Review: Bank Shot

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CALLING all cars, calling all cars.  Be on the lookout for a stolen bank, approximately eleven feet tall, blue and white…”

May shook her head.  “I never saw a nephew yet,” she said, “that was worth his weight in Kiwanis gum.”

“Everybody’s somebody’s nephew,” Kelp said.

May said, “I’m not.”

This may not be Westlake’s best comic novel (it’s up near the top of the pile), but it’s got to be the easiest to sum up–“Dortmunder steals an entire bank.”  That’s not all that happens, but it’s the lead item.

The Hot Rock had been a great success, and was made into a major motion picture (which was no success at all, but Westlake’s check still cleared), so a sequel was obviously called for.   Westlake had himself a new series protagonist, and one who was palatable to many people who would never read a Parker novel.  I sent my mother a large-type edition of Good Behavior as a gift, and she liked it (she might enjoy Butcher’s Moon for all I know, but I’m not going to be the one to send it to her).

In this book, Westlake further refined and defined his new protagonist, and his partners in crime, adding to their number, as he would throughout the series.  It became much more obvious that Dortmunder was a comic take on Parker–obvious already to anyone who knew that The Hot Rock had begun as a Parker outing, but very few knew that at the time.  Dortmunder is described as dark-haired, tall and lean, with oversized knobby knuckles–obviously he has big hands, but he never kills anybody with them.  He never kills anybody, period.  He probably would, if he had to.   But somehow, he never does.  And he’s fine with that.  It’s hard to say if he has a conscience, but you might say he’s got a heart.

We hear once more that he served in Korea, as Parker served in WWII.   We learn that like Parker, he was once married to a woman of somewhat shady background, the professionally named Honeybun Bazoom–but he doesn’t seem to have been in love with her, and when it became obvious she wasn’t much into him either, they got a divorce.  She didn’t shoot him; he didn’t goad her to suicide.   Dortmunder is not one for drama.  He likes to keep things on an even keel as much as possible.   So does Parker, but Parker lives in a very different universe, administered by a very different god, with very different expectations.

And like Parker, he goes to movies, and doesn’t remember much of anything that happens in them–just light and color and sound that passes through him without much effect.  Fiction has no particular allure for him, nor does music, or athletics (except the equine variety).  He has no real opinions on anything that isn’t directly relevant to his work.  As we learn in later books, his only hobby seems to be blowing his  money at the racetrack–a convenient way to explain why he needs to keep working, even though some of his later scores are pretty damned impressive.

In short, he’s much more relatable than Parker, but he’s not really human either.   We’ve been over this–he’s a coyote in human form, making a living in a world he can never really understand, doing his best to blend in, but giving the rest of us these sideways glances that say “You people are nuts.   What the hell is up with you?”

But he’s found himself one hell of a great girl, all the same–not as glamorous as Claire Carroll, but a lot less high-maintenance.  In fact, most of the time she’s the one maintaining him.  We’re told that he ran into May at the Bohack Supermarket she works at while trying to walk out with a lot of items he hadn’t paid for–he may be a brilliant (if perennially star-crossed) heist planner, but he’s a lousy shoplifter, and May (a much more accomplished shoplifter) spotted him easily–and something about his hangdog expression as the groceries tumbled out of his sleeves, won her heart instantly.

Love at first sight.  So deep and true that neither of them ever has to say it in words, or formalize it with a ceremony.   They just clicked.   No drama at all, nor is there ever.  It is, in many ways, the most alluring romantic fantasy at all–to find somebody you don’t need to be romantic with.  Because it’s so right, that hearts and flowers stuff would just feel phony.  What he likes most about her is that unlike the not terribly bright Honeybun, who was only interested in herself, she’s very interested in everything around her–yet she doesn’t ask him a lot of questions about his work, and when she does, she only needs to hear the answers once.   That’s a keeper, guys.  A pearl of great price, is our May.

But despite not being overly inquisitive about it, May, unlike Claire, wants to be part of Dortmunder’s work life.   As with Claire, she doesn’t want to play any part in people getting hurt, but this isn’t the world of Richard Stark, so somehow that’s never a problem–in fact, she’ll successfully push Dortmunder into several jobs that involve helping people (as Claire tried to do in The Black Ice Score, but nobody reforms Parker).

So really, she is to Claire what Dortmunder is to Parker–less romantic and exciting, more down to earth and proletarian–but she’s a lot more successful in her remodeling effort than Claire ever was.  She has her own womanly wiles.  She may not look like a model, but she bakes a tuna casserole you would not believe.

She also wanted a more exciting life and an unconventional relationship, but she can do fine without the expensive shopping trips and the fancy vacations.  Just like Claire, May generally gets what she wants.  Unlike Claire, she can play a significant role in most of the books.   It just works better that way.

(I know I’m making it sound like I’d take May over Claire in a heartbeat if that were an actual choice, but that may have something to do with the fact that I’m currently imagining her as Winona Ryder–as Winona Ryder looks now, only without the expensive clothes, or the star temperament.  And hey, Winona got busted for shoplifting a while back, so that would be damn good casting, Hollywood–and she could use a steady gig.  I’m just saying.)

Obviously May is going to have to give up smoking at some point in the future.   I have never smoked a cigarette in my life (scout’s honor, though I was actually an Adventure Guide), and I’ve never considered it an attractive habit, but there is something oddly disarming about the way she does it.   She’s always running out of matches, and the moments where she has to go looking for them constitute the only times she doesn’t have a Virginia Slim dangling from her mouth (well hopefully not when she and Dortmunder are having an intimate moment, but delicacy forbids the question).   She finds some more matches, and this lovely little character-revealing moment ensues–

May lit the cigarette and dropped the match in the ashtray next to the TV.  She’d been concentrating on nothing but matches for five minutes, but not as her mind cleared she became aware again of the things around her, and the closest was the TV set, so she turned it on.  There was a movie just starting.  It was called The Tall Target, and in it Dick Powell played a New York City policeman named John Kennedy who was trying to stop an assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln. He was on a train, Dick Powell was, and he kept getting telegrams, so trainmen kept coming down the corridor shouting “John Kennedy, John Kennedy.”  This gave May a pleasant feeling of dislocation, so she backed up until her legs hit the sofa bed and sat down.

