Review: Why Me?

May said, “Are you absolutely sure I’m not asleep and dreaming?”  She sat across the kitchen table from him and simply stared and stared.

“Maybe we both are,” Dortmunder said, through a mouthful of Wheaties and beer.  He looked at his left hand.  The red ruby in the green detergent looked like a toad Cardinal in a swamp.

“Let’s try it again,” May said.

Dortmunder lifted his green-oozing hand out of the pot, and while he chewed beer-soggy Wheaties, May twisted and struggled with the ring.  Simple soap hadn’t done it, hot soapy water hadn’t done it–maybe Palmolive Liquid would do it.  “If I can’t get that off,” Dortmunder said, “I’ll never be able to leave the house again.  I’ll be a prisoner in here.”

“Don’t talk about prison,” May said.  Shaking her head, she said, “Let it soak some more.”

Dortmunder looked with loathing at the toad Cardinal in its swamp.  “My greatest triumph,” he said, in disgust.

“Well, in a way it is,” May said.  “If you stop and think about it.  This has got to be just about anybody’s biggest heist ever.  Particularly for one man working alone.”

“I can see me boasting,” Dortmunder said.  “To all those guys getting rousted by the law.”

“Someday you’ll be able to,” she assured him.  “This too will blow over.”

Dortmunder understood that May was trying to make him feel better.  What May didn’t understand was that Dortmunder didn’t want to feel better.  Given the circumstances, any attitude in Dortmunder’s mind other than frustration, helpless rage, and blank despair would be both inappropriate and a sign of mental incompetence.  Dortmunder might be doomed, but he wasn’t crazy.

When Westlake wrote The Hot Rock, he had no idea of writing a long series of books about a hapless band of heisters.  Just like he had no idea of writing another Parker novel after The Hunter.  Just like while he was writing The Fugitive Pigeon, he had no idea of writing a series of funny mysteries featuring various directionless young men dropped unexpectedly into the soup.  You see where this is headed?

As a general rule of thumb, when Westlake actually wrote a book with the expressed intent of making a series out of it, the series ended up not doing so hot (the books might be good, but the sales would be less than stellar).  His greatest successes were almost invariably accidental and serendipitous in nature, precious gems that just dropped into his lap, while projects he may have put far more time and thought into frequently fizzled,  and this may at times have been a source of irritation to him.

Yes, it’s very Dortmunder, isn’t it?

I don’t doubt for a minute that he enjoyed writing the Dortmunder books.   There is a sense of fun about them that can’t be feigned.  The established voices of the characters would have been a joy to return to, and there would have been the further pleasure of adding new characters to the ensemble as time went on.

Still and all, Westlake was the type of writer who reflexively rebelled against the constraints placed on him by critics, by his readers, by publishers who saw him as that comic caper guy.  He had escaped some of those expectations by writing under multiple personas, each with his own unique style and approach, but he’d let that option lapse in the 70’s.   As the 80’s wore on, he might have started doubting the wisdom of that move.  It was getting hard being just Westlake all the time, when people only ever wanted the same kind of book from Westlake, over and over, ad infinitum.

As he started working on the fifth book in the series, therefore, he had to think about how he could keep this franchise interesting to him, keep it from getting stale, because the one thing Donald Westlake never wanted to do under any name was write the same book over and over again.

With Parker, it was easier to change things up (which is one reason there’s so many more Parkers than Dortmunders, in spite of the long break he took from writing the former).  Parker can work in just about any setting, with a wide variety of fellow professionals, large numbers of whom may die in the course of the story.  Westlake never let the supporting cast get too established in that series.  Familiarity was something he tried to avoid when he was writing as Stark.  He never wants us to get too comfortable in that world.

But the challenges of Dortmunder are different–the comedy stems precisely from our extreme familiarity with the characters and their quirks.  And he can’t kill anybody off–not even temporarily, as he did with Dan Wyzca and Ed Mackey.  And Dortmunder hates anything new with a holy passion–if he had his way, he’d never venture outside the five boroughs of New York City for the rest of his life.   Dortmunder likes to keep everything simple.  So how can his creator go about complicating his existence without too obviously going over old terrain, or pulling the character out of his proper setting?

The series began with Dortmunder trying to steal the same priceless African emerald, over and over, and it just kept getting further and further away.   Suppose this time he stole a similarly famous jewel–only without even trying?  Without even knowing he’d done it, until it was too late?   And all the complications ensued from him trying to give it back?

It’s a great idea, and it works–but rereading the book, I did find myself thinking that it might have worked better as a novella, even a short story.  To stretch it out, Westlake has to introduce all kinds of subplots and minor characters–some more successful than others.  There’s this whole bit involving rival groups of foreign agents and terrorists trying to get the ruby, and it’s funny while it lasts, and then it ends up marching off into oblivion, never to be resolved (in a later book in the series, Westlake would do a much better job with this foreign intrigue angle–he still runs into problems when he juggles too many balls at once).

And as I will be forced to point out, the final resolution doesn’t really make sense.   Westlake maybe wrote this one a bit too fast.  It’s his second and final book for Viking, a relationship that presumably went sour with Kahawa, after they stuck him with an editor he didn’t like, and did a crap job with promotion.  He probably owed them this one and dashed it off on his way out the door (I have this feeling that most of his publishers in this time period signed him on in expectations of getting Dortmunder into the bargain).

