Review: Bank Shot, Part 2

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DORTMUNDER said, “I suppose it’s unfair to blame you for this job.”

“That’s right,” Kelp said.  He was driving, and Dortmunder was in the front seat beside him.

“But I do,” Dortmunder said

Kelp gave him an aggrieved look and faced front again.  “That isn’t fair,” he said.

“Nevertheless.”

I forgot to mention last week that my beloved Pocket Books reprint of this book contains an extra little treat for the sharp-eyed reader.   Look at the list of other books by Donald E. Westlake.

KIC Image 0001(4)

This bogus book list is not in the first edition from Simon & Schuster (big hardcover publishers are so serious).  Ray Garraty tells me it is in the UK first edition, and it may appear in some others.  It’s a gag we’ll see repeated (in somewhat different form) in another book we’ll be looking at soon–a first edition paperback from an entirely different publisher.  That’s a list of books that never existed at all, but this, by contrast, is a rather eclectic list combining five books Westlake really did write (all of which have been reviewed here) with nine variously famous published works from other authors that mainly saw print before Westlake was born.  Pretty sure the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature has no author at all, but now who’s being too serious?

Just FYI, The Merry Devil of Edmonton is an Elizabethan-era play that was once attributed to Shakespeare, and I know that because I googled it like one minute ago.  I have to ask–did Pocket send Westlake some kind of form on which he was supposed to list past works that readers of this book might be interested in, and he was in one of those moods he got into sometimes?  And they just printed it verbatim?  I wouldn’t rule it out.

But people who work at publishing companies generally know something about books, I would like to think.  Pocket was probably in on the joke.   And the point of the joke, I’d imagine, is that this is a book where nothing gets taken seriously, even the usual publishing house boilerplate opposite the title page that most of us flip right past on our way to the story.

I do think the reference to the W.C. Fields biography (actually written by Robert Lewis Taylor) is more than a throwaway gag–Fields was a big influence on Westlake’s comedy, and certainly on the Dortmunder books.  That same sense of light-hearted (not to mention light-fingered) misanthropy.  And the next Dortmunder even has its own much more erudite version of Baby Leroy in it.  So that’s more of a tip of the hat than a wink of the eye.   And that’s all we need say about that, except that if Stuart R. Johnson wants his book back, he’s shit out of luck.

Bank Shot is dedicated “To Bill Goldman.  Here’s something to think about at the icebox.”  That would be William Goldman, fellow novelist and nonpareil screenwriter, who had adapted The Hot Rock into a film starring Robert Redford as Dortmunder.  The Italian edition of this book, seen up top, has Redford’s image on it, even though George C. Scott played the Dortmunder character (by another name) in the abominable second film.   Westlake loved Goldman’s screenplay, even though it was pretty badly mangled in the course of making the film (see my review of The Hot Rock movie).

This seems like his way of expressing a fond personal hope that Goldman would get another crack at the Dortmunder ‘franchise’, and they could spend more time discussing the characters, as they had for the previous film.  Sadly, it was not to be.   If you want to know just how sadly, rent the George C. Scott film, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.   You ask me, somebody should have warned George C. Scott.

So when last we saw the Capitalists’ and Immigrants’ Trust (“Just Watch Us Grow!”), temporarily housed in a trailer, it was hitched to a stolen truck driven by Stan Much, with Dortmunder riding shotgun.  Meanwhile, the security guards inside are getting tossed around like radishes in a salad spinner, and are gradually losing consciousness because the robbers thoughtfully routed the truck exhaust into the bank (not enough to kill them, just knock them out–it’s not a Richard Stark novel).

The cops patrolling that street have just passed the erstwhile site of the bank, have called in the robbery to a very confused dispatcher, and are now mainly just staring at the place the bank once was in a state of quiet disbelief.  This can’t actually be happening, right?

One thing Westlake figured out writing The Hot Rock, was that in a comic crime story (much as in a silent comedy), a lot of the best comedic possibilities lay with the forces of law & order, such as they are (to be sure, Shakespeare had figured that out as far back as Much Ado About Nothing).  The second half of Bank Shot alternates between the POV’s of the Dortmunder Gang and the police, particularly one Captain Deemer and his trusty aide, Lieutenant Hepplewhite.