Dortmunder came home at the most exciting part, of course, and he brought Kelp with him.  It was 1860 and Abraham Lincoln was going to his first inauguration and that’s where they wanted to assassinate him.  Adolph Menjou was the mastermind of the plot, but Dick Powell–John Kennedy–was too quick for him.  Still, it wasn’t certain how things would come out.

I’ve seen bits and pieces of that movie, but never watched it through.  How does it come out?  Anyone know?

Anyway, as the book begins, Dortmunder is back on the phony encyclopedia grift–getting ten bucks here, ten bucks there, from gullible housewives, only this one turns out to not be so gullible, and calls the cops, and he’s got to get out of there–he takes just one more fall and he’s going away for good (another parallel with Parker, whose fingerprints would link him to the death of that prison camp guard he killed while escaping, were he ever to get arrested).

He’s got no way to get out of suburbia in a hurry, but then up comes Andy Kelp in yet another stolen vehicle with MD plates, and Dortmunder starts thinking prison might not be the worst option after all–Kelp’s got another crazy scheme up his sleeve, and he needs Dortmunder to plan it.   This is yet one more way in which Dortmunder is like Parker–he’s nearly always the one planning the heist, but the heist is never his idea–it’s always something that gets pitched to him, and it’s always something crazy, and he’s got all kinds of problems with it, and he always goes ahead and does it anyway, because a guy’s gotta work, right?

But this time Kelp has surpassed himself–first of all, the ‘finger’ on this job–the one who spotted the opportunity–is Kelp’s nephew Victor (a nephew in more than one sense of the word), who is a former FBI agent.  Never a very high-ranking one, because he was so clean-cut and gung-ho, even the Bureau found him kind of creepy, and they eventually fired him for proposing ideas like an FBI secret handshake.  And now he’s got an idea for Dortmunder, who Victor is gazing at with awestruck delight, as if he just stepped out of an old Warner Brothers gangster film.   This certainly bodes well.

Victor thought of the FBI in terms of very dated stories about daring G-Men that he read in old pulp magazines, and never could get his mental image to match up with the drab reality.   He’s turned his garage into a sort of nerd-cave, crammed with juvenile pop-lit from eras other than his own.   Now that I think on it, we saw something very similar to this in Wax Apple, only that guy had just gotten out of a mental hospital.  Victor just got out of the FBI.  I believe a statement is being made here.

But as disturbed as Dortmunder may be to have a bank job pitched to him by a lawman who got fired for being a bit of a nut, that’s nothing compared to his reaction to the job itself–see, there’s this bank out on Long Island.   The old building is being torn down, and a new one constructed in its place.  And in the meantime, the actual bank is in a trailer parked near the construction area.  So Victor’s idea, which Kelp of course just loves (must be genetic) is to hitch up a suitable vehicle to the bank, and just drive away with it.

(Sidebar: Now here’s another Parker parallel–Parker also had a job pitched to him by a cop–to rob an entire town.   Only Parker didn’t know this guy was a cop, or that he had a score to settle with that sleepy western burg, hence the title of the book–the score is both the money to be taken, and the debt to be settled.  In the world of Richard Stark, that story leads to plunder and betrayal and death.  This book, however,  is in the world of Donald E. Westlake, writing with tongue firmly in cheek, so it all works out quite differently.   Nobody dies, nobody wins.  This bank shot ends up ricocheting every way but the right way.  Westlake did enjoy pun titles.)

It isn’t that simple, naturally–they need a planner, like Dortmunder, to work out the nitty gritty.  Six nights a week, there’s no money at all in that trailer.   The only exception is Thursday night, when the bank stays open late for shoppers, so they can’t move the money out of there.   Thursday  night, they have armed guards inside the trailer–from the Continental Detective Agency, no less.   Bit of a shout-out to Mr. Hammett and The Op, though I’m not sure either would approve.

One more little complication–the bank people took the wheels off the trailer.   And the money will be in a safe that has to be opened at some point.  Technical expertise of various kinds is called for, so Stan (the man) Murch, who knows everything there is to know about things on wheels, gets called in.

Their cracksman from the last job, who was you may recall, a bit cracked in the head regarding trains, somehow managed to ride a derelict subway car to Cuba (don’t ask–Dortmunder doesn’t), so they need someone new–and boy, do they get someone new.   Would you believe a bi-sexual black revolutionary named Herman X?   Holding a swanky bi-racial dinner party at his posh Central Park West digs.   Now dig this spread he’s prepared for his guests, at least two of whom he intends to seduce later–a black man and a white woman–which comes first is up to the vagaries of fate, but he’s left nothing to chance with the food.

He had planned the menu with the greatest of care.  The cocktails to begin had been Negronis, the power of the gin obscured by the gentleness of vermouth and Campari.  The caviar and pitted black olives to nosh on while drinking.  Then, at the table, the meal itself would start with black bean soup, followed by poached fillet of black sea bass and a nice bottle of Schwartzekatz.  For the entree, a Black Angus steak sauteed in black butter and garnished with black truffles, plus a side dish of black rice, washed down with a good Pinot Noir.  For dessert, black-bottom pie and coffee.  For after-dinner drinks, a choice of Black Russians or blackberry brandy, with bowls of black walnuts to munch on again in the living room.

Herman, to me, is one of Westlake’s more underutilized players–we really should have seen more of him than we did, though he did make a few return appearances in the later books.  I think Westlake liked the idea of him, but found it hard to make him mesh with the Dortmunder crew.  He’s a full-time revolutionary, loyal to some obscure splinter of the Black Panther movement, so his larcenous talents (which include safecracking) are mainly devoted to robbing banks, payrolls and (in this book) box offices, to pay for their various social programs.  Those jobs he does with other members of the movement.