Sometimes with the Dortmunders, Westlake started out with less of a central idea than he needed, started fleshing it out, and ended up with more peripheral ideas than he could possibly use–this is one of those times.   This gem is flawed, but a gem it remains.  And the Dortmunders are always a percentage game, anyway.    But to demonstrate just how little story there actually is in this very funny book that runs 191 pages in the first edition, I’m going to sum up the entire plot in one paragraph.

Dortmunder breaks into a small jeweler’s shop near JFK airport.  He finds mainly junk, but there’s this big fancy ring with a red jewel he figures is a fake, but he decides to take it anyway.   It’s really a huge magnificent ancient ruby, the Byzantine Fire, which has enormous historical/political/religious significance to Turks, Greeks, and other Mediterranean groups, and was just stolen from the airport by a group of Cypriot Greeks, who are using the jeweler (also Greek) to smuggle it out of the country, before the U.S. government can give it to Turkey.  But by the time Dortmunder finds out what he’s done, there’s this huge dragnet, and a high-powered NYPD inspector is hauling in everybody who ever got so much as a traffic summons for questioning (while engaging in a turf war with two pesky FBI agents), and all these people from Cyprus and Turkey and Eastern Europe and etc. are swarming through the city looking for the sacred ruby (and the blood of whatever infidel dog profaned it), and Dortmunder’s own friends (led by the very frightening Tiny Bulcher), are teaming up to find whoever took the jewel and turn him in (not necessarily in one piece) just to get the heat off them (shades of Fritz Lang’s M).   Dortmunder confides in Kelp, who proves once more to be a true friend (or maybe he’s just nuts), and they go underground (literally), trying to find some way to give the gem back without getting Dortmunder arrested.   Finally, Dortmunder figures out a way to unheist the Byzantine Fire, and get a bit of his own back against some of the people who gave him a hard time, but we never find out what the Turks and Greeks and etc. think about all this, nor does Dortmunder ever so much as see any of them, because that subplot fizzles out.  Oh, and Dortmunder gives May a nice digital watch he stole from the shop, but he has to exchange it for one with the instructions included, because they can’t figure out how to set the time on it.

I didn’t say it would be a short paragraph.

So that’s the book, and much as I love it, it’s another of those Westlake efforts that is mainly the sum of its fascinating parts, rather than a balanced coherent whole.  But much more successful, for all that, than the previous Dortmunder outing, Nobody’s Perfect, partly because it’s set entirely in New York and its immediate surroundings (Dortmunder’s natural habitat), and partly because Westlake is getting better and better at hitting the right notes with his ever-expanding comic orchestra (sort of the prose equivalent of Spike Jones and his City Slickers).

This is the last transitional work in the series.   From this point onwards, Westlake knew what he had here, and what to do with it, and the books would be less eclectic, more consistent.    And maybe now and again he’d try to come up with an epic to end it all, but that never worked out as planned.   Dortmunder had tenure.

One lesson he probably drew from this one, which would have serious implications for those that followed, is that given his growing proclivity for adding all these extra elements to the Dortmunder stories (in a sense using them as a clearing house for ideas he couldn’t come up with a whole book for, or had used already but wanted to revisit), he needed to make the books correspondingly longer.

191 pages would be fine for an elegant little exercise like Bank Shot or Jimmy the Kid.   This one probably seemed simple enough at the outset, but as he kept adding bells and whistles, it got away from him a bit.  So easy to drive from the back seat.   Which is something I’d ask you all to remember as I now once again am moved to analyze various bits and pieces of the story, one at a time, instead of the synopsis-based reviews I more typically produce here.

1)The Early Adopter and the Luddite.

“You got a machine on your phone,” Dortmunder accused him.

“You want an extension for your kitchen?”

“What do you want with a machine on your phone?”

“It’d save you steps.  I could install it myself, you wouldn’t pay any monthly fee.”

“I don’t need an extension,” Dortmunder said firmly, “and you don’t need a machine.”

“It’s very useful,” Kelp said.  “If there’s people I don’t want to talk to, I don’t talk to them.”

“I already do that,” Dortmunder said, and the phone went guk-ick, guk-ick, guk-ick.  “Now what?” Dortmunder said.

“Hold on,” Kelp told him.  “Somebody’s calling me.”

“Somebody’s calling you?  You’re calling me.”  But Dortmunder was speaking into a dead phone.  “Hello?” he said. “Andy?”  Then he shook his head in disgust, hung up, and went back to the kitchen to make another cup of coffee.  The water was just boiling when the phone rang.  He turned off the flame, walked back to the living room, and answered on the fourth ring.  “Yeah,” he said.

“Wha’d you hang up for?”

“I didn’t hang up.  You hung up.”

“I told you hold on.  That was just my call-waiting signal.”

“Don’t tell me about these things.”

The Bell System got broken up in 1982, just about when Westlake was writing this.  We can argue all day long about whether this was a good thing or a bad thing, but it was a huge thing.  All of a sudden, something very simple became very very complicated.  Used to be you got a phone, you paid a bill, and you called people, and either they were home or not home.  If you were out, nobody could reach you.  You just walked around, unplugged.  I can picture some of my younger readers (I must have some) reacting in horror–how did you people live, disconnected from The Matrix?   Freely, friends.   Flying around in perpetual airplane mode.  You don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.  Ah, Zion.

