Review: Bank Shot, Part 2

61tBJK82wHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_bank_shot_denmark1_1bank_shot_sweden1_1bank_shot_netherlands_1bank_shot_japan_1bank_shot_italy_1

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.

20 Comments

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

20 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.

  5. Shouldn’t the title of this book have been “Bank Roll”? I was thinking that there would be something related to playing pool (given the prominence of the game in the first book) but nothing. I also feel as if this was lazy writing by DEW. Lots of build up with characters (in particular Victor and Herman) and a pretty empty payoff. Their characters did not go anywhere. (Introduction—development—employment—challenge—growth-change—payoff) Why create the character if you don’t do anything with it? (And in my mind, Dortmunder is the worst of this infraction—he just sort of floats along, mildly annoyed by it all but not really doing anything about it. I guess, in a comedic context, he is sort of a chaplinesque “little tramp”, except that he does not get out of his jams as a result of his own pluck or mettle—he just floats along). I know you won’t like this and will tell me all the reasons I am wrong, and I agree that it is personal preference—I love Parker, I am good with the Nephews; but I am just not clicking with Dortmunder—both as a character, but also as good writing. I acknowledge there are some brilliant bits and pieces in here, and I recognize them; but they are not enough to make the book work as a whole for me beyond the Keystone Cops level (on both the cops and robbers sides). One place I do agree with you, though, is that I think May is a fascinating character— sort of blank on the surface, but lots of depth that rises to the occasion when challenge emerges. I could never kiss her, though. And so sad that she died of lung and breast cancer at 45.

    • Well yeah, you’re wrong about the book, but nobody can be wrong about what he or she enjoys or doesn’t. They can be wrong about the why of that. They often are. And you are.

      The Dortmunders are not about character development. At all. Might as well critique P.G. Wodehouse for never developing Jeeves and Bertie. How does Don Quixote develop as a character? Mainly just by finally going sane and repenting his foolish ways. Which isn’t well-motivated at all, and well Cervantes knew it.

      And pray tell, how does Parker develop across the span of 40 years and 24 books? Not at all, far as I can see. He refines his technique slightly, gets a bit more self-controlled after the first book, and even that isn’t really character development, per se–Westlake didn’t write the first novel as series fiction. Parker as originally conceived couldn’t last long–he was born to die in a hail of bullets. So Westlake had to rein him in a bit, in order to keep writing about him.

      What was supposed to happen with Victor? What was supposed to happen with Herman? I agree neither got used much or terribly well in subsequent books, but that’s hardly the point of anything. They are exceedingly well-sketched supporting characters, in an ever-expanding cast.

      What’s your problem with that? Were you promised a story in which Victor would resolve his identity conflict between cop and robber, or Herman’s dichotomy between idealistic revolutionary and sybaritic gourmet? I’m sorry to tell you, these kinds of conflicts exist in real life, all around you, and in you yourself–and me myself!–they are rarely if ever resolved. Part and parcel of the human condition. You may impotently lament them, or cheerily laugh at them–and in so doing, laugh at yourself. The Dortmunders are about the latter course of action.

      Dortmunder actually is developed in a very key aspect of his life, you somehow failed to mention–he found a mate since last we met him. May develops our understanding of Dortmunder in a number of ways, and she herself is a character worthy of appreciation. Remind me when The Little Tramp got married? Oh right, The Immigrant (it’s strongly implied). And did we ever see what happened to that couple afterwards? We spent decades learning what happened between Dortmunder and May. By the time Chaplin figured out how to make a marriage work, he’d basically stopped working. (Might be a connection there.) The Tramp never gets married, because a married Tramp wouldn’t be The Tramp. By definition. Dortmunder can form a lasting relationship without any conflict, but he can never go straight (for long), stop playing the ponies, stop carping at Kelp, stop cursing his bum luck (which may change here and there, but never for long, because a successful Dortmunder wouldn’t be Dortmunder). Characters don’t have to develop in order to work. That’s some idiot TV scripter’s idea of writing. Real writing can be all kinds of things. It works on its own terms or not at all. And clearly Dortmunder does work on his own terms, or I wouldn’t get so many hits for my reviews of his escapades. There is literally nothing you love that somebody else doesn’t hate. So what does that prove? We’re not all the same.