But to finance his own lavish (not to mention lascivious) lifestyle, he also pulls heists on the side, and those he’ll do with any solid pro, regardless of race, creed, or color.  That’s how he knows Kelp, and it’s Kelp that calls him in.   Kelp asks Dortmunder if he has any problem working with a black guy–Dortmunder looks at him like “Why the hell would that be a problem?”  Again, very much like Parker–he does not understand our tribal fissions.  But he’s not sure about Herman, has doubts about his abilities all through the book, mainly I think because he doesn’t see why any guy on the bend would want to make his last name the letter X.  That’s just begging the law to take a second look at you.

They meet at the OJ Bar and Grill, of course–the ultimate Dortmunder hang-out spot, which Westlake mere touched upon in the last book, but now its full potential as becoming clear to him–there’s basically nothing you can’t hear in a New York City bar.  As Dortmunder enters, three Puerto Rican subway motormen are having a spirited conversation about whether there are alligators in the subway tunnels, or just in the sewers.   The first of many such thought-provoking barstool debates to come.

Herman’s a bit startled as well to find out Victor is a former FBI Agent, and Victor doesn’t help things by innocently asking him what newspapers he reads, and questions like that–it’s just force of habit–he wants to figure out which group Herman belongs to.  Herman would rather keep that to himself, thanks very much.   But they have a shared love of adventure, the romantic side of life, which serves as a point of understanding between them.

So they have to case the job out, do the legwork, and everybody pitches in.   May and Murch’s Mom (she’s got a name, but somehow that’s what everybody calls her) snap surreptitious photos of the bank, and May independently comes up with the idea of making curtains to disguise it as a regular mobile home.  The guys have to find a place to hide the trailer after they heist it, so Herman will have time to crack the safe.  And they need wheels to put under the trailer, which means they have to steal them–but in such a way as that nobody knows they’ve been stolen.

Kelp borrows a truck (no seriously, he puts it back afterwards, that’s borrowing), and they go to a plant that makes this kind of trailer, and along the way it turns out the seemingly innocent truck was being used to smuggle American cigarettes and Canuck booze back and forth across the border. The smokes are a nice bonus, but unfortunately some of the whiskey bottles broke during the previous trip, and the sickly sweet smell of Canadian Club (it ain’t Kentucky bourbon, folks) is soon making everybody in the back of the truck not so sweetly sick.

Everybody wants to sit up with Murch in the cab on the way home, and since there’s five of them, and the truck has a floor shift, it’s a really tight fit.  Murch thinks they deliberately didn’t share the whiskey with him (there wasn’t any, just the smell), so he keeps aiming for potholes on the way back.   These little misunderstandings will happen amongst the best of chums.

Not to get too far offtrack here, but damn, there’s a whole lot of cigarette references in this book.  May’s chainsmoking, for one.  The discussion in the truck over the smuggled smokes they find–L&M, Salem Virginia Slims–it’s kind of perversely sweet that Dortmunder immediately wants to take some of those home to May, even though she apparently steals all she needs from the Bohack (they sold cigarettes in supermarkets back then?).  There’s also this little exchange after Kelp picks Dortmunder up at the start of the book–Kelp offers Dortmunder a cancer stick (that’s what they are, leave us not forget)–

“True?  What the hell kind of brand is that?”

“It’s one of the new ones with the low nicotine and tar.”

“I’ll stick to Camels,” Dortmunder said, and out of the corner of his eye Kelp saw him pull a battered pack of them from his jacket pocket.  “True,” Dortmunder grumbled.  “I don’t know what the hell kind of name that is for a cigarette.”

Kelp was stung.  He said, “Well, what kind of name is Camel?  True means something.  What the hell does Camel mean?”

“It means cigarettes,” Dortmunder said.  “For years and years it means cigarettes.  I see something called True, I figure right away it’s a fake.”

“Just because you’ve been working a con,” Kelp said, “you figure everybody else is too.”

“That’s right,” Dortmunder said.

Oh if you only knew, pal.   There is grift, and then there is grift.  And right in the middle of my Pocket Books reprint of this novel (my favorite edition of all, in spite of what I’m about to show you, or maybe even a little because of it)–

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I know I shouldn’t even ask, vis a vis the ‘Kent Collectables’ (sic)–but–a popcorn popper?  In case you get the munchies while smoking?  What kind of cigarettes are these?

It’s probably just a coincidence that Kent isn’t one of the brands mentioned, but you never know, in the incestuous world of multinational corporations.  The Pocket Books reprint of I Gave At The Office also had a full color cigarette ad in it, also for Kent.

So anyway, in the wee wee hours of Sunday morning, when everything is closed and absolutely nobody is inside the bank, they jack up the trailer, very slowly and carefully, and put the wheels on.  There are concrete blocks around the base of the trailer, so nobody will know the wheels are there until they’re already rolling.   Dortmunder, in spite of himself, is pleased–this is good work, and it promises to be a nice score.   It’s not like that last job, where he had to steal the same emerald over and over.   This will be different.  Oh it’ll be different all right, Dortmunder.

So we get a brief chapter inside the bank, where the Continental Agency bulls are tossing the bull, and playing five card stud.  The guy whose head we’re inside is named Joe Mulligan–like many working this kind of gig, he’s a former cop, who got a P.I. license which he just used to get himself a steady security job with a reputable firm, instead of buying himself a trenchcoat and getting a seedy little office and faithful gal Friday with great gams, waiting around for Brigid O’Shaugnessy to come prancing in.   There’s no security in that line.

Aside from Joe, there’s some rather familiar-sounding names–guy named Block, another named Garfield, there’s even a Dresner.   These all being names belonging to writer chums of Westlake’s that he played poker with all the time.  This not being a joke 99% of people reading this book would ever get, but so much fun for the ones that do, eh?   There’s also a Fenton, who’s the boss of this shift, but I don’t know if he’s named after a friend of Westlake’s–I do know we see him again in some of the later books.  He and Dortmunder seem to have some kind of karma thing going on–mainly bad.