Answering machines had been around a while (a running gag on The Rockford Files, that Westlake would have particularly appreciated), but with any tech company anywhere now being able to manufacture and market phones and phone-related gear, there was a massive proliferation of communications paraphernalia, of varying degrees of usefulness, and most of it didn’t last very long, but some of it led to what we have now, which I don’t need to tell you about, because you’re reading a blog (how endearingly old-fashioned of you). And what Westlake does throughout this book is remind us of how that all began in earnest.   Through the Dortmunder/Kelp dynamic.

Andy Kelp never met a gizmo he didn’t like.  Or wouldn’t steal.   Some unfortunate wholesaler for all these new phone-related doodads has a warehouse right behind his apartment.  He just breaks through the wall, concealing his means of ingress and egress, and strolls in whenever he feels like it, helping himself to whatever strikes his fancy.  Happy as a clam with a phone extension in his kitchen, his bathroom, his hallway closet–wherever he wants an extension he’s got one.  Sometimes he puts one on the roof of his apartment building. Then forgets to bring it down, and these punk kids make prank calls on it.  Now he wants everybody he knows to have multiple phones.

He brings Dortmunder a phone for his kitchen.  Dortmunder tosses it out the window.  A man after Thoreau’s heart.   As was Donald E. Westlake, a man who went on hammering out novel after novel on a Smith Corona manual typewriter, right into the 21st century, and it got damned hard to find replacement parts after a while.

Throughout the book, Kelp keeps telling Dortmunder about all these neat new things you can do with phones now, and Dortmunder doesn’t want to hear it.  To him, the phone is just a tool, and the simpler the tool, the better it is.  He doesn’t want all these new options complicating his life.   Life is complicated enough already.  Stop gilding the lily, already.

But as it turns out, Kelp’s tech savvy saves Dortmunder’s ass in the end–he’s able to use his know-how to thwart attempts to trace calls Dortmunder makes to the cops, gives Dortmunder an alibi to save him from his angry fellow crooks (Dortmunder was helping him figure out ways to use the new phone tech), risking his own neck in the process.   He proves once again that he is the most devoted friend and ally Dortmunder could ever ask for (and never did).

And like Parker with Handy McKay (in The Outfit), Dortmunder is somewhat nonplussed by this strange altruistic behavior–he doesn’t understand that kind of loyalty (he feels that way about May, but as with Parker and Claire, that’s a separate category).  He just thinks Kelp is crazy (well…….).

Being Dortmunder, not Parker, he’s not so cold about it.  He does appreciate Kelp’s weird devotion to him, impossible as it is for him to comprehend it, or even to fully reciprocate it.  But he still thinks the new phone stuff is stupid. Honestly, most of it was, and most of it still is.  But friendship–real friendship, not the Facebook kind–that’s something the telecoms can never upgrade.   That’s an app that never gets obsolete.  As Damon had Pythias, Dortmunder has Kelp–whether he likes it or not.

2)My Mologna Has a First Name….

Here was Chief Inspector Francis Xavier Mologna (pronounced Maloney), 53 years of age, a God-fearing white male Long Island Irishman, and be damned if the person in all of life whose thought processes most closely matched his own wasn’t some damn 28-year-old smart-aleck faggot nigger called Sergeant Leon Windrift.   (Had Leon been only homosexual, he would have been bounced out of New York’s Finest long ago.  Had he been only black, he’d be a patrolman forever.  Being a faggot and a nigger, he could neither be fired nor kept in some damn precinct, which is why he’d risen so rapidly through the ranks to a sergeancy and a job at Headquarters, where Mologna had first notice him and stolen him for himself.)

“One suggestion,” the FBI man–Zachary–was saying, “has been that a second Greek Cypriot group was responsible for the second purloinment.”

Purloinment?

“The advantage of this theory is that it explains how the second group had so thoroughly infiltrated the first group as to be aware of their intended disposition of the ruby.  There are contending factions, of course, within the umbrella groupage of Greek Cypriot nationalism.”

Groupage?

“A second theory proposed here has been that agents of the Soviet Union, pursuant to the claims earlier put forward by the Russian Orthodox Church in re annexment of the Byzantine Fire, were responsible for the second theft.”

Annexment?

“In support of this theory is the fact that the USSR mission to the United Nations has already denied Russian complicity in the events of last evening. However, a third potentialism would be a transactage by a dissident factor within the Turkish populace.”

Complicacy?

Potentialism?

Transactage?

We will be seeing Inspector Mologna (pronounced Maloney, but WordPress keeps trying to make me spell it Bologna) in the next Dortmunder, and Westlake put a lot of himself into this character, more than he usually did with policemen in his work.  Mologna is a tough, smart, funny, pragmatic, capable, cunning professional lawman and back alley political infighter.  Absolutely nobody’s fool, and he runs rings around the FBI Agents in this book, figuring out right away that the theft of the ruby must have been done by a smalltime heister, who didn’t know what he had until after he had it, while the Feds spin tales of international intrigue.

He’s also a stickler for correct English usage, as was his creator–it’s fine to be idiomatic, to resort to slang, but not to just make up bizarre tortured bits of jargon and pretend they are actually in the dictionary.  Westlake had this same bee in his bonnet in Brothers Keepers, and it’s still buzzing away.

(Westlake would perhaps be conflicted in his reaction to the fact that WordPress kept telling me those words Mologna takes exception to up above don’t exist–on the one hand, it means his side won some key battles on the linguistic front; on the other, it means that there are machines telling us what to type now.  And if you don’t mind, I’m going to call Inspector Mologna Francis or the Inspector from here on in, because it’s getting tiresome having to type his last name twice, sensing my blog’s silent disapproval as I do.)

