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.
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.
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–”
“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–”
“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.