Captain Deemer, with a facial tic that makes it look like he’s winking when he’s particularly agitated, keeps saying they need to ‘tighten the net’ (he makes this ghastly chicken-throttling hand gesture every time he says that).   He is not a man to be trifled with.  And he knows full well that if an entire bank gets successfully stolen from right under his shiny red nose, he will never live it down in a million years.

And now he’s got to figure out how this supposedly wheel-less trailer just vanished from where it was supposed to be.  Towards this end, he is visited by a delegation–George Gelding (ouch!), an official of the bank that got stolen (he would like it back), George Docent  (heh), who works for the company that made the safe the money was in– and then there is Mr. Gary Wallah (Westlake is having too much fun with these names).   He works for the Roamerica Company, which made the trailer, only he insists it be called a mobile home.  The word ‘hippie’ does not appear in this book, but it should be noted that if Mr. Wallah is not a hippie, the word really has no meaning.

So it turns out Dortmunder has a problem he had not anticipated–the safe in the bank they just stole is the latest thing in asset protection, and it will take quite some time for even an experienced box man to crack it.  Somehow, the conversation in which this highly salient fact is revealed to Captain Deemer turns into a political argument.   Well, consider the time period this book was written in.  Then consider the passage below.

“I was saying,” Docent said, “that they’ll find that safe a tough nut to crack.  It’s one of the most modern safes we make, with the latest advances in heat-resistant and shock-resistant metals.  These are advances that come from research connected with the Vietnam war. It’s one of the ironic benefits of that unhappy–

“Oh wow,” said Gary Wallah.

Docent turned to him, firm but fair.  “All I’m saying,” he said, “is that research has been stimulated into some–”

“Oh wow.  I mean, wow.”

I’ve heard all your arguments, and I can’t say I entirely disagree with–”

“Wow, man.”

“At this time,” George Gelding said, standing at attention, and looking very red-faced, “when some person or persons unknown have stolen a branch of the Capitalists’ and Immigrants’ Trust, and our brave boys are dying on far-flung battlefields to protect the likes of you who–”

“Oh, wow.”

“Now, there’s much to be said on both sides, but the point is–”

“I see those flaaaaag-draped coffins, I hear the loved ones in their cottages and on the farms of America–”

“Like, really, wow.”

Captain Deemer glowered at them all through the remaining slit of his right eye.  A bellowed shut up might attract their attention–all three were talking at the same time now–but did he want them to shut up?  If they stopped arguing with each other, they’d just start talking to the captain again, and he wasn’t sure he wanted that.

Well, we’ve certainly made strides as a nation since then in our ability to calmly discuss our differences, wouldn’t you say?  You wouldn’t?  Wow, man.

Meanwhile, in a high school football field on Long Island, having left the monoxide-befuddled security guards to take a nice long nap alongside a pleasant country lane, Dortmunder & Co. are painting the trailer lime-green with a quick-drying paint, while May puts up the curtains she made.   Herman X is studying the safe with a general air of consternation.   And back at his nerd cave, Kelp’s former FBI agent nephew Victor, whose idea this job was in the first place, is writing (and tape-recording) Dortmunder fanfic, a sort of one-man radio play, with Victor in the role of Mary Sue.

“Steely-eyed Dortmunder surveyed his work.  The wheels were under the very floor of the bank itself. Hungry desperate men, their hat brims pulled low, his gang had worked with him beneath the shield of night to install those wheels, turning the innocent-seeming bank into an…

ENGINE OF GREED!

“I myself had been one of those men, as recounted in the earlier tale, Wheels of Terror!, in this same series.  And now, the final moment had come, the moment that had filled our every waking thought for all these days and weeks of preparation.

” ‘This is the payoff,’ Dortmunder snarled softly.  ‘Tonight we get the whole swag.’

” ‘Right, boss,’ whispered Kelp eagerly, his scarred face twisting into a brutal smile.

