to honor an agreement made with thieves.

The Major is quite a good character in his own right–increasingly befuddled by these strange men he’s hired, increasingly appalled by each new list they present to him, of needed items for the next heist–each successive job is a bit more complex, a bit more absurd–but he’s got to go along with it, because he’s hooked.   He’s set out to get something very valuable for as little money as possible, but like so many people who hire outside contractors have learned, in for a penny, in for a pound.  He’s like the villagers in the famous story of the Stone Soup, only the stone is an emerald, and he ends up in the soup himself.

When Westlake told a different version of this same story in The Black Ice Score, the Africans were treated very sympathetically, and the story ended up being about colonialism and African politics.   This is a Dortmunder story, taking place in a much less grim reality, and the Major’s race and nationality are not really important.  We’re all just God’s clowns, right?   The Major’s ultimate fate is probably not going to be a happy one, but mortality is rarely witnessed in the pages of a Dortmunder book.  The primary casualty is usually pride.

So anyway, back to my point–Dortmunder knows he’s being made fun of–he can’t always figure out by whom.  The author of his misfortunes is safely out of his reach (lucky for the author).  But give him a target for his righteous indignation, and that target is in trouble.  First a shyster lawyer named Prosker makes the mistake of openly laughing at him–then the Major gives him the finger.

Dortmunder may be something of a coward at times–it’s a wise man’s failing–but when sufficiently humiliated, his fear is quickly drowned out by a burning need for retribution, and his full resourcefulness is brought into play.  In his own way, he is as implacable a foe as Parker.  It just takes a lot more effort to get him motivated.   That’s one reason his books are usually longer.

The final chapter ends with another African dignitary (the only person in the book with any dignity left, if only because he was smart enough to come in at the very end) saying to Dortmunder “I must make a memo to myself never to try to cheat you.”  And that’s always good advice, when you’re dealing with Dortmunder.   He is a clown, yes–but he’s not your clown.  God can make a fool of him–God’s name being Westlake–but no one else.  He won’t have it.  And the truth is, we don’t begrudge him a bit of his pride–because we’ve had to swallow ours so many times, and we know just how he feels.

We’ve all been made fools of by the higher-ups, the suits, the bosses, the money men.  It’s happening right now, and it will go on happening.  It’s like we’re the Beagle Boys, and they’re Scrooge McDuck, and they always get their money back–with interest.   They steal from us, and we go back to jail, or back to work, same difference (hey, it’s my blog, and I’m entitled to the odd bit of ranting).  And of course if I’m reading a Carl Barks classic, I’m Uncle Scrooge, swimming around in my personal money bin, so that’s all fine and dandy.  But then I put down the comic book, and guess what–I’m Dortmunder.   We all are.  We always will be.

But does that mean we have to take things lying down?   Not on your life.   We’re not rich, we’re probably not even good-looking, but we can be smart.  We can fight back.  We can find weak spots in their armor–we can turn their arrogance against them–we can win temporary but oh-so-satisfying victories–and we can have fun along the way.

Much as he may enjoy teasing them, Westlake loves this motley gang of crooks.  You know he does, because he goes out of his way to treat them along the way.  Stan Murch gets to pilot a helicopter over New York City (without ever having flown one before!).  Chefwick, the model train nut, gets to be the engineer inside a life-size model train (a replica of the famous Tom Thumb, no less).   And where do they end up at the end of the tracks–in a looney bin–which one might argue is where they all belong, and so do the rest of us reading this joyous nonsense.

Yeah, they’re a team of losers–but they’re each and every one of them a character–an individual.   Life can thwart them, mock them, but it can never break them down.    In a world that seems determined to reduce and every one of us to a set of vital statistics–like the Major’s beloved dossiers–the Dortmunder gang keeps busting out.   And they take us with them.  And for that, we’ll never be able to thank them enough.

And there’s more gang members coming.  This is just the start of a long bumpy ride.   Not all the books will end this triumphantly.  Dortmunder will endure many far worse humiliations–and this guy who seems to want more than anything to be left alone will end up at the center of a sort of bizarre ersatz family, that makes even the Addams’ look normal by comparison.   And maybe he likes that more than he lets on, but he’ll never ever let on.  You wouldn’t really want him to.

Having read all the books, I think this is the funniest of the bunch in some ways.   Arguably, Westlake never again came up with quite as clever a comic extravaganza again, never did quite as good a job building the gag.   That’s neither here nor there, because all things considered, there are better books coming–the cast of characters expands, and the quirks of each individual character are elaborated upon.   The humor becomes more refined, better defined–and the truth is the books don’t even have to be that good for us to enjoy them–we’re just so glad to be back with these people again.  We’ll take them on any terms offered.