Westlake loved writing about card games, and I like reading what he wrote, but since I never even mastered the fine points of Go Fish, I can’t tell you how accurate he’s being.   All I can tell you is that Mr. Block has just laid down his cards, and Mulligan knows he has him beat, and he’s just about to slap his hand down triumphantly and claim the pot, when the trailer jerks violently, and everybody falls down, and the cards are all sent flying, and his winning hand is trumped by the bank he’s in being stolen by the Dortmunder Gang.  Don’t you hate it when that happens?

Something else you may have come to hate is my way of breaking these reviews off just when things are getting interesting, but it’s Friday, I want to relax this weekend, there’s plenty more to discuss, and anyway, making it a two-parter will really jack up my hits for the month.  If my review of his first outing taught me anything, it’s that Dortmunder is good for business.   He’d probably find that cruelly ironic.  Just suck it in, man.  Miles to go before you sleep.

PS: While helping Dortmunder make his grifter’s getaway from surburbia, Kelp gets rear-ended by a guy in a Pinto, who is hopping mad and wants to call the cops.   Kelp kindly points out to him that in the back of the car there are copies of some books the authorities might take an interest in–Passion Doll, Man Hungry, Strange Affair, Call Me Sinner, Off Limits, and Apprentice Virgin.   These are all ‘sleaze’ books written by Donald Westlake under pen names (see my review of Adios Scheherazade).  I must say, for a fellow who claimed to be embarrassed by his virginal apprenticeship in the porn pits Westlake certainly did bring it up a lot in his ‘respectable’ books.  If this qualifies as respectable.  I guess it’s all relative, no?

PPS: There are still more advertisements in the back of my Pocket Books reprint–

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I am particularly taken by that one on the right–“Invest $6.95 in a better marriage.”

J.C.?   That you?   Good Behavior, indeed.   How could I send my sainted mother that filth?  Oh well, she seemed to enjoy it.



Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder

48 responses to “Review: Bank Shot

  1. J. Goodman

    Does your Pocket Books edition have all the fake, punny book titles in the front of the book that Westlake supposedly wrote? My copy does, if I’m remembering correctly (guess it could be in The Hot Rock). I can’t be sure as it’s buried in a pile of stuff I can’t get to right now. I always thought that was a special bonus to that edition. Don’t know if it carried over to later reprints, though.

    • Yeah, those are there in my edition (which after all, is published by a company owned by Simon & Schuster, so the editions would be pretty much identical). I saw them when I reread it. I’ll get to them in Part 2. I certainly did not forget to mention that this time, in my rush to finish up before the weekend. Absolutely not. I want to make it very clear I did not forget to mention those titles. 😐

      • J. Goodman

        I seem to recall seeing a later edition published by Mysterious Press(?), but again, it could have been The Hot Rock. My Pocket edition of Bank Shot looks different than yours. I think it came out after the film was released, but I didn’t know if the faux books were a creation of the publisher, Westlake or both, and published in the MTI version I have as some sort of farcical tie-in. Thanks for the clarification, too…really…thank you for clarifying that it wasn’t an oversight as I wasn’t sure if you had forgotten it, but now I know! You do the lord’s work here every week and it’s amazing what you don’t forget and I won’t forget you for it!!!

        • I’m pretty sure Westlake was behind that–there’s a similar gag in Comfort Station, and that’s from Signet. We’ll be getting to that pretty soon. Of course, I shouldn’t give Westlake the credit for that–that was the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham. Sheahright.

          The Lord’s Work. You are too kind. I am but a humble servant. Please send cash donations to Father Fred Fitch, c/o Our Lady of Perpetual Snarking, Monequois NY.

          • I finally remembered to look at a book club version of the S&S first edition I have (presumably identical in all respects to the real first edition), and that did not have a list of books by Donald Westlake that he did not actually write. So it may have just been a reprint thing.

            And I wouldn’t say they were fake titles–unless your edition has a different list. Try to dig it out, and we’ll talk about it next time.

      • Ray Garraty

        My first edition UK hardcover does have fake titles, but doesn’t have any ads. Ciggies/fags (I know, I know) are not in the favor there?

        • The ads have nothing to do with the book–it’s the publisher–some publishers back then would accept outside advertising–at the end of the book, or sometimes full color ads stuck in the middle–the practice fell out of favor, and you don’t really see that anymore (it may be illegal now, and I could probably find out, but c’mon).

          And I’d assume they’d only do this with cheap paperbacks–the first edition, from Simon & Schuster, would be more expensive and prestigious, and people wouldn’t like seeing an ad stuck in there. But a cheap paperback, from Pocket Books (founded by Simon & Schuster)–that was acceptable, for a while there. As a kid, I used to have a paperback edition of The Red Badge of Courage that had a cigarette ad in it.

          This was a transitional period, when cigarette ads were banned on American TV (Nixon signed that into law in 1970) and the manufacturers were desperately looking for alternative ways to plug their products. They’ve found many more since then.

  2. It’s been awhile since I’ve read this one, but I believe there’s a passing reference to Stan Devers from the Parker universe — one of Dortmunder’s fellow heisters mentions working with Devers in the past. This is more solid evidence that Parker and Dortmunder share the same universe (well, more solid than the Alan Grofield/Greenwood joke), but that connection will be blown out of the water by the next Dortmunder book. We’ll get to that.

    • Yeah, Herman mentions working with Devers, when Dortmunder wants his references. I don’t think we should take that as evidence of any kind–it’s just another injoke. I mean, are we supposed to believe Lawrence Block, Hal Dresner, and Brian Garfield all moonlighted as bank guards? Or that Alan Marshall is a real person, whose merely sleazy books are actual porn that can be confiscated by the police in the Dortmunder dimension?