Little do these desperate fiends realize that the man they know as Lefty the Lip is in reality SECRET AGENT J-27!  (I guess J-26 was already taken?)

Victor has no idea who he is.  This is the identity puzzle of the book, which for a Westlake novel, doesn’t really delve much into identity as such, but it’s got to be in there somewhere, and this is it.  The other characters know themselves pretty well, have chosen lives that make sense for them (if not most people), but Victor is just a kid trying on different hats, looking for one that fits.

If Victor were the protagonist of this book, we’d maybe find out how he resolves his confusion, but since he’s just one comic figure among many, we are simply faced with the hilarious yet poignant tableau of a former lawman who comes up with a robbery scheme, finds career criminals to carry it out for him, then imagines himself working undercover to nab them.  Which he has no intention of doing, he loves these people.  But none of it is real to him, just another role-playing game to delay maturity, and one has to figure that’s one of the reasons his idea is not working out so well in the real world.  Such as it is.   He just assumed the safe would open up like a tin can.  Because that’s how it always happens in the stories.

The desperate fiends have now taken shelter in the Wanderlust Trailer Camp.  An increasingly flustered Herman is explaining to an increasingly irate Dortmunder that this particular tin can will take at least 24 hours to open–with morning coming, and everybody from the cops to the Boy Scouts of America looking for the stolen bank, they have to get under cover somehow.

Inspiration strikes, in the form of Much’s Mom, who says they can stay hidden at the camp in plain sight, like The Purloined Letter, until Herman opens the safe (there’s a reason the most prestigious award for this genre is called The Edgar, you know).  They just have to hook the trailer up to power and plumbing, and pay rent on it.  It’ll blend in perfectly, and who’s going to suspect two nice middle-aged ladies like May and Murch’s Mom of stealing a whole bank?

May is nothing short of magnificent in this crisis, as is Mrs. M.–they calmly talk their way around the confused assistant manager of the park, who is wondering where these new tenants came from. He doesn’t really care, as long as he doesn’t get in trouble.  And right as May is filling out the forms, and handing him the rental money, in come the state troopers.  If you don’t want trouble, you need to stay the hell away from Dortmunder & Co.

As all this is going on, Murch is telling his cab driver mom to keep her (wholly unneeded) neck brace on, because they’ve got this whiplash case coming up in the courts, and she wouldn’t want to be seen without it, and she’s trying to make him see the absurdity of that, given their present situation, but do children ever listen to their mothers?  Meanwhile, Herman is trying all sorts of power tools and explosives on the safe, and as Dortmunder acidly comments, you can’t say he hasn’t made a dent in it.  He’s made a very small dent.

The troopers depart, not seeing any trailers that look like banks–the paint job and the curtains really paid off.  Just one little problem–it’s about to rain.  A lot.  And they used a water-based paint.  Well, they dry faster.   Was that not a good idea?

So the assistant manager, having just been informed about the bank, is horrified to see it materialize before his very eyes, as the green trailer becomes a blue and white trailer with a bank’s name on it.  Does he call the cops?  That would mean trouble, which he does not want, so he just tells them they have to leave before anybody sees them.  He gives them enough time to get the truck back and tow the bank somewhere else, assuming they can find another suitable spot to hide in plain sight.  So is that good luck or bad?   It’s getting hard to tell the difference.

It seemed to Dortmunder, sitting there in the stolen station wagon while Kelp optimistically dragged him around through all this rain on a wild goose chase, that this was the story of his life.  His luck was never all good, but it was never all bad either.  It was a nice combination of the two, balanced so exactly that they canceled each other out.  The same rain that washed away the green paint also loused up the police search.  They stole the bank, but they couldn’t get into the safe.  On and on.

It’s almost as if some whimsical deity was planning it that way–and of course that’s exactly what is happening, and his name is not  Yahweh, but Westlake.  But ask yourself this–who’s writing your life?   Didn’t Dortmunder just describe it to a T?  I won’t speak for you, but I know he just described mine.   So are we all in some three dimensional novel dreamed up by some bored omnipotent being, who rather than killing us for his sport (for the moment) is merely putting us through our paces, just to see what we do next?  Just to see what our next bank shot is like, and where the ball might ricochet?   Are we God’s Dortmunder?