About that name–best as I can tell, no Irishman ever spelled it like that, nor does it make sense that any Irishman would, given the endless need to correct people as to its proper pronounciation.  Now all kinds of unfortunate things happened on the way through Ellis Island, but I think Westlake is having his little joke here.

And it’s a pointed one–because as smart as the Inspector clearly is, professional as he is, relatively incorruptible as he is (he won’t take bribes from anybody he doesn’t know very well–call it honest graft, as George Washington Plunkitt surely would), he’s still a cop, and Westlake always figures there’s some bologna in all of them.   Or blarney, if you prefer.   He likes the guy well enough, but he likes Dortmunder more.

Francis has the situation with the ruby well sussed out, and his plan–to squeeze the city’s criminal element until the culprit is found–is sound enough, if a mite crude.  He faces down one of the foreign factions after the gem (who figure they can scare and/or bribe him into helping them) with admirable aplomb.  He makes the FBI guys look like chumps, as already mentioned (they are such complete chumps, in fact, one much more than the other, that I’m not inclined to give them their own section here–Westlake really really did not like the FBI, and I think I covered this adequately well in the last review).

He’s even got that rather charmingly au courant relationship with the invaluable Sergeant Windrift (I’m sure Francis never refers to him by the N-word out loud, though probably the Q-word comes up here and there), who is dropping sly double entendres all over the place, and Francis just snorts humorously, and tells him to get back to work.  And yet the Inspector (who could easily have starred in his own series) has egg all over his face at the end of this book, and it’s worth asking why.

See, Dortmunder gets in touch with him, to try and arrange to give the ruby back, and Francis can’t just make a deal with him, even though it’s in everybody’s best interests to do so.  He’s a cop, and cops catch crooks.  He has no sense of honor where someone like Dortmunder is concerned.   He wants the gem and the culprit, all in one neat package.  Another feather in his cap, another flattering headline, another step up the ladder.

So he tries to trip Dortmunder up, trace the call, close the net (he’s a more sophisticated variant on the police chief from Bank Shot).  But he hadn’t reckoned on Kelp, who thwarts the trace through the use of his beloved gizmos. And this so infuriates the Inspector,  unaccustomed as he is to being cheated of his rightful prey, he screams at Dortmunder that he’ll be falling downstairs for a month once he’s caught (cop code for getting beaten up while in custody, and don’t for one minute believe that’s not still a thing)–and hangs up.  Then spends the rest of the book trying to make up for this one inexcusable blunder.

But he’s more than clever and connected enough to work his way out of the corner he’s painted himself into.  Trouble is, he’s enraged Dortmunder, who knows that he never meant to steal this damn ruby, that it’s not his fault, he was just doing what he does for a living, and it’s not fair to make him the scapegoat.

Dortmunder quietly broods on the great wrong done him, and that’s when he’s at his most dangerous.  He comes up with a plan to not only return the ruby where he found it, but to make everyone believe it was there in the safe all along, and the cops just didn’t see it.  And who gets it in the neck over that?  Three guesses (and the other two are the FBI guys).

And my problem with this otherwise brilliant denouement is that the cops have Dortmunder’s address (they come to arrest him at one point, while he’s actually got the ruby ring stuck on  his finger, but he manages to conceal it–the Inspector would have a bloody stroke if he ever found out about that).

Though he’s willing to give Dortmunder a break to save his own skin, Francis Mologna (sorry, WordPress) does not seem to be the type to forgive and forget.   He set up an alibi for Dortmunder, as part of their deal (that Dortmunder honors in his own vindictive way), but he still knows how to find Dortmunder, and Dortmunder is still a practicing thief within his jurisdiction.  So I don’t remember if the next book with the good Inspector in it explains why Dortmunder never fell down any stairs, but it’s a minor flaw in the plot.  The next section contains a somewhat more critical flaw.

3) All Dogs Go to Limbo

Marko grimaced, scrinching up his eyes and baring his upper teeth: “What kind of debased language is that?”

“I am speaking to you in your own miserable tongue.”

“Well, don’t.  It’s painful to my ears.”

“No more than to my mouth.”

Marko shifted to the language he presumed to be native to the invaders: “I know where you’re from.”

Gregor did his own teeth-baring grimace: “What was that, the sound of Venetian blinds falling off a window?”

Speaking Arabic, another of the men at the table said, “Perhaps these are dogs from a different litter.”

“Don’t talk like that,” Marko told him.  “Even we don’t understand it.”

One of the invaders repairing the door said over his shoulder, in rotten German, “There must be a language common to us all.”

This seemed reasonable, to the few who understood it, and when it had been variously translated in several other tongues, it seemed reasonable to the rest as well.  So the negotiation began with a wrangle over which language the negotiation would use, culminating in Gregor finally saying, in English, “Very well. We’ll speak in English.”

Almost everybody on both sides got upset at that.  “What,” cried Marko, “the language of the Imperialists?  Never!”  But he cried this in English.

“We all understand it,” Gregor pointed out.  “No matter how much we may hate it, English is the lingua franca of the world.”

The sections involving the foreign factions trying to regain the ruby (and kill Dortmunder) are fun to read, and make some interesting points, and ultimately they don’t go anywhere.   Westlake got lured into a fascinating tangent, and could not figure out how to sustain it–a perennial weakness of his, that he usually managed to keep under tighter control.