      Maybe Westlake toyed with the idea of a crossover, but somehow I doubt it. As we’ve seen, Stark and Westlake were never on the best of terms. They are parallel universes–existing side by side, occasionally overlapping–little wormholes open up, but anyone who passes through them from the Stark Lands to the Whimsical World of Westlake is transformed into a comic version of his former self. Offhand, I can’t think of any journeys in the opposite direction, can you? If there were, I wonder which would be the cigarettes, and which would be the Canadian Club? 😉

  3. Fiction has no particular allure for him, nor does music, or athletics (except the equine variety).

    Nor, as we lear a few books from now, is he a history buff.

    Bank Shot also contains this bit:

    But Kelp was still aggrieved. “Last night,” he said “you told me you were gonna be today in Ranch Cove Estates.”
    Dortmunder’s attention had been caught. “I’m not?”
    Kelp pointed at the windshield. “Ranch Cove Estates stops three blocks down there,” he said. “This is Elm Valley Heights.”
    Dortmunder looked around at no ranch, no elms, and no heights. “I must have slipped across the border,” he said.

    It’s a bit out of character for Dortmunder, who is not a wiseacre, and a bit out of syntax for Kelp, who is not an eighty-year-old Yiddish speaker, but it’s still one of my favorite things.

    • Dortmunder has much more of a sense of humor than Parker–he needs it–it’s a defense mechanism. Remember his ‘family crest’, from a later book? He actually makes jokes sometimes. Parker only resorts to the occasional grim pun. “Now you’re the message.”

      I think Kelp probably is Jewish–if not literally, then spiritually. It’s just not something he feels any particular need to talk about. Ethnicity (race, religion, national ancestry) is rarely specifically alluded to in the books (Herman X, Tiny Bulcher)–it’s not relevant to the story most of the time.

      Dortmunder obviously has some Irish in him (maybe some German, although that surname doesn’t seem to exist in Germany–Dortmund does, but Dortmunder is the name of a beer, and one suspects he just adopted it as a convenient handle while drinking at a bar one day, which is after all where Westlake got the name from). He was raised in a Catholic orphanage, it’s part of his background, but he’s not wearing it on his sleeve.

      Yiddish has had a huge influence on the cadence of the American vernacular, as you know. My mother used to say “Oy vey” all the time when me and my siblings were kids (I wonder why), and she was the daughter of Irish immigrants. But she grew up in New York City, as did Andy Kelp. It’s unavoidable.

      • Adi Kiescher

        You’re right, we don’t have the surname Dortmunder here in Germany. Interesting that the only other use of Dortmunder as a surname is in some British crime novel: “The Dark Palace” by R. N. Morris. A guy by the name of Fritz Dortmunder is considered to be a German spy, and it’s definitely not his real name but an alias.

    • Anthony

      The no elms no valleys no heights thing is one of my favorite Westlake passages ever. It is probably what inspired me to read everything off his I could get my hands on and read every new book the minute it was published. It never struck me as Dortmunder being a wiseacre. Rather it helped to establish his exasperation with the inanity of every other person on earth, in this case personified by the people who come up with cutesy names for streets and neighborhoods – hey if 142nd street and Amsterdam Avenue are good enough here, they should be good enough everywhere.

      The only discordant note, upon reflection, is that Dortmunder obviously wouldn’t know an elm tree from any other tree…

      • Well, he’d have a general idea of what an elm is supposed to look like, and he’d see there was nothing like it anywhere nearby. Elms are pretty damned rare in any American suburb, thanks to Dutch Elm Disease. There are some really nice old ones in certain New York City parks, so Dortmunder could conceivably know what they look like.

        Hey, were there ever any actual elms in those Nightmare on Elm Street movies? Oh never mind.

        Westlake was always bemused by suburbia, I think. The artificiality of it. He either wanted to be in the city or the country. No in-between.

        I can appreciate the way he feels, since I grew up in a development called Cherry Hill, and guess what we didn’t have there?


        • Anthony

          My guess is that Dortmunder is vaguely aware that there are deciduous trees (“trees”) and conifers (“pine trees”) and that’s as far as he
          sees the need to take it.

          Also – not sure the episode was out of character for Kelp (who is my favorite of all Westlake’s creations. I’ve always wondered if he is the closest to Westlake himself). In the early books Kelp was continually baffled by Dortmunder’s mulish out of stepness with society and commented on it. In later books he came to accept it. And commented on it.

          • Except Westlake himself was such a determined non-early adopter, that he continued to write his books on manual typewriters right up to the end.

            I’ve considered the possibility that Kelp is an aspect of Westlake’s own personality, but I’ve also considered that he might be one of Westlake’s writer buddies–or a composite of several. Or both. It could easily be both.

            • Anthony

              I’m sure it is both. The personality traits of Kelp that I think reflect Westlake are

              -He’s aware of and interested in a wide variety of arcane subjects. Not a master of it all, necessarily – just open.
              -He’s got a great bullshit detector and he’s not afraid to use it
              -He’s amiable

              Beyond that, he’s, well, Kelp

              • Right–he’s no Mary Sue. He, like Dortmunder, like nearly all the characters in these books, are fully formed personages, and thus escape that wish-fulfillment aspect that kept Grofield from becoming a fully fledged creation in his own right.

                Seeing Dortmunder and Kelp as two sides of the same personality, you can say that Kelp is the one that keeps having ideas, and Dortmunder is the one that has to figure out how to make them work–and so often is unable to do so. Who is he going to blame but Kelp? But then again, ideas were pitched to Westlake by actual people in his life (we’ve already covered a number of books, good and bad, that were the result of something somebody proposed to him), and sometimes those ideas worked out, and sometimes they didn’t.

                One must say, Kelp’s ideas tend to be the ones that don’t work out so well. But he has his virtues, hard as they can be to discern at times. From the reader’s POV, his ideas all work out really well.

  4. Adi Kiescher

    Very nice, can’t wait for Part II. What I really like so much about your reviews, it’s like reading the whole book again, remembering this, remembering that. I’ve read the Dortmunders and the Parkers over and over again and again, not even mentioning Kahawa which I almost know by heart in the meantime. But with all the additional fine print and hints and cross references in your reviews there’s always new stuff I still have missed. Awesome work, really! I love it!
    BTW, I was missing one cover, the one from Futura Publications (Great Britain). A rather strange one, still funny though, with a strange comics figure wallpapering some wall (the bank trailer?) with a dollar note.