And as Dortmunder likewise philosophizes, the ever-ingenious Kelp improvises–he’s noticed there’s a space by the road they’re on where a diner–the kind that used to be housed in trailers, or trolleys, or old railroad cars (you still see them sometimes) used to be.  And the signs are still there.   Pull the trailer up (on the side that doesn’t have the bank’s name on it–ditch the truck again–voila!   Instant restaurant.  Purloined Letter once again.

So they do that, and Herman is getting close to opening the safe, and who should turn up but Captain Deemer and Lieutenant Hepplewhite.  Tired, wet, and discouraged–they’d like a hot cup of coffee and a danish.   Hello, nice middle-aged ladies–what’s that you say?  Not open for business yet?   Too bad.  Hey, you haven’t seen a stolen bank pass by, have you?

So Deemer sends out for coffee and danish over the car radio, and a bunch more squad cars show up, hoping to allay his savage fury, so now the bank is totally surrounded by cops armed with takeout food–and they even share the extras with the nice people in the trailer.  And leave.  Finally.

And Herman is about to blow the safe.   Finally.  And he does.  The money is there–smouldering a bit on top, from the explosion, and all Herman could make was a round hole on one side, but it’s enough to reach in and start scooping out cash.  And as this is going on, they suddenly notice–they’re moving.

And turns out they should have remembered to put some blocks against those trailer wheels.   Because they’re on top of a hill.  And the only thing holding them there is inertia, which Herman’s explosion has just negated.  And the trailer is now rolling downhill, in the general direction of the Atlantic Ocean.   Trailers don’t have brakes, you ever notice that?  That seems like a design flaw, somehow.  Oh well, you know what they say about hindsight.

Do I have to say it?  The bank, safe and all, goes into the drink.  There, I said it.

(For the life of me, I don’t see how they could film this scene for a movie and it wouldn’t be even the least bit funny.  But that’s exactly what they did.)

Even though The Capitalists’ and Immigrants’ Trust (“Just Watch Us Go!”) rolled through a small sleepy fishing town on its way to have a nice swim, it was early in the morning,  and the only witnesses were an irate crossing guard and a confused fisherman.  They have no idea what they’ve just witnessed. Neither is calling the cops.

So they got a bit of cash–enough so that after paying the backer, the gang members get about 2g’s each.  “Still, we did the job, you have to admit that.  You can’t call it a failure,” Victor days.  “I can if I want to,” Dortmunder replies.  So negative.

And the trailer, along with the safe, and most of the money, is drifting slowly out along the ocean floor, eventually to drop into the Hudson Canyon, where perhaps someday James Cameron will discover it (like he’d care; there isn’t enough there to pay for a day’s catering on one of his productions).  The Dortmunder gang can drive back home with their meager takings (and bad head colds), knowing that nobody will ever connect them to this heist (unless Victor tries to get his radio play produced).  The Perfect Crime.  Yeah.  Right.   It’s over.

But as far as Captain Deemer is concerned, nothing is over.  He’s tightening the net!   Three weeks later, he is still making Lieutenant Hepplewhite drive him up and down Long Island in search of the Capitalists’ and Immigrants’ Trust (Just Watch Us–never mind”), and he will not give up.  Because once he does, he has to accept that an entire bank was stolen from under his shiny red nose, and nobody ever found it.   And he could not live that down in a million years.  And if it takes that long to find the bank, that’s how long he’s going to look.   Well, everyone needs a hobby.

They park up on the hill that diner was on, and Lieutenant Hepplewhite notices it’s gone.   Out of business already.  “I knew they wouldn’t make it,” he says.  He doesn’t know the half of it.

That’s a pretty short Part 2 (for me), but that’s really all there is to say about it.  What started out as a comic take on Parker has become very much its own unique creation, that Westlake can add to over a dozen more books, a number of short stories, and a depressingly large number of horrible movies.  Dortmunder won’t always do this badly–then again, sometimes he’ll do even worse.  Like next time.  But he’ll always have May–and Kelp.   He tries to lock Kelp out, but Kelp just picks the lock and lets himself in.