Not all the Dortmunders are classics–but the best of them surely are, and I wouldn’t personally part with a single one.  There are 14 of them, and a scattering of short stories, and I only wish there was some way Westlake could have cloned himself, and put one of the clones in charge of doing nothing but writing Dortmunder stories.

But there was only ever one Donald E. Westlake. And he had other things to write about.   Different kinds of jokes to make.  The kinds of jokes that might  make you cry as much as laugh.  Like suppose a guy wanted to be a writer, but the only writing he was allowed to do was smut.  And each and every chapter had to be 5,000 words long.  And he couldn’t even use his own name.  And his life–his very soul–is getting swallowed up by the work he’s doing.

Dortmunder got off lucky by comparison–and he got a movie–actually a bunch of them–but only one worth reviewing.  Which I’ll review next week.  And then it’s off to the porn pits we go.  Heigh-ho, heigh-ho.

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40 Comments

Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels

40 responses to “Review: The Hot Rock, Part 2

  1. Ray Garraty

    Stan Murch listened to ambient (or is it noise?) before the term even came to existence.

    • Well, he and his mother apparently consider it a form of music–the sound of race cars at the Daytona International Speedway (International? Do any other countries belong to NASCAR? Is this like The World Series, or The International House of Pancakes? A misleading name for a peculiarly American phenomenon?).

      I have no doubt that record actually exists–you could probably find it on ebay with a bit of searching. Westlake obviously agrees with Dortmunder that this is a crazy thing to want to listen to, but he still respects Stan and his mother for their passion, even if he can’t share it. They still sell recordings from Daytona, but now they’re on video, which makes at least a bit more sense. I suppose.

      I didn’t have much to say about the Murch’s this time–13 more books to go, and they figure in all of them, so I figured it could wait.

  2. J. Goodman

    I came at The Hot Rock first via the film which I saw as a child of 11. When I realized it was based on a book I knew I had to get my hands on it and see where that bizarre ending came from. I still don’t buy Miasmo as much as I love Miasmo, but ever since seeing the Hot Rock, Dortmunder and Kelp are always Robert Redford and George Segal in every subsequent novel and rereading. George C. Scott, et. al have never replaced my mind’s conjuring of Johnny D.

    Looking very forward to your review of Adios Motherf…I mean Adios Scheherazade. One of my favorite books ever and part of a terrific trilogy, sort of, by Westlake, Lawrence Block and Hal Dresner….but perhaps you’ll allude to it!

    Afghanistan Bananastand, indeed!

    • Oh trust me, the trilogy shall be mentioned–I’ve obtained copies of the other two (still have to read them, but I don’t imagine it’ll take long).

      We can talk about this next week, but I don’t see how anyone can read about Dortmunder and see Robert Redford. George Segal as Kelp, sure. My Kelp probably has a little Segal in him. Wait until you hear who I’ve cast as May.

      It’s Miasmo the Great, if you please. Ahem. And of course it’s far-fetched, but it’s also quite quite perfect. Each job has gotten bigger and bigger, more and more complex, and you would expect a heist on a midtown Manhattan bank to top them all–and it does, but in the most unexpected way imaginable. You ask for the emerald, and they give it to you. Why not? It obviously couldn’t have worked for the previous four heists, or the last one. Dortmunder tailors each plan to the specific parameters of the job.

      Now hypnotists do exist, and they can make people do all sorts of things you wouldn’t expect them to do–nothing they wouldn’t do in real life, or so we’re told–but what’s this bank employee’s job? To open up safety deposit boxes, and hand them to people. It’s basically what he does all day.

      So all that changes is that he gives the box to somebody who isn’t supposed to have it, but that’s a fairly minor mental adjustment, after all. My question would be why doesn’t Miasmo (the great) just go around doing this kind of thing on his own? Quite possibly he does, but this way is safer, and probably just as profitable. It’s quite impossible for the crime–which will never even be reported–to ever be connected to him.

      Why does Dortmunder never use Miasmo (the great) again, or even refer to him? I guess mainly because that would make things too easy. Or maybe he retired. “You will sign over this charming villa to me when I say the words ‘Dusk I see in Tuscany’. Afterwards you will remember that I paid you in full, and that your lovely personal chef Maria comes with the house–you need to go on a diet. You did very well. Very well indeed.”