    • I’ll post more covers next time–this book actually inspired some really good (and strange) cover art, all over the world. Not sure I’ve come across that one, but I’ll look for it. I get most of the cover images from the Official Westlake blog, and they’ve been adding new images all the time. I suspect not even Donald Westlake had a copy of every edition of every one of his books.

      I’ve wrestled with myself over whether I discuss the books in too much detail–I would hate to spoil them for people who haven’t read them yet. But it doesn’t seem to me that you can really examine a book without discussing what happens in it. I try, when possible, to not give certain things away. But I very strongly believe that Westlake was about much more than just style (and of course he had multiple styles of writing)–his content is highly significant. He made very intentional choices, which were communicating ideas, beliefs, attitudes–and to better understand what he was telling us, we have to look closer. It’s all there. It’s just a matter of cracking the code. Easy peasy, compared to James Joyce’s later work. And a lot more fun, you ask me. 😉

  5. Anthony

    I Google imaged Winona Ryder 2015 would agree that there is a certain May vibe. However, Winona is only like 5′ 3″ and May is tall.

    Maybe Kristen Wiig, brunette like in Walter Mitty…?

    • I could accept a short May. I’m thinking more about a TV series, and Kristen Wiig is too busy for that. Well, let’s do lunch at Chateau Marmont, and we’ll hammer out the fine details. 😐

  6. Ray Garraty

    It’s hardly possible to make a TV series (I mean any good TV series) out of Parker books. But I keep seeing Dortmunder books as TV material. You can’t translate Parker to a blue screen: what will he do when he’s not working, if he can’t always work? It’ll be whole episodes about how Parker stares in one point and lays in the dark. You can’t even show him with other people as he doesn’t like to spend his time with other people.
    Dortmunder on the other hand is sitcom-ish, it’s always possible to surround him with a whole lot of his crew and other hangers-on. The books are funny, and this humour is if not easily then still is transferable to TV script.
    I see Dortmunder books as comfy reading, where no one gets hurt, where nothing bad can happen to Dortmunder and his crew. They don’t challange you, they just amuse you.
    And Bank Job is an improvement over the first one.

    • I don’t entirely agree, because there are channels, like HBO, that do very production-intensive shows with short seasons. You could adapt the Parker novels more less verbatim, maybe 10-15 episodes a year, and it would take quite a while to get through 24 books–and that’s assuming you didn’t adapt the Grofields as well.

      I don’t think it’ll happen, and I agree it wouldn’t work on commercial-supported TV, but HBO could do it. Showtime too, I suppose, but I hate all their shows, so I’d rather they didn’t even try. Showtime would screw it up bigtime. HBO or nothing.

      Dortmunder would be more of a USA series–FX, possibly. There are a lot fewer Dortmunder stories, so they would need a lot more filler material. Which no doubt would suit the writers just fine.

      Dortmunder challenges you in a different way–after all, both book series are primarily written to entertain. Read a few more Dortmunders before you decide how challenging it is.

      Anyway, after ‘Parker‘, what’s the point of even talking about adaptations? I’m sure there’ll be more Westlake books adapted in time, but that particular project really left a bad smell behind it, that won’t go away in a hurry. Yes, I know I brought it up, but that was just an excuse to talk about Winona Ryder. 😉

      • In 2002, FX optioned the rights to a Parker TV series (according to a contemporaneous Variety article), but it never went anywhere, apparently, but my guess is that in morphed into (or was supplanted) by the Andre Braugher-starring series, “Thief,” which was also optioned in 2002 but didn’t see broadcast until 2005. The show saw Braugher playing a Parker-esque thief, but one with a messy home life (his wife dies in the pilot; his teenage stepdaughter is a handful. (You had me with Andre Braugher, and you lost me with teenage stepdaughter.)

        I do think FX could potentially be a good home for either a Stark or a Westlake adaptation. Their one-season wonder “Terriers,” about a couple of layabout off-the-books private eyes, was simply marvelous.

        I stand by my casting of William H. Macy as Dortmunder, even if at 65 he’s maybe a bit too old now.

        • I read about that. See, this is why Parker can’t be adapted faithfully for the big screen, or for commercial television. They’re always going to try and make him ‘relatable’. Mind you, if that show had been sold as a Parker adaptation, I can think of one Parker fan I used to spar with who’d have been much more offended by the Andre Braugher part.

          (He’s a little short, isn’t he? Bald too. You know my feelings about bald Parkers already, I think.)

          Only at HBO would the right creative team be given enough freedom to really go for it–to do what nobody has ever really tried to do–play it straight, and close to the books (and do it period, because the stories make no sense if there are cellphones and stuff).

          The home of The Wire and The Sopranos could do it up right. I think it would be a disaster anywhere else. But of course, they’re all lining up to pitch to HBO. So the odds of it ever happening are lousy. And that’s fine. As I’ve said before, the books will always be what matters, more than any show, any film.

          The adaptations were a nice source of alternative income for Westlake. They made it easier for him to concentrate on writing his books, gave him a bit more freedom to experiment, follow his muse where it led him. But that’s no longer an issue, sadly. So if they aren’t going to do it right (and Westlake can’t stop them from using Parker’s name anymore), what’s the point? I mean, the estate would profit, the family would profit–I don’t begrudge them that. But to borrow a line from Dortmunder, Quid lucrum istic mihi est? 😉

          • Adi Kiescher

            There are movies and TV series which are written to be movies and TV series, not books. Ever read a James Bond book, anybody?
            There are books which are written to be books, not movies or TV series. That’s Dortmunders and Parkers. Not even by geniuses like the makers of The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Shield or The Wire – all of whom were doing an outstanding job.
            Just my two cents.