And the moral is, you have to take the bad with the good in life–well I don’t know that it’s a moral, precisely.   An aphorism, really.  Here’s another one I just found–

Cops and robbers would score the same on personality tests. Children who love guns and action, when they grow up, may act out their instincts on either side of the law. They may shoot people, or shoot people who shoot people. What we call brazenness in a criminal we call courage in a police officer.

Hmm–I almost feel like telling this guy it’s a little long for an aphorism (it’s really four aphorisms bunched together), but never mind.   My point would be this–are most cops really cut out to be cops?  Are most robbers really cut out to be robbers?   Aren’t a lot of people in both professions really bad at it?  How many people end up in the jobs and lives they are best suited for?

And suppose you were a cop by trade, but then decided to become a robber–while pretending to be a cop–which you really are–and then committed a robbery–only you didn’t really.  But you had to be a robber just once, so you could stop being a cop forever, and start being yourself.  How would that work out?

We’ll find out next week.  If I can finish the review before I report for jury duty downtown.  Where there’s no end of cops.  And all the robbers are on Wall Street.  Gee, it would be nice if somebody stuck it to those guys just once…….

PS: Quite a nice array of covers, huh?  Something about this story really inspired a number of artists around the world.  If you want to see more of them (and what those titles mean), I direct you to the Official Westlake Blog.

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14 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder, John Dortmunder novels

14 responses to “Review: Bank Shot, Part 2

  1. The Hodder edition version of the list of ‘Other Books’ by Westlake on the copyright page doesn’t even list Westlake’s prior books, Chris – just A Tale of Two Cities etc.

    • Hmm, they decided to refine the joke. Or else that’s the list Westlake wanted, and Pocket insisted on mentioning some of his books as well (like some books of his they’d actually published). Thanks for the clarification, Nick.

      • Ray Garraty

        Clarification of the clarification: the UK edition has it as Other Books – compare it to Pocket edition, Books By Donald Westlake. So the British edition had more fun with it: they don’t say that the listed books are written by Westlake. It’s JUST books, other books written by someone else.
        The reason why Westlake spent so little time with Herman X, I believe, is that Herman is quite an awkward character. He’s a funny one, as you can’t be if you’re bi-Black Panther, who likes to throw money on parties and still believe in the Cause (I like that capital C). He’s a funny and unique creation, but how one can write funny things about revolutionary black fellow (remember how the bartender calls Herman? Darkish fellow. I laughed.)? It’s not easy.

        • I rather prefer the Pocket version, which sticks to the joke, and mingles the false with the true. I suspect the UK publisher just didn’t want to say some Yank wrote a Dickens novel, even as a joke. 😉

          Since Dortmunder’s gang basically becomes his extended family, and Herman’s extended family is the radical organization he’s working for, it’s hard to make him mesh–Westlake would have to write whole chapters devoted to that part of Herman’s life, as he does here. Victor likewise didn’t really make the cut, though I think he shows up again later? Herman definitely does, but not really as a string member. I think his bisexuality was more of a problem than his race. That never really got mentioned again. Too soon. It’d work fine today.

          • Ray Garraty

            Yes, Victor is another wonderful creation. As much as I hate law enforcement, I have to admit I liked this guy. You rarely see a Federal man as helpless, naive, gentle and polite as Victor is. How he politely calls Dortmunder Mr Dortmunder and never reminds anyone from the team about his position (even if it’s only ex-position).
            Victor is also a rare breed, the ex-Fed who had cut off all his ties with the FBI. Usually, ex-Feds still feel themselves as a part of the system. And the system stands by them, no matter how corrupt they are and what they’ve done. Even if they’re nuts.
            I only couldn’t figure out how Victor came up with the plan. Westlake doesn’t particularly explains where the plan came from, and Victor here was a character Westlake needed for the humour of the story.