      • Miasmo generally hung out in the 18th Century so the only way to contact him was via time-travel, and everyone knows that if you use time travel to solve a plot problem you are never allowed to refer to it again in later books.

      • Ray Garraty

        As Mr. Goodman above, I imagined Redford as Dortmunder while I was reading it. And I saw only first ten minutes of the film.

        • Movies can have that effect–for quite a long time, reading the Parkers, I was hearing Lee Marvin’s voice when reading Parker’s dialogue, and I often still do. Visually, I’ve tended to see him as he’s described in the early books–at the very end, his physical description is remarkably similar to Dortmunder’s. And yet he’s still Parker.

          Mel Gibson (whose version I saw first, and I have whole sections of that film committed to memory, since it’s on television so often here) I have never once heard or visualized when reading a Parker novel. For all my dislike of the man, and my light regard for his acting ability, I think he did a splendid job in that particular film. But that character is Porter, not Parker.

          Dortmunder is dark-haired, quite thin, has an uninspiring physique, and nobody would call him handsome. However, in the first book there really isn’t much of a physical description–certainly nothing like you find in the opening paragraphs of The Hunter. You may find your image of him changing as you make your way through the series.

          I didn’t see the movie until well after I’d read the book. Westlake was rather bemused by the choice of Redford, but we can talk about that next time.

      • J. Goodman

        You’re probably right Re: Redford, except he does come across as a tad disheveled in the film, and I think it was also the first film I ever saw him in. Had yet to see Butch Cassidy and it came out before The Sting. Redford was more a name I knew than a face, I guess at that stage of my filmic consciousness. Perhaps if I had read The Hot Rock before seeing the film it would be much easier to dismiss Redford = J.D…..but I can’t…it’s been burned into my brain for over 40 years!

        And Miasmo The Great seemed a tad too ‘and then a miracle happened’ even for an 11 year old, but I will apply your fine logic to my next viewing/reading of the tale and allow myself to be swayed….I’ll let you know if your ‘suggestion’ took hold! Thanks for the outstanding reply!

        • I think Westlake wanted to establish very early on that anything could happen in the world of John Dortmunder. But honestly, if somebody did pull a heist like this with the use of post-hypnotic suggestion–would anyone even find out? Maybe it really has happened.

          Anyway, we’ve already seen them do more unbelievable things–I think it’s not the implausibility of Miasmo so much as that he seems to come out of left field–deus ex mesmera. Maybe Westlake agreed with you that it was too much, and that’s why the character never returned. But he never originally intended for any of these characters to return–as with Parker, once he realized he had a series here, he had to retool a bit.

          Redford is someone I admire a hell of a lot. He’s never been hung up on his looks, and it probably isn’t fair for me to get hung up on them. He’s enjoying the chance to not be the handsome heart-throb for a change. He’s enjoying the chance to do comedy, which of course he’d done brilliantly in Butch Cassidy. Anyway, I’ve got the DVD (thank you ebay), and maybe I’ll react differently this time. Last time I watched it on my iPad. Not ideal.

  3. The dog didn’t think so. He was one of those by-the-book dogs. Rules were rules, and Dortmunder didn’t rate any special favors.

    The narrator would phrase things quite differently, the dog would be called an Alsatian, and the victim would be an idiot like Freddie Threepwood, but the scene is still pure Wodehouse.

    • Wodehouse is an incalculable influence on Westlake’s humorous work (I don’t see how he couldn’t be an influence on any comic writer, but Westlake studied him more closely than most, I think). But what Westlake wanted to avoid in Wodehouse was what he called ‘archness’. That very mannered rather twee language that permeates everything Wodehouse wrote. Now for Wodehouse, that’s fine–it’s part of what we read him for–but Westlake wants a more informal plebeian effect, more appropriate to the genre he’s writing in, and more specific to himself.

      So he writes what is basically a sort of Wodehouse book in its approach to getting a laugh–but it’s permeated with the style of Richard Stark. It’s not a Stark book–Stark could not, would not write this kind of thing–but it’s got that feel to it, only the grimness, the starkness if you will, is softened by a more sympathetic humanistic approach to things. Less romantic (in the sense that Stark is romantic), but a lot more human, more sympathetic, more (for want of a better word) cozy. People who can’t tolerate Parker often adore Dortmunder. People who dig Parker (as Ray is pointing out) may be be so-so about Dortmunder. The audiences overlap, but they are not identical.

      At the very end, Westlake was writing nothing but these two characters. Who are extremely similar, and utterly different from each other. Which would you rather be? With me, it’s usually whichever one I’m reading at the time.