            • I read Moonraker, to prep for my review of The Handle–it wasn’t bad. I certainly wasn’t skipping through. There’s never been a movie anything like that book. The book is set entirely in England, Bond never has sex once during it, Drax is a former Nazi masquerading as an English gentleman, and the most exciting chapter describes a card game at a private club where Drax is caught cheating(gasp!)–thus proving he is no English gentleman. The film with Roger Moore took the odd few liberties, we can all agree, but still more faithful than that Slayground movie. :\

              I take your point, and agree with it–Bond belongs on the big screen, in a way Parker doesn’t–he’s not all that complex, or puzzling. He’s purely a fantasy made flesh, and that’s what Hollywood is always looking for. However, we do sometimes see movies and shows that are more than just fantasies–that have powerful truths of their own to impart.

              It’s not impossible–just very unlikely. Because what you’d need is somebody very creative who was willing to subordinate his or her creativity to that of a dead novelist. Somebody that good would have stories of his or her own to tell. Westlake wouldn’t expect or want that person to just toil away in his shadow. But neither would he want Parker–or Dortmunder–robbed of their individuality, their unique qualities. He’d want them represented as they truly are. Warts and all.

              So it’s a puzzle, and maybe we puzzle over it too much, here and elsewhere, but it does pass the time.

        • Ray Garraty

          I’m #1 Braugher’s fan this side of the Pond, but I just don’t see him as a thief. (Thief was a so-so.)
          Anyway, I didn’t mean to bring up again the topic of adaptations of Westlake’s books. By adaptability of Dortmunder books I meant one of these books’ quality. Good screenwriter can turn one Dortmunder book into a whole season. They have something about them that has a resemblance with books about weird and dysfunctional families. These books could be stretched and directed almost in any direction. They could be populated by characters that are not Westlake’s creations but Westlake-like creations. It can’t be done in Parker books.

          • I think a whole season for one book would be pushing it. You’re right, though–Dortmunder is about family, in a way Parker isn’t. That does make him more suitable for television. And it also creates a genuine possibility–see, having read all the books, I know no film or show could ever fully capture them–but I also know I never did get enough of certain supporting characters–Herman X–Tiny Bulcher–J.C. Taylor. I don’t want to spoil upcoming developments for you, but suffice it to say–there were some scenes Westlake never wrote for those last two characters I just mentioned that I’d have really loved to see.

            On a TV series, the supporting players could get a lot more time and attention–but most likely, they wouldn’t be done right, and probably there’d be a bunch of new characters I didn’t like.

            I do know who I’d cast as Tiny, though. But I’m not telling yet. 🙂

            • Anthony

              Everybody loved Andre the Giant as Fezzik. Except me. Wasn’t the Fezzik I loved in the book. (Mandy Patinkin was perfect as Inigo, though).

              Doesn’t matter who you’d cast as Tiny. Just being huge isn’t it.

              • Well, I wasn’t referring to Mr. Roussimoff–alas, he has moved on to a dimension hopefully better suited to his–dimensions.

                But if you ever did want to cast Tiny, you probably would be taking a good look at the WWE. Very large people who can play characters. In The Princess Bride, Andre was basically playing himself, and I happen to think that worked, but we can agree to disagree. I certainly agree the movie, as much fun as it is, doesn’t even come close to fully capturing the book.

                However–and I am currently wasting far too much time debating this elsewhere–I think Game of Thrones is vastly superior to the books it is based on. The characters are deeper and more convincing. To have great ideas is not the same thing as being able to fully execute them on paper. Great ideas and characters can never be fully expressed by limp colorless overabundant prose. George R.R. Martin is basically writing a seven volume film treatment for a TV series–which is turning into one of the best TV series of all time. And I feel so guilty saying that. I feel like a traitor to the printed page. But it’s true. :\

  7. rinaldo302

    One of the few (only?) things that the movie of Jimmy the Kid did right was the casting of Dee Wallace as May.

  8. Tom

    Speaking of casting for Tiny, I always saw the wild-eyed Donald Gibb, he of Bloodsport and Revenge of the Nerds fame as Tiny Bulcher.

    My casting for Kelp would be influenced by a TV movie I loved as a kid: The Incredible Hulk Returns. Steve Levitt plays ‘Donald Blake’ and shows up and irritates David Banner by opening up the Pandora’s Box of Thor. Levitt plays a very Kelp-like figure and he’s who my young mind always connected with Kelp.

    I know they’re both too old now, but I’m playing Imaginary Casting Director, so what the hell…:)

    • I like him very much (though I did not remember his name, he’s just the loud crazy beard guy who I also remember from that HBO football series), but he’s only 6’4–a mere infant–and his persona tends to the uncouth–Tiny would squash him like a bug. Possibly without even noticing. Just walk right over him, and after a while he’d notice something was stuck to his shoe.

      You need someone truly enormous, with a more softspoken menacing gravitas. Tiny never blusters. Never so much as raises his voice. He just quietly reminds you that he could flatten you like a beer can, and never so much as muss his suit. Tiny Bulcher is a giant, and there are the odd few who can act. Not that last guy who played The Mountain on Game of Thrones, though. And Rory ‘The Hound’ McCann is too Scottish. Still not big enough.

      I saw that Hulk movie (my memories are not nostalgic, 70’s child though I be), and found a YouTube clip (Donald Blake was a separate character? I must have blocked that out. Incidentally, why is Thor always such a douche in movies? The noblest Asgardian of them all. Somewhere, Jack Kirby is shaking his head.)

      I think Levitt would have been okay to play the kid. You know, from the later books. J.C’s gofer. Kelp? Let us agree to differ.

      • Tom

        I thought my casting choices were genius, dammit! GENIUS!

        Anyway, Looking over your review reminded me of memories I had long suppressed. You mention all the cigarette stuff in the book (including cigarettes sold in supermarkets). I believe I’ve told you that I came across Westlake at quite a young age. Well, I was also (ahem) a bit of a petty thief and would steal cigarettes from stores since I was underage (which was surprisingly easy at the time. They’ve gotten smarter now and make you ask the clerk to purchase them, as opposed to leaving them out displayed for anyone to snatch). I was quite good at it (I’m not saying this with pride, mind you, though Dortmunder would gloomily reflect on getting caught by May at Bohack’s while a teenager beats him at his own game).