      So all these reasons you’ve cooked up for not liking the Dortmunders–I buy nary a one of them. They all apply just as well to books you do like. So I reject your arguments. You of course have every right to your likes and dislikes. But why do you feel the need to justify them?

      • Fred, I think your site and your analysis are just amazing. I have the highest respect for your work, and for your writing and thought. But I am very surprised at your out of hand rejection of any criticism of the work. I didn’t just say “this book is terrible”. I gave specific reasons why i felt the book as a whole did not work. Regarding my thoughts about character development, I will cite one specific point. In good writing, it is an almost absolute principle that “the gun in the first act must go off in the third”. In other words, if you introduce an element or dynamic in an earlier part of the book, it must have some significant and relevant consequence To use Victor as my example here we get the big build up that he is an ex FBI agent with a secret lair and a big fantasy going on in his head and drives a car that would stick out like a clown car. What is the consequence of all this later in the novel? Nothing. He’s just anothe pert of the gang. Just a wacky background. Now if he had called in the FBI because of his background, or stolen all the money At the payoff, or used knowledge of safe cracking he got as an agent to help get the safe open, or something (I am not saying those are good, just using them as examples of consequences). That is what i am talking about. And I think it those are valid, analytical criticisms, not just “cooked up” reasons to dislike the book. I could do the same with all the other points I mention in my previous post, but for the sake of brevity and not wanting to incur more of your ire, I will not. Trust me, I went into it wanting to like it. I won’t bother commenting again. Except to say that I still think “Bank Roll” is a better title than Bank Shot. There is a significant “Roll” in the book, and nary a “Shot”.

        • I didn’t reject your criticism, Ertabb. I just didn’t see it. I still don’t. I have no idea what it is that makes you dislike this book, for reasons that (as I have explained) apply just as much to stories you do like. I don’t think you know either. I have a suspicion that your problem with it is that it’s not ‘macho’ enough. It doesn’t appeal to your fantasies. That it actually sends up your fantasies, makes fun of them–Dortmunder is an inversion of Parker, who you do like, even though the Parker novels are constantly breaking that ‘rule’ you bring up. People who like Parker often dislike Dortmunder, and vice versa. I happen to be one of those Westlake readers who swings both ways. Kinky, huh?

          I can’t count all the times a Parker novel made me think something was going to happen with this or that character, and then something entirely different happened (like in Slayground, where the guy you know is going to have a facedown with Parker at the end of the book ends up dying like a chump very early on–turns out he was just an overconfident dumbass who thought he was hot shit. (It’s easy to see how Hollywood completely failed to understand that book, and ended up turning it into a bad gangster/horror/revenge hybrid that ends in an amusement park–and flopped to hell).

          And that’s by design. That’s called keeping the reader off-balance, so that he/she can just relax and enjoy the story, without this laundry list of things that ‘have’ to happen. Anything can happen. Because it’s a goddam story, and because life itself is a bank shot (no, not a bank roll). The ball goes in directions you wouldn’t expect. And that’s what makes life interesting. That’s what makes stories interesting.

          Can I just say, rules like the one you mentioned are dumb. They are an obstruction to good writing. They work okay for some people (hacks, mainly), but the writers we remember over time wipe their feet on them. And of course all rules are made to be broken–most of all rules in a genre that is specifically devoted to people who break the most important rules–those that come with prison time if you get caught. The thing about Westlake is, he breaks all kinds of rules, and very rarely gets caught–because the rules were wrong, and he was right.

          I think about the book you think this should have been, and all I can think is “I wouldn’t want to read that book.” Aren’t there enough boring boilerplate movies with plots like that? Isn’t this precisely what is wrong with genre fiction in all mediums? That it never surprises us, because of all these stupid formulas that get used the same way, over and over, until you can literally say out loud what’s going to happen before it does?

          I don’t mean twist endings, ala Shyalaman, because that’s just another convention. I mean letting the characters talk to you. Understanding them. Giving them their head. Respecting their choices, letting them guide you down unexpected pathways. It may not work out the way they hoped, but let them breathe. Don’t force them into actions that don’t make sense for the sake of convention, or because you think that’s what people want. People don’t fucking know what they want until you show them.