      I can’t say I’d ever want to be Bertie Wooster. I might like to be Jeeves or Uncle Fred, now and again. Uncle Fred particularly, now that spring is coming. There are no limits, literally none, to what I can accomplish in the springtime. 😉

  4. Another way of looking at it is that Dortmunder plans five or six amazing, near-perfect jobs that, if there was a Nobel Prize for heists, would make him a favorite, but which in the brutally practical world of crime fiction are failures because they don’t get him the damned emerald. I totally sympathize.

    I’m a computer programmer (it says “software engineer” on my resume, but there’s no need for that among friends), and I’ve worked for companies that did brilliant things, solving technical challenges that seemed insurmountable, to build capable, efficient, complex system that solved real and important problems. Which is not enough, if it’s not what people want.

    You know what people want? A web site where they can upload their home videos. Or where they can share secrets with the world that once they grow up will make them permanently unemployable. Or where they can prove over and over that they have nothing to say, 140 characters at a time. The guys who pulled those jobs, the millionaires? They would never even think of hijacking a train or raiding a police station, but at the end of the day, they’re the one who wound up with the emerald.

    • It’s entirely plausible that Westlake, whose books are so often about work, professionalism, was making a point along these lines. The Major stands in for a publisher–publishers famously make advances, then expect results–“Yes, you turned in an excellent well-written book on schedule, but it was not what the public wanted to read at the time.” No matter how clever you are, no matter how well you execute the job at hand, there’s no substitute for timing–for luck. This would help explain the severity of the Major’s fate. He’s standing in for all the publishers Westlake had problems with over the years. But if that’s what’s going on here, it’s cunningly concealed.

      Westlake will shortly be doing a dead-on parody of Arthur Hailey, whose terrible books sold unbelievable numbers of copies. Because they were what the people wanted to read–back then. Poorly executed, perfectly timed.

      • J. Goodman

        I read some of those Hailey books in 5th or 6th grade and recall enjoying them but finding them totally forgettable. I always wondered if Cunningham was making even more of a statement by setting his book in a Men’s room and if Hailey ever caught wind of it….so to speak. I do wish Westlake had written it and I’m very much looking forward to your deconstruction of the tale with all various trivial pursuits when the time comes. I wouldn’t have brought it up but I couldn’t help taking your bait! One of those books that actually caused me to do a jig when I stumbled onto it quite by accident in a thrift store! I’m always hoping lightning will strike twice!!!

        • I did a bit of a jig when I realized you could get it as an ebook–later, Ray was kind enough to clue me in to an affordable copy of the original paperback (just slightly water-damaged) on ebay. As I shall explain, there is something lost in the translation to electronic form. This was an extremely thorough-going parody the vibrant Mr. Cunningham crafted.

          But to find it by chance in a thrift store!!!!–that’s legendary, man. I make all due obeisance. Now get out there and find us a copy of Carport. 😐

  5. Lee Turnbull

    The good Lord created Harry Dean Stanton to play Dortmunder. I’ve never seen any of the Dortmunder movies, and started reading the Dortmunders before ever seeing Stanton in a film, but once I set my eyes on him I knew I was seeing the living embodiment of the Dortmunder in my head.
    It’s one of life’s little disappointments that HDS was never cast to play him. And it’s too late now; he’s too old. Alas.

    • You know who could play him now? Bryan Cranston. He’s 59, which is on the old side, but he could do it. It won’t happen, but I think any good character actor of the right general appearance could get into Dortmunder and figure out what makes him tick. He’s not as difficult to embody as Parker.

      My Dortmunder wouldn’t be Harry Dean Stanton, but he definitely could have carried it off. I’d say maybe he’s a bit small. I kind of feel like Dortmunder should look like somebody who could have been a good-looking man if things had gone a bit different. But not like somebody who could have looked like The Sundance Freakin’ Kid. Who the hell signed off on that?

      • Lee Turnbull

        In one way the answer is simple–some Hollywood money man who hadn’t read the books and didn’t care to wanted to get a rising star, and one who would appeal to women. Redford fit both desires.

        In another way, the answer is no doubt more complex. I’ve not yet had the time to read The Getaway Car, but I’d be interested in knowing if it talks of what DEW thought about working in Hollywood, and his experiences with both adapting other people’s works and seeing his own adapted. Did his work adapting The Grifters, for example, give him particular insights about the choices others made in adaptations?

        Making a movie requires much more collaboration than writing novels, obviously. And adapting a novel to a screenplay nearly always means big changes. Are changes to the story okay, but changing the character’s looks not?