Basically some of these guys are terrorists (the old-fashioned nationalist kind, that Westlake’s Irish forebears knew well), some are secret police, and there’s not much difference between them, particularly since none of them are supposed to be operating on American soil, though The Powers that Be are well aware of them doing so.  FBI Agents Zachary and Freedly go to see a CIA contact, to get the full skinny.

Having bludgeoned the previous conversation to death with practiced civility, Cabot said, “Whichever of our Free World allies turns out to be responsible for this theft, if any, the fact is that just about every group we’ve mentioned, and some we haven’t discussed as yet, has become active since the theft.  So far, we know of the entrance into this country in the last twenty-four hours of a Turkish Secret Police assassination team, a Greek Army counterinsurgency guerrilla squad, members of two separate Cypriot Greek nationalist movements (who may spend all their time here gunning for one another and therefore fail to become a substantive factor from our point of view), two officers of the Bulgarian External Police, a KGB operative with deep connections to the Cypriot Turk nationalist movement, and a Lebanese Christian assassin.  There is also the rumored arrival via Montreal of two members of the Smyrna Schism, religious fanatics who broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church in the late seventeen hundreds and live in catacombs under Smyrna.  They are rumored to favor the beheading of heretics.  In addition, various embassies in Washington–the Turkish, Greek, Russia, Yugoslav, Lebanese, some others–have requested official briefings on the matter.  And the UN, the British have called for–”

“The British!” Surprise unsealed Zachary’s lips.  “What’ve they got to do with it?”

“The British take a proprietary interest in the entire planet,” Cabot told him. “They think of themselves as our landlords, and they have called for a United Nations fact-finding team to assist the rest of us in our investigations.  They have also volunteered to lead this fact-finding team themselves.”

“Good of them,” Zachary said.

But the main problem right now,” Cabot said, “aside from the loss of the ring itself, of course, is all these foreign gunmen running around New York, hunting the ring and one another.  This theft is enough of an international incident as it is; Washington would be very displeased if New York were turned into another Beirut, with shooting in the streets.”

“New York would be displeased, too,” Freedly said.”

Not so funny anymore, is it?

As seen above, they become so frustrated at their shared lack of success in finding the Byzantine Fire, that they join forces, agreeing only that the ruby must be found, the thief who stole it (after it had already been stolen) must be done away with in some highly unpleasant manner, and then they can go back to shooting at each other and referring to each other as ‘dogs’, which at least shows a common and lamentable cultural disregard for man’s best friend.  And Westlake greatly enjoys the irony that they can only express to each other their shared contempt for the English speaking world by speaking English.

It’s a worthwhile addition to the story, giving us another valuable glimpse into Westlake’s satiric take on politics, but whether Westlake wrote this one too fast, or  was under certain constraints from the publisher with regards to how long the book could be, their subplot basically expires without further explanation or resolution. Once the ruby is recovered, it’s back to the old drawing board for all the dogs (as they will sadly inform each other in English) and they certainly do not have Dortmunder’s name and address (or that would be the end of the series).

Before the subplot expires, though, it links up with a rather more promising one, involving Dortmunder’s own beloved colleagues in crime.

4)Dial “M” for Monster

The back room at the OJ looked like one of those paintings from the Russian Revolution–the storming of the Winter Palace–or, perhaps more appropriately, from the Revolution of the French: a Jacobin trial during the Terror.  The place had never been so crowded, smoky, so hot, so full of strife and contention.  Tiny Bulcher and three assistant judges sat together on one side of the round card table, facing the door, with several other tough guys ranged behind them, on their feet, leaning against the stacked liquor cartons.  A few more savage-looking types lurked to both sides.  A couple of chairs had been left empty near the door, facing Tiny and the rest across the green felt table.  Harsh illumination from the single hanging bare bulb with its tin reflector in the middle of the room washed out all subtlety of color, reducing the scene to the work of a genre painter with a poor palette, or perhaps a German silent film about Chicago gangsters.  Menace and pitiless self-interest glinted on the planes of every face, the slouch of every shoulder, the bend of every knee, the sharpness of every eye, the slant of every smoldering cigarette.  Everybody smoked, everybody breathed, and–because it was hot in here–everybody sweated.  Also, when there was no one being interviewed everybody talked at once, except when Tiny Bulcher wanted to make a general point, at which time he would thump the table with fist and forearm, bellow “Shadap!” and insert a sentence into the resulting silence.

It was, in short, a scene to make even the innocent pause, had there been any innocents around to glom it.  Dortmunder, of the guilty the most singularly guilty, was very lucky he had to cool his heels in the outer brightness of the bar long enough to knock back two double bourbons on the rocks before it became his and Kelp’s turn to enter that back room and face all those cold eyes.

As already mentioned, the police have been rounding up and interrogating everybody who has a record that even faintly suggests they might have robbed that jewelry store the ruby was nabbed from, or might know who did, and since these are criminals, they are often nailed for some other unrelated crime in the process, and at bare minimum are being seriously inconvenienced, and prevented from getting any work done.  They are not happy about this, they are seriously pissed at whatever boob it was took this damn ruby, and none is more pissed than that menacing mass of malignity, Tiny Bulcher.