          Obviously people want this, or there wouldn’t be so many Dortmunder novels–Westlake didn’t set out to make this a series, anymore than he did with Parker–Dortmunder is back by popular demand, and that demand redoubled after this book you consider a failure came out–you see all those editions, in all those languages, up top? If this doesn’t work, how come it’s so popular and enduring, all over the world? You don’t seem to want to respect the fact that these books and their characters are not merely well-liked. They are beloved. Because they don’t fit the mold. And ya know, neither do most of us.

          Victor would never try to take the loot. He’d never rat the gang out. That would be a violation of everything he believes in, of his own romantic self-image, inculcated through pop culture (plus his mom would be really mad at him for putting her brother in jail). He’s just playing out pulp fantasies in his head. He doesn’t care about the money, never did. He just wants to know what it feels like to actually pull a heist. He identifies with cops and crooks at the same time–the Bureau showed him what it’s like to be a cop (pretty boring most of the time)–now he wants to see how the other side lives. And that’s funny. And true. Because everybody who ever reads crime fiction feels that way about it. Don’t you? Are divided loyalties really so hard for you to understand?

          Now I have shown you the respect–yes, respect–of being honest, of talking to you like someone who is capable of understanding subtle points, and I devoted a fair bit of time to typing this response. If you prove me wrong for extending you that courtesy, I’ll delete your post and block you. Capish? My blog. My rules.

          • Anthony

            “Can I just say, rules like the one you mentioned are dumb. They are an obstruction to good writing. They work okay for some people (hacks, mainly), but the writers we remember over time wipe their feet on them.”

            I agree, but would put this another way. I paint as a hobby, and the best instructor I ever worked with “taught” me the “rules” of good composition, technique and so forth. A few years later I saw her at one of her exhibitions and commented on how this painting of hers broke this rule and that painting broke that rule. She did a funny exaggerated look around to make sure no one was listening to me and announced in a stage whisper “When you know what you’re doing, you can break all the rules. Just make sure you know what you’re doing.”

            The rules aren’t dumb, per se. They’re stepping stones to the destination where they are no longer needed.

            Secondly, for what it’s worth, I understand the Chekhov’s gun concept to refer to plotting, not character development. Westlake used Chekhov’s gun literally in Two Much.

            • A far more elegant way of saying the same thing. No, rules aren’t dumb–but the way they’re used often is. We make the rules, and we can break them–and if we don’t, some of the time, they end up breaking us.

              I had forgotten that was from Chekhov–but bear in mind, he made his rep with short stories and plays. The rules for him were going to be different, as a matter of course. A novel is much longer, has many more moving parts, and much more freedom to abuse the conventions, create false trails, stories that don’t go anywhere. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. I chided Westlake for the subplot in Why Me? where you get all this build-up for the various factions seeking the ruby (and Dortmunder’s blood), and then they just go away. Maybe he just wanted to see how that would work. Writing by the push method, he pretty much had to explore the various byways that he came across in the course of writing, and some turned out better than others. It’s what we like about him. He’d begin a story, quite often, not knowing how it would turn out. So neither do we.

              Suppose the gun isn’t loaded? Everybody assumed it was, but the cartridges were blanks, the barrel was rusted solid, the firing pin had been disabled in advance by a cunning opponent (whose name might well be Parker). That’s not letting your audience down. A gun not going off can be more interesting, sometimes. In Chekhov’s time, you had maybe one gunshot in an entire play. In our time, a gun going off in a film (our theater) is not any kind of a big deal. They’re going off far too often. Not just in films, either.

              But now I think on it, there’s two pistols in Chekov’s The Bear/Boor. One of his finest short plays, and as marvellous a bit of romantic comedy as anyone ever penned. And we are shown these two dueling pistols, told in some detail how excellent they are, how deadly, and there is a threatened duel between the two protagonists–which never happens. Those guns never go off. Chekhov broke his own rule. Or did he?

              The gun that goes off is a kiss between two people who were about to try and murder each other. So yes, I suppose metaphorically the gun goes off (probably in the lady’s boudoir, presumably after the banns have been read, though you never know with Russians). But not literally. Those guns are never fired. We’re not even sure they were loaded. That’s not the point of anything. The story isn’t about guns. (No good story ever is.)

              The rules may work for writers–as guidelines, not infallible laws–but the reader can’t use them as an excuse for not liking something. You don’t need any excuse for not liking something. You don’t have to apologize. Just go read something else. Or maybe read it again, when you’ve had some more time to learn, and you’ll understand it that time. Then the gun will go off inside your head.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s