        I’m always leery about too much attribution of behavior to pop culture influence, but I WAS smoking both Camel and True cigarettes thanks to Bank Shot. (True is pretty weird and like no other cigarette I’ve seen; there’s this visible plastic triangle in the filter. No wonder Westlake has Kelp smoking them.)

        • If it works for you, in your head, that’s all that matters. I see Alan Grofield as Alan Alda–hear his voice whenever Grofield speaks. But mostly, I don’t get that specific. If I’m literally producing a TV series in my head (this would be after I’ve finished the book) then I have to try and pick actors, but it’s never quite exactly right, and it never would be. Which is why books are better.

          Worst I ever did was cop quarters from my dad’s bureau dresser (and I got caught). Never ever smoked, though sometimes when my grandma was watching me, I’d see her buy Parliaments (not the image the brand was going for–grandma’s favorite smoke–but what the hell).

          Did it ever occur to you that maybe it was supposed to be easier for you to steal them? That there might have been some memo in a file at RJ Reynolds to try and keep the ciggies in the parts of the store where dumb kids could easily snatch them–and get addicted–then buy them as adults? And think it was all their idea? For the rest of their (perhaps greatly curtailed) lives? Westlake made his opinion of that industry very clear in Smoke. They get you young, or not at all. And damned if they didn’t find a new delivery system the kids adore, that kills you in different ways. Solved that whole problem. And created new ones.

          Dortmunder was right, he so often is–when somebody trying to sell you something calls it True, that means they’re lying. I’ve never really been sure what the point of calling cigarettes Camels was. But the package art is cool. Joe Camel, not so much.

          • Tom

            ‘Did it ever occur to you that maybe it was supposed to be easier for you to steal them?’

            Haha no, on reflection, that hadn’t occurred to me. Though I wouldn’t put that kind of deviousness past the tobacco companies. If that’s what they were going for, it didn’t work, at least in my case. Haven’t smoked in years, though a cigar once in a blue moon is nice. I simply quit and there wasn’t any difficulty about it. I have relatives who smoked for years and have a bitch of a time quitting and it always kind of mystified me: I liked smoking, but not THAT much.

            I think I remember reading that no matter the substance (even something like heroin) only somewhere around ten percent of people who try that substance actually wind up becoming addicted to them. Maybe I’m just in the lucky ninety percent. For cigarettes that is. Alcohol is a different story. A bourbon in the back of the O.J. Bar and Grill sounds nice right now. Even with COVID-19.

            • Yeah, these are trying times for Dortmunder, we can be sure (though really, when were the untrying times for Dortmunder?) The OJ is quite certainly not serving customers now. I suppose Rollo could have upped his game in the culinary department, done takeout/delivery, like my local is doing now, just enough revenue to keep the place open. And maybe the backroom is still available, somehow. They mask and distance while plotting heists. (Tiny would find it unpardonably rude for people to not wear masks around him). Hmm. I been thinking about a follow-up to Mysterious Ways.

              And of course the masks have their professional advantages, no? Kelp would see it right away. Masked men no longer objects of suspicion, but rather the unmasked ones. Masked people are the good citizens now. Cops wrestling unmasked folks to the ground. Yeah, Kelp is seeing possibilities here.

              Certain types of crime are booming in NYC–like car theft. Nobody driving much, autos untended for long periods of time, might not even know it was gone for days. Murch Heaven. Assuming he can still move the merchandise over at Maximilian’s Used Cars, and there’s always somebody looking for a creampie at a bargain.

              Yeah, I could write another Dortmunder pastiche, set in this awful yet interesting time, but would that be dancing on graves? Tricky. Our dog’s vet died of it. And you never know when your own shoulder’s gonna get tapped. Dortmunder is probably amazed he’s still around. But he’s still around. Not going anywhere while Max Fairbanks is President. And that shoulder’s getting tapped. Believe it.

              • Tom

                I suppose now that I’ve entered a Dortmunder idea into our modern situation, it seems to me that we’re living in a time of prime Westlake material. Our whackjob President, the troubled race relations, the political instability what with the splinter groups (Antifa and the like…although is Antifa even a group??). I had made it into a cardinal rule of mine that I wasn’t going to get into the rabbit hole of politics on Facebook after years of not being on it…and after rejoining I broke my own little rule after a few months by fighting with some guy I didn’t know. Dortmunder and Parker seem to be apolitical by nature, and yet Dortmunder especially has a way of being drawn into the politics anyway. God, I wish Westlake were here….

          • rinaldo302

            “I’ve never really been sure what the point of calling cigarettes Camels was. But the package art is cool. Joe Camel, not so much.”

            For a while in the late 1970s, Camel chose as the center of its advertising a character they called “The Turk.” Scroll near the bottom of

            This seemed to make an impression chiefly on two groups: Turkish-Americans (seriously, Google around for reactions to the effect that this was the most favorable image they’ve been given in the popular press) and gay men. As one of the latter, I can say that The Turk got my attention, but he didn’t induce me to take up smoking.

            • I’d assume any uptick in sales to Turkish Americans was offset by defecting Greek Americans.

              Given the asthma troubles I’m having now, certainly grateful I never smoked. Might not have lived to see this glorious age. Hmmm…….

              • rinaldo302

                I think I’ve smoked two cigarettes in my life. They were in army boot camp, in the 10-minute break between classes, when the drill sergeants announced (yes, they really did say this) “Smoke ’em if you got ’em.” If you weren’t smoking, you got grabbed to set up for the next class.

              • I assume candy cigarettes wouldn’t have been sufficient excuse. I actually remember eating candy cigarettes. They made candy cigarettes. For children. And they didn’t taste half-bad. The good old days.

          • Everybody who ever read Westlake wishes he was still here.

            Me, I think he’s probably wondering (wherevere he is) “What’s the point in writing it when the entire world is living it?”

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