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)–
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–
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.