So a small time swindler and part-time police snitch named Benjy Klopzik, trying to divert suspicion from himself, suggests to Tiny that they, the crooks, should band together and find this menace to their society, since the cops are clearly not up to it.   After due reflection, Tiny decides it’s not such a dumb idea, and a Committee of Public Safety is thereby convened at the OJ, its objective being to grill every crook in the city, using interrogative methods the real police might find–unconventional.

And of course this is a not terribly veiled reference to Fritz Lang’s classic crime film that involved Berlin mobsters trying to find a child murderer to get the heat off them, and I already linked to that movie, but wouldn’t it have been so incredibly cool if Peter Lorre could have played Benjy in the movie?  Which he couldn’t, since Lorre died in 1964, the book came out in 1983, and the (terrible) film version Westlake did some early work on that got totally wiped out by a host of Hollywood hacks (including uber-hack David Koepp, writing under a pseudonym) came out in 1990.

Tiny is in rare form here, Westlake giving him a big build-up, recognizing his long-term potential as a supporting character (that will be fully realized in the next book).  He’s still telling those blood-curdling stories about what happens to anybody who displeases him in some small way, and yet again he never actually hurts anybody–though at one point he’s planning to commit bodily mayhem against a red-headed cop who took him in for questioning–“He was impolite,” Tiny explains.  Best brush up on your Emily Post before meeting Mr. Bulcher in any professional capacity at all, and maybe Amy Vanderbilt too, just to be safe.

Kelp risks more than just his reputation by giving Dortmunder an alibi for the night of the theft, but it’s got a few holes in it, and things are looking bad, when suddenly Benjy turns out to be wired for sound–the cops forced him to put on a wire, to monitor this unusual situation they’ve become aware of.  Dortmunder and Kelp make their getaway, and by the time they see Tiny again, the finger is pointed firmly in Benjy’s direction, and Benjy has been fortuitously relocated and given a new identity by the law.

And that’s about all, except for–

5)Kiss Me, I’m Irish.  No Seriously, I Am.

(no quotes, I’m over my quote quota already)

One of the shortest of the seemingly innumerable subplots in the book centers around Tony Costello, an Irish American TV reporter, who never gets any hot scoops from the Irish cops, because they don’t know Costello is an Irish name–first name Tony, last name ends with a vowel, must be a wop.  They give the breaks to Jock MacKenzie, who is Scottish-American, but they think he’s Irish, and Jock doesn’t disabuse them of this notion.

I wish I could say I didn’t totally buy this.  The Irish are a suspicious race, and I would know.  Brendan Behan, in Borstal Boy, doesn’t believe a guy named Sullivan he meets at the boys prison camp, who says he’s of Gaelic extraction–Behan thinks to himself he never met anybody named Sullivan in Dublin–only Sullivan he ever heard of is that Yank prizefighter.  I’ve encountered the same weird phenomenon in real life.  I’ve also had people tell me–at Irish political rallies and cultural events–that I don’t look Irish at all, even though all my grandparents hailed from there.

I bet Westlake, with his dark hair and upstate accent, went through the same damn thing (though he did look Irish, more and more, as he got older).  Don’t ask me what Irish people are supposed to look like, given Ireland’s millennia-old penchant for getting invaded.  My maternal grandmother was convinced my dad was Italian when my mom brought him home for dinner the first time.  Black Irish, you see.  Tanned like a Spaniard, he was.  He was asked various tactful questions, and then welcomed into the clan he’d been born into.

So Costello gets tapped by Dortmunder as his catspaw in the final move against Mologna, whose name doesn’t look so Irish either, but it’s more of a phonetic deal, I guess.  And at the end, he’s triumphantly finding a way to sneak into his broadcast regarding the recovery of the Byzantine Fire that it now turns out was never stolen to begin with (and honestly, if there’s no intention to commit theft, can you truly say there was any crime at all?) that he himself is Irish and Jock MacKenzie is not.  So Dortmunder has brought a little sunshine to one man’s life, and he’s got May a nice digital watch with a direction manual, and I’m over 6,000 words, and maybe I’d better do the segue now.

Next book is a collection of short stories about a police detective with a good heart, but at the same time, a tragically faulty one.  Westlake’s first series character, in fact (at least in the crime genre).  He’s maybe not quite as interesting as Inspector Mologna, but at least there’s no confusion about how to pronounce his name.  Which is very definitely not Irish, though you might want to kiss him anyway.  If only to say goodbye.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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29 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder, Why Me?

29 responses to “Review: Why Me?

  1. Hello, again. I’ve been away from the comments section of this blog (life, etc.), but I’m happy to return with this one. A fine write-up, as usual. Not my favorite Dortmunder (that one is a ways off), but it’s pretty darned charming nonetheless. The scene that stuck with me for more than 20 years was Dortmunder in the police station, the Byzantine Fire jammed on his finger, the ruby pointed inward. (Westlake doesn’t stoop to making a “red-handed” pun, but he had to be thinking it.) That scene captures what’s so compelling to me about Dortmunder. It’s not that he has bad luck, exactly. Someone with bad luck would have been caught and arrested, simple as you please. He has strange luck. Someone with strange luck has to sit in a room a listen to cops jokingly ask him if he’s got the Byzantine Fire on him — when he does.

    I’m also quite fond of the character of Malogna, and I very much appreciate the meta-textual hijinks of having his name spelled in the narrative the way the character who’s thinking about him believes it to be spelled. That DW was one clever fellow.