        I walked away from what I wrote above and came back a couple hours later to find I’m still not certain what I want to say. Maybe it’s only this–it’s very difficult to convert between one story medium to another. And no movie maker could top the “movie” playing in my head as I read a Dortmunder book. But even still, there are thousands of actors who would make better Dortmunders than Robert Redford. And it has nothing to do with acting ability. No one with Dortmunder’s back story and life attitude could have a ’70s Redford face. And without those things you don’t have Dortmunder.

        • Well, Westlake considered his experience on The Grifters to be quite exceptional–it wasn’t the usual kind of Hollywood adaptation at all. And the casting really couldn’t have been more perfect–particularly for Lily.

          I think he always knew that a book is a book, and a film is a film. He certainly said so often enough. He never once tried to adapt one of his books into a movie–I think he felt like he’d never be objective enough.

          The important thing for Westlake is to get the spirit of the book across in the film. He thought Goldman’s screenplay for The Hot Rock did that–he though the film as executed did not. He blamed the director. He often did. Casting wasn’t his main problem with it–the cast is actually very good–but it’s just so hard to see Robert Redford as one of life’s losers, isn’t i?

          What you wrote at the end there sums it up perfectly. There is nothing wrong with Robert Redford, any more than there’s anything wrong with Robert Duvall–who Westlake liked as ‘Parker’, but I’ve already made my dissent to that as plain as could be. The fact is, either you were born to play a given role or you were not. The best actor who ever lived can’t play a role he or she is wrong for. The worst actor in the world might do better–if properly cast. But obviously try to get somebody who is right for the part AND good at his job.

          (editing)–so nobody saw fit to mention I posted this review on Friday the 13th? Believe it or not, I didn’t even notice until after I posted it. It was not planned. Spooky.

  6. As I’ve previously noted, I picture William H. Macy (especially his hangdog, born-loser Fargo-era countenance) as Dortmunder. As the cheerful, stubborn Kelp, I picture Edward Norton, who played a similar (though darker) role sidekicking to master thief Robert de Niro in “The Score” (which was not based upon Richard Stark’s “The Score,” though the movie and de Niro’s character can easily be read as a Parker pastiche).

    • As I’ve previously noted, I think both Parker and Dortmunder have run out their string at the movies, and we have to start thinking in terms of TV actors. Macy could certainly do television, but of course he’s another actor who’s gotten too old. I know, you’re just talking for the purposes of visualization. I love Macy’s acting–he’s been in some personal faves of mine, notably The Cooler. He’s maybe a bit TOO hangdog. But yeah, I could see him doing it, in his prime. And of course he never did any Westlake adaptations, which is a damn shame. The Cooler certainly seems like a story informed by Westlake.

      Kelp has to be shorter than Dortmunder. It’s just essential to the comedy. So whoever you pick as Dortmunder, Kelp has to be smaller, and about the same age, and not really handsome–but not so ugly that you couldn’t buy his later hooking up with a hot Senator’s daughter. He’s got to have some kind of plausible appeal.

      They’ve all got to have this misfit feel to them.

      Btw, anybody want to try casting Tiny? Might have to raid the WWE to get an actor for him.

  7. Ray Garraty

    Around 1970 Westlake wrote an article about crime fiction taking more realistic approach in portraying criminal types as the criminal types become more and more like businessmen.
    Whether it’s true or not, Westlake couldn’t take less realistic character than that prison guard in the beginning of the book. With his fatherly love to Dortmunder, the guard came straight from the 50s when convicts wore ties and jackets in prisons, called each other sirs and misters, and when the warden was like a father to all his prisoners. Now it’s no love for prisoners.

    • Well first of all, a warden isn’t a guard. Probably never even worked as one. It’s more of a political appointment. Some are tougher than others–there are to this day some that talk as if their job is to reform convicts, even though everybody knows prison makes criminals a lot more often than it makes law-abiding citizens. Still, there are some good programs that sometimes help repeat offenders go straight. Today’s warden is most likely a corporate shill, running a private business. Growth industry. Westlake could have had some fun with that, if he’d ever gotten around to it.

      We’re not supposed to like the warden here (who could not be a much less important character, anyway)–we’re supposed to see him as a sanctimonious windbag, mouthing stock phrases to a departing inmate. And he winds up with a hand covered in mucous.