            • Victor has a vivid imagination, fueled by all the pulps and radio shows and comic books and etc. He sees a bank in a trailer he thinks “Somebody could just drive away with that.” I don’t think he really cared about the money, he just wanted to see it happen–that’s why he’s mainly pretty happy with the job. It was an adventure.

              Herman likes adventure too, but his overhead is a lot higher, with the caviar and pan-sexual seduction, and all. The really interesting contradiction in his nature is that he’s such a materialist, not to mention a sensualist, and yet he’s absolutely devoted to this splinter group of the Black Nationalist movement, and has no problem pulling all these jobs for them, with 100% of the take going to the movement. Then he pulls regular jobs for himself, and on those jobs, he’ll work with pros of any color.

              It’s a very short book, and there’s just no time to develop him further. And again, this is an enduring frustration with the Dortmunders–you meet all these fascinating people, you’d love to learn more about them, but somehow you never do. Westlake always leaves you wanting more, which I suppose is one reason the series lasted the rest of his life.

              • Ray Garraty

                I have a sense that all FBI agents now are called Special Agents, no matter what their rank is. Victor in one of his inner monologues calls them just Agents. Can anyone confirm that it changed over time, from Agents to Special Agents? I guess I need to look up some encyclopedia on FBI.

              • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_agent

                Victor is lamenting the days when people called them G-Men–short for Government Men. It wasn’t necessarily meant as a compliment, but then neither was Yankee Doodle, and that stuck. T-Men were Treasury Department men–the hated ‘revenooers’, who’d be going after illegal stills making moonshine whiskey from corn.

                By the time you learn all the different kinds of cops we have here, they’ll have come up with a few new kinds. 😉

  2. You know, I’d rather read the Westake version of a lot of those.

    “For John Dortmunder, it was usually the worst of times …”

    • Vicissitudes of fortune, which spares neither man nor the proudest of his works, which buries empires and cities in a common grave.

      That’s from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and aside from being a bit too flowery, it’d work fine for a Dortmunder. 😉

  3. Ray Garraty

    This time Westlake had to have created honest cops, despite his known feelings toward them. You can create stupid cops, ignorant cops, you can’t make them corrupt, because that makes them unpredictable and dangerous. But no harm can be done to Dortmunder and his crew. They should be safe, and so they are never a danger here.

    • We’ve seen some honest and effective cops going up against Parker, particularly in The Seventh. And Abraham Levine was certainly honest–I think Westlake tried hard to show both sides–rarely does he make a policeman his hero, but many are sympathetic, nonetheless–when you have a prejudice, it’s important to be aware of it, and to try and see past it. We’ll be talking more about this in my next review.

      I wouldn’t say there are no corrupt policemen in the Dortmunder books–there’s a dozen more, and I can’t remember all the characters off the top of my head. But since the law paying too much attention to him would make it hard to buy that he keeps getting away–and he has to keep getting away, or the series is over–it’s rare that you see that much of the police in a Dortmunder novel–they aren’t the main foil for him, anymore than they are for Parker. They are just this looming menace to his freedom, but he’s much more aware of them than vice versa.

      In this book, they’re basically cops of the Keystone variety. I think at least some real life lawmen would rather be depicted as corrupt than as clowns. 😉

  4. Ray Garraty

    Maybe I’m unfocused, but I think I found a hole on the plot. If it was a bank robbery (money’s missing, right?), then why FBI didn’t take charge, at least not have sent any agents? We read that NYC police joined to the search, not the FBI. They probably wouldn’t drop it that easy.

    • Yeah, imagine how that phone call would go. Some agent would come into the local assistant director’s office with a strange look on his face, and say “There’s been a bank robbery on Long Island.” The AD would say “Well, we should send a few agents to the bank to look for clues.” The rest pretty much writes itself.

      I just don’t see what the FBI could contribute when their main thing in this kind of case is state-of-the-art forensics, and there’s absolutely nothing for them to run tests on. The entire bank is gone, baby, gone. And will never be found. I don’t know if the Bureau has any frogmen on staff, but either way, it’s a big ocean.

      I think they’d probably just look for some convenient excuse not to get involved.

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