  2. rinaldo302

    I remember when I first read this book, the sheer joy of its inventiveness, and the relief that the big dip that was Nobody’s Perfect wasn’t a permanent decline, just a momentary can’t-win-’em-all blip. This was (and still is) a pleasure to read and reread.

    Even at the time, I did notice that Dortmunder wasn’t in any terribly secure position at the end, Mologna having his suspicions and knowing how to find him and all. And I noticed that the foreign-dogs business kind of just bugged off; that didn’t bother me particularly, but it did seem uncharacteristic of Westlake, whom I thought of as a meticulous writer. I also never really bought Dortmunder successfully surviving interrogation while wearing the ring; surely there’d be some kind of quick search along the way.

    I LOVED the character Mologna. He returned later in the series, but (am I correct?) we never again entered his mind so completely. Also, I don’t think Leon ever reappeared, and the combination of him with Mologna was inspired. I wanted Leon to keep returning in subsequent books, each time promoted a bit higher. Ah well, you can’t have everything. And Why Me? is still tons of fun.

    • Yeah, what’s up with Westlake creating all these funny interesting black gay/bisexual persons, then not doing much of anything with them? The list is rather long by now. He obviously enjoyed writing gay characters, as well as African American characters, but there was never much in the way of follow-through.

      Now imagine Leon had encountered Herman X. Much as I love the Dortmunders, there is unrealized potential there, but most of all (I would say) with the all-too-limited use made of a very straight very female character introduced in the next Dortmunder. Oh she got into most of the subsequent books, but never enough for my liking, and I will always think Westlake should have given her a spin-off novel, or at least a few short stories. Sadly, even his creativity had some limits–there were only so many books he could write. I can disagree with some of his choices while still recognizing they were just precisely that.

    • I completely bought the ring being overlooked by the harried and overworked police. You could ask Ricardo Alfonso Cerna, if he were still alive.

      • That was definitely not a flaw in the plot to me. Dortmunder improvises well under pressure, and he tells them it’s his wedding ring–then when they point out that May wasn’t wearing a ring when they came to pick him up at the apartment, he says he’s married to someone else, and they’re so tickled by this, they let him get away with not handing the ring over to be impounded. They’re processing a whole lot of lowlifes at HQ that day, and they’re just grateful for any kind of entertainment.

        I also love the scene when Dortmunder gets back home to May, and in a fit of rage and frustration, just chews the ring off his finger–so viciously that May is moved to count his fingers afterwards. Still five. Phew!

  3. I’m going to call Inspector Mologna Francis or the Inspector from here on in, because it’s getting tiresome having to type his last name twice, sensing my blog’s silent disapproval as I do.)

    Right-click on the red squiggle. Choose “Add to Dictionary”. You’re welcome.

    (I feel just like Andy Kelp.)

  4. Byzantine Fire
    Wordplay is nothing new for Westlake, but a reference to a very recent piece of popular music? That has to be unique, or close to it.

  5. Anthony

    I feel your pain about not being able to cover every point, so I will bring one up.

    I LOVE the image of Tiny trying to eat all the bunion pad cards and other bits of incriminating paper. And then the other folks taking up a collection for him. Probably the only charitable contribution Dortmunder, or even Kelp, ever made in their lives. There is this funky strain of sweet humanity throughout the Dortmunder Canon. It’s one of the reasons I keep rereading them

    • It hurts. It hurts so much. Thank you for understanding. A very simple plot, with a staggeringly elaborate narrative filigree. And I love that, but I also miss the starkness of the Parkers. Here it’s all in the fine details, and there’s so many of them. I hope I’ve given the general idea, and people who haven’t read the book will seek it out and experience those details for themselves. Or be moved to reread it, if they have experienced it in the past.

      And soon I have to review Good Behavior. The first of the true Dortmunderian epics. And Drowned Hopes after that. Oy fucking vey.

  6. One aspect of the Dortmunder universe that I enjoy, even if it falls pretty squarely in the genre of fantasy, is the idea that the criminals of New York are a community of working stiffs, all basically known to one another (or least everybody “knows somebody who knows somebody…”). There’s no room in this universe for some anonymous junkie who might have busted into a jeweler’s to get money for a fix. Of course, the care with which Dortmunder broke into the shop suggests a level of professionalism, but still, the idea that there could be a criminal out there who’s not a part of the Fraternal Order of New York Crooks is never considered by the police or the criminals. Like I said, it’s a fantasy. But an enjoyable one.

    • And very much the same fantasy you see in Mr. Lang’s seminal crime story, which is why Westlake was moved to reference it. It’s anachronistic, and intentionally so. So are the Parkers. This isn’t an attempt to show us the real world, but rather to make us understand things about the real world by means of a fairy tale–and fairy tales are a perfect way to do that. That’s why we keep telling them.

    • Anthony

      I agree with you about this atmosphere of pleasant criminal professionalism in which Dortmunder et al exist. Still, there is an exception to every rule. In Drowned Hopes Tim Jimson hires one of those anonymous junkies who steals to get money for a fix. It doe not end well for the junkie. Being Westlake and not Stark, it happens “offscreen.”

      • Tom Jimson is a deliberate counterpoint to the relatively peaceable nature of the usual run of felons Dortmunder meets–even Tiny’s scared of him, because he’s out of a much leaner and meaner strain of crime fiction–though I think the anagrammatic namecheck of Jim Thompson is a bit of a red herring, and I’ll explain why later.