      It’s not a prison novel–Westlake wrote just one of those, which is also comedic, and there, as here, the point is to undermine authority–make it seem silly and ineffectual. I don’t think Westlake could imagine anything more horrible than long-term imprisonment, and just as with the German Shepherd, he’s taking something that genuinely scares him, and making it funny.

      Truth is, the sadistic gloatingly evil prison tyrants we see in films in Don Siegel’s brilliant Escape from Alcatraz and the wildly overrated Shawshank Redemption (oh go ahead and gasp at my blasphemy) are just as unlikely as the wise kindly old grandfather types. A truly realistic warden would be pretty boring for the purposes of crime fiction, serious or otherwise. He’s basically just a paper-pusher. When Parker goes to prison, I don’t think he ever even meets the warden. What’s the point?

      The point here is to establish character. To show us Dortmunder has no intention of reforming, but that he’s also not the kind to openly spit in the face of authority either. Not unless thoroughly provoked–which he is, because the warden’s stupid lecture cost him money. Hence the soggy handshake. It’s foreshadowing.

  8. J. Goodman

    By the way, am I wrong or aren’t there 14 Dortmunder novels plus the Thieves Dozen short stories and the novella found in Transgressions?

  9. Adi Kiescher

    Great review, thanks. Off topic, but just a little bit, pls don’t forget to mention Rollos’s regulars in some future Dortmunder review. Their conversations and discussions are real gems in regard of humour and subtlety. They made – and still make – me laugh out loud in any book. Outstanding stuff.

    • That was one of the best running jokes in the whole series, but of course it didn’t start until later. Once Westlake knew he was going to be writing a bunch of Dortmunder books, he had to start thinking about that kind of thing, but it wouldn’t make sense for a one-shot. I’d say the next few books are about figuring out how to make this thing sustainable, and the rest are about figuring out how to keep it from getting stale. Which it sometimes did a bit, but the worst Dortmunder book is still funnier than most of what passes for humor in the book trade these days.

      • Anthony

        Boy there were a lot of running gags in this series, weren’t they? Some, like Murch’s descriptions of his route to the O.J., grew tiresome over time (to me, anyway). Others were tiresome but still made me laugh every single time they appeared (“Diddums” “It’s Welsh”). Some were subtle (the reappearance of the Bank Shot guards now and them). My favorites were probably the physical descriptions of Tiny – “like an armored car, only harder” etc.

        • There were running gags in the Parkers as well, but people tend to forget them–like every time Mike Carlow is re-introduced, we hear that story about how he designed a race car that stored the fuel in tubes distributed across the entire chassis of the vehicle, to make for efficient weight distribution, and nobody would make it for him, because they said it was dangerous to be surrounded by flammable liquids, and he was disgusted by their lack of vision. And of course when we meet Dan Wycza in a book, we’re reminded that he needs sunshine and vitamin pills to stay healthy, and that’s why he’d rather die than go to prison, because he’d just rot away there anyway.

          But the difference is that we never really get to know Mike or Dan that well. We get only thumbnail portraits of them–beautifully written, very convincing, but only there to add a dash of color to the plot-driven proceedings. Stark boils everything down to its bare minimum–Westlake by contrast goes to enormous pains to make every single regular cast member in the Dortmunder books a fully realized person in his or her own right. Not necessarily the deepest of characters, because too much depth is not necessarily conducive to farce. But deep enough so that we feel this fondness for them we could hardly feel for the hard-bitten Stark characters.

          Stark picks up and drops cast members at will–Grofield, Handy McKay–dropped for the second series of books–Mackey and Brenda become pivotal to the first five books of the new series, then disappear for the final trilogy. From book to book, the only one you know will be there is Parker. Whereas once a character makes it into the regular cast of the Dortmunders, he or she will keep coming back, book after book after book. The Stark characters are co-workers. The Dortmunder characters are family. And you can’t get rid of family. No matter how tempted you may be at times.

  10. Anthony

    RE: “I think he always knew that a book is a book, and a film is a film. He certainly said so often enough. He never once tried to adapt one of his books into a movie–I think he felt like he’d never be objective enough.”

    I recall one interview where he said something to the effect that he would be happy to write a screenplay out of one of his older books (as in decades older). His specific words were that he wouldn’t mind the opportunity to go back and “slice the crap” out of it. His more recent books, though, were too close to him for him to be able to have the objectivity to achieve translation to the screen. He was very aware of the distinctions and demands of the different media, and advocated that nobody should be trusted to modify his/her own novel into a screenplay. Apparently, though, with the passage of enough time he felt he could view one of his own novels with objectivity.

    It never happened. Maybe because the 1990s-2000s didn’t provide a market for a movie out of a Westlake novel written in the 1960s-70s. Richard Stark, maybe, but as you have previously addressed, these tend to end up as cinema-crapola.

    On the other hand – how many books period make a successful transition to the screen intact? Virtually none. Kurt Vonnegut once said that only he and Margaret Mitchell could lay claim to success, and he was WRONG about the movie made from Slaughterhouse 5, which is a piece of shit if ever there was one. Sure, the Princess Bride might be able to lay claim, but those of us who read the book before the movie was made will always find the novel vastly superior.

    Interesting to note that William Goldman and John Irving represent two novelists who made successful screenplays from their own novels. So it can be done.

    • Oh it can be done, but Goldman only really did it once–and The Princess Bride movie doesn’t say half as much as the book. But it works very well as a way of getting people to read the book, at which point they find out that happy endings aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

      The most artistically successful novel-to-film adaptation is probably To Kill a Mockingbird. Screenplay by Horton Foote, and he proved to be an exceptionally good pick, as Ms. Lee always acknowledged with typical graciousness. I think mainly she just loved the way Gregory Peck played Atticus, and who could blame her? But the points that book made were very simple–they just had to trim the story a bit, eliminate some ancillary characters, and the rest came down to casting and direction.

      And it was An Important Book, so the studio stayed out of the way a lot more than they would for something like a crime novel. That’s one case where the book and the film complement each other, neither detracts from or competes with the other, and it’s an utterly unique achievement, far as I know.

      But there have been other great adaptations–Graham Greene did quite a good job adapting some of his books, but I think for that kind of thing to work, the writer and the director have to form a working partnership, and to understand each other well, as Greene and Carol Reed understood each other. Again, however, there are dimensions to the books that the films can’t quite capture. It’s like the difference between a masterful portrait of somebody you knew very well–and the actual person. Something is always lost.

      Yes, Goldman adapted Marathon Man as well, but I can’t say I’m that impressed with the book or the film. Goldman’s best screenplays were not adaptations of his own work, as I think he’d acknowledge. An amazing talent, but as I think I’ve said already, his attentions were divided between books and films, and that may have stopped him from achieving as much as he could have in either area. And he’s still alive, and I hope he’s not reading this, but what are the odds, really? :\

      My problem with most Westlake adaptations is not that they don’t perfectly translate the book to film, but that they suck as films. And that was Westlake’s problem with them as well.

      • Goldman also wrote a sequel to Marathon Man (the novel) called “Brothers,” which is downright bad, with a nihilistic gut-punch of an ending that reads like a giant “fuck you” to any fan of the first book.

        • Maybe as a way of saying “You wanted to know what happened next, so I’ll tell you.” Goldman reportedly didn’t like Marathon Man, but it was a huge hit for him. I think he wanted to be a novelist much more than a screenwriter. Probably all good screenwriters do. A novel is yours, in a way a screenplay never can be. And anyway, he probably wanted to make sure they didn’t make a movie of this one to overshadow the book–something a novelist always has to worry about. Yeah, they cut you a big check, and maybe you get to adapt it (Goldman generally did), but to have the movie–made by somebody else, always–eclipse the book you sweated blood over, your uniquely personal expression–it’s got to hurt.

          I think the ideal would be that the movie is good, and does decent box office, but then people read the book and say “This is so much better. This makes me realize how shallow the film was.” And that’s my precise reaction to The Princess Bride–saw the movie, liked it, read the book, loved it. And I never ever want a sequel. And Goldman won’t do us the dirty by writing one.

        • Goldman tried, though. He really wanted to write Buttercup’s Baby, but realized he couldn’t.

          Goldman, more than any writer I can think of, just lost it, as you can see from the last few books he did finish. I personally don’t think Brothers is godawful as a fuck you; I think it was awful for the same reason as The Color of Light (a really pale imitation of his early books), and Heat (an incredibly flaccid thriller): he’d become an awful novelist.

  11. Anthony

    I think of Goldman as the opposite of Westlake. DEW called himself a novelist with a minor in screenwriting, and Goldman is more a screenwriter who managed to pen a couple of decent novels and several lame ones. One talent Goldman doesn’t seem to have is the ability to create a sequel, let alone a series. He strikes me as angst ridden trying to come up with a follow-up to the Princess Bride, and has written himself into a corner he can’t get out of in his efforts trying. Series writing seemed to come naturally to Westlake, and he obviously put great effort into not repeating himself. And when the well went dry (Stark), he recognized it and worked on other things instead.

    • The Princess Bride, to my way of thinking, is a great novel. As good as anything Westlake ever wrote. Goldman may have produced others equally good, but I haven’t made a thorough check. So many books, so little time.

      I think a sequel to that book is a horrible idea–or the movie, but for the record, Goldman has only ever talked about a sequel to the movie, which would be slightly less inconceivable, except Andre is dead, and it wouldn’t be TPB without Fezzik. I think he’s only talking about it because everybody keeps telling him he should do it.

      Writers are remembered in different ways (assuming they’re remembered at all). People will remember Goldman for Butch Cassidy and TPB–he knows that. The catchphrases in those two works alone make him immortal. But I think he probably envied Westlake all those books. And I know Westlake envied him all that money. You can’t have everything. Where would you put it? Yeah, I stole that from Steven Wright, what of it?

  12. Anthony

    Minor, but I’m not sure I agree that Goldman only talked sequel to the movie. The 25th, 30th, and 35th anniversary editions of the book have some chapters from the so-called “Buttercup’s Baby” along with ever growing tongue in cheek jazz about the Morgenstern Estate. All very much in bookish prose, not screenplay format. In a 2007 interview (admittedly in a now defunct magazine called “Moving Pictures Magazine”) he’s asked about the sequel. He responded “I desperately want to write it, and I sit there and nothing happens and I get pissed at myself. I got lucky with Princess Bride the first time, and I’d love to get lucky again.”

    • Yeah, he was just yanking all our chains with that stuff.

      I’m sure if he could think of a sequel worth writing, he’d write it. But the fact is, he knows he wrote a book that can’t ever have a true ending, and that writing one would ruin it. He’d said all he had to say with those characters. Might as well have asked Westlake for a sequel to The Ax. Sometimes the best ending is no ending. I sure wish more TV writers could figure that out.

      We’re all children, readers. “And what happened next, Daddy? And after that? And what happened then?” “Shut up and go to sleep, kid, or I’ll smother you with a pillow. That’s what happens next.”

      • Mike, inspiration is a fickle thing. Writers may, at points in their careers, scale the Olympian heights, only to fall helplessly into the pits of mediocrity. Regrettably, not the least bit inconceivable.

        He may have tried to write Buttercup’s Baby, but his heart simply wasn’t in it. The book he’d written would not agree to a sequel.

        Readers sometimes can inspire a writer to improve what he has written–my favorite example would be Richard Adams’ The Plague Dogs. He finished that one and sent it to the publisher with one of the biggest downer endings of all time.

        Now if any copies of this version ever made it to bookstores, I don’t know about it, but copies were circulated in advance of formal publication, and the reaction was, shall we say, unhappy. I’m guessing his daughters, who were the original audience for Watership Down, were among those who had words with the author. This was not a proper ending for the book–it was truthful, but it was also incomplete. There was more that needed to be said.

        And he relented. And wrote a fairly lengthy coda (reminiscent of the final scene of The Beggar’s Opera) to what was already quite a long book–that absolutely saves it. I don’t want to give it away for those who haven’t read what I consider to be his finest work (the bunnies are nice and all), but it’s really a tour de force, where he communicates telepathically with his readership (in rhyme, no less), in a way that’s completely consistent with what’s come before, and finds a loophole in his argument, that he really is all too happy to make use of.

        See, the earlier ending was not so much too severe, as too easy on humankind–if we’re all these lousy inconsiderate bastards, we have an excuse–but if there are real heroes, humans who are worthy of the name, then the only reason things are what they are is that we let them be that way. And that really was the message of the original ending, but it wasn’t properly communicated by it. The animated movie version stuck with that ending, and it was a dismal failure. If you want to tell people to change, you have to provide some hope that they can–a good example.

        But Goldman couldn’t relent from his final bleak statement in TPB. It’s too integral to the book. Yes, there are real heroes, yes True Love is the best thing there could possibly be, but Life is unfair, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it–the battle rages on in our hearts, and even heroes die. You live life as best as you can, as long as you can. Happily Ever After is a lie.

        All the readership was asking for was for him to make it like the movie ending, which was fine for the movie, but wrong for the book. And perhaps facing a creative drought later in life, knowing his best work was behind him, he fooled around with it, but he couldn’t fool himself. A truly great book will not allow itself to be corrupted by wishful thinking. Love is Wonderful, Life is Unfair. The End.

        Going to be a while before Mr. Westlake produces anything on this level, but when he does, there’ll be no nonsense about a sequel. Or any last-minute rewrites.

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