  7. Anthony

    I don’t have the book with me so I’ll probably get this quote a bit wrong, but ” ‘That guy’s an asshole’ said Mologna and Freedly to Leon and Zachary” was a thing of beauty.

    • I think it was Zachary saying it to Freedly? I’m recharging my iPad, wherein dwells my copy of the book, so I can’t double-check. Sounds more Zachar-ly than Freed-ly. Ah, Google Books, come to our rescue!

      The man’s an asshole,” Zachary and Mologna said to Freedly and Leon.

      Just before that, Leon was sketching a caricature of Freedly wearing pendant earrings.

      The whole face-off between local and federal law is a thing of beauty. A common fictional trope on cop shows, comic and otherwise, but Westlake takes it to a whole new level. Westlake was fascinated by how different versions of authority would quarrel and compete and generally impede each other’s progress, because he’s always looking for holes in the system his crooks can sneak through.

      Remember how in The Man With the Getaway Face, Parker is banking on the fact that New Jersey and New York don’t get along so well (and they don’t) to make his and Handy’s getaway easier? But he doesn’t go into detail there. In the Dortmunders, as already discussed, it’s all detail. Stark is content to know the bleak outlines of social realities–Westlake wants the nitty-gritty.

  8. You know, something was nagging at me, and I figured out what it was–in this book we’re told May is working as a cashier at a Safeway Supermarket, and is continuing her policy of believing that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with her helping herself to a couple bags of groceries as she leaves work (o doubt tuna to make her famous casserole with–after all, isn’t she part of the Safeway family? Would family begrudge her a few cans of tuna, and maybe a steak or two?).

    In Bank Shot, where we meet her first, she was working at a Bohack Grocery Store.

    The Bohack chain went out of business in 1977.

    I’m sure that wasn’t her fault.

    Safeway is not only still around today, it’s the second largest chain of supermarkets in the U.S.–but they don’t have stores in New York City anymore.

    Maybe she’s working for Whole Foods now. Serve those bastards right.

    (editing) Oooh! Key Foods! Dortmunder would like that.

  9. Anthony

    I just noticed that the image on the paperback shows the ring hanging from the former twin towers of the World Trade Center. The Towers were an inadvertent detail that lingers from the movie version of The Hot Rock. Meaningless, of course – most books, films, tv shows set from the mid-70s to 2001 reference the towers one way or another, even if just a background detail. Still, poor Dortmunder….

    • Hey, he’s luckier than the people who were in those towers that day.

      There were four Dortmunder novels written after 9/11, and I can’t recall any of them referencing it in any way. To the extent Westlake dealt with that in his fiction, it was through Parker, in that final Starkian Trilogy.

  10. Anthony

    There is one book – I don’t know it is a Dortmunder or a stand-alone, in which Westlake mocks the twin towers as the final statement ending architecture as a force of human creativity. Obviously he was indifferent to the simple upended shoe-box design, and obviously also this was well before 9/11. Damned if I can remember which book, but I know it was a Westlake and not a Stark

    • That would explain why he never referenced the towers after 9/11. He was, as we have discussed, an extreme architectural conservative, who despised the Bauhaus style and everything that came of it.

      I felt exactly the same way about the twin towers while they stood, and felt terribly remorseful after they were gone. I learned a lesson that day that I shall never forget.

      And the new tower there now is so much worse. My GOD, what an atrocity, what an aesthetic nightmare, what a crime against the Gothamite skyline. Somebody should knock that thing down.

      😐

  11. rinaldo302

    I’ve read Why Me? repeatedly in the past, but I had to pick it up and start it again, given the current discussion.

    One of the things that inspires unbounded affection in me is the parenthetical aside that could have been the punchline of a paragraph for another writer, but his mind is so inventive, he can just throw it in as an extra. The example I’m thinking of is right on the second page as Dortmunder deals with Kelp’s answering machine: “Dortmunder had never talked to a machine before — except for an occasional rude remark to a car that refused to start on a cold morning — but okay;” That’s gorgeous, and I think of it as a specifically Westlake thing.

    One thing I’d wondered if you would dig into is the multiple chapter-by-chapter dedications. Of course we faithful readers know that the first three are D.E.W.-adjacent (Brian Garfield, Abby Adams, Justin Scott). And we all know who Joan Rivers is, though I don’t know why she gets Chapter 34. The last three are, I would venture to say, less known. I can offer a little about George Movshon, whom I “knew” in print as a reviewer of classical recordings for High Fidelity magazine. But his day job was with the UN, as a radio announcer, and Chapter 35 deals with Talat Gorsul from the UN. (I first learned this from Movshon’s son Tony, when we both frequented a classical-recordings forum, back in Usenet days. The Movshons and Westlakes had neighboring summer homes, if I remember the details right after all this time.)

    • I thought about covering that, but there was so much else to work with, and I’ve done stuff about Mr. Westlake’s predeliction for odd dedications in the past. You could write a whole book about his dedications, but who would you dedicate it to? Anyway, as I’ve said more than once, this is what the comments section is for, so let’s do this thing.

      Joan Rivers is easy to explain–he knew her from having written the script for a comic caper film entitled (I wish I was joking) A Girl Named Banana. He collaborated with her on it, so they would have gotten to know each other quite well.

      https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1915&dat=19781226&id=KewgAAAAIBAJ&sjid=G3IFAAAAIBAJ&pg=1256,5030146&hl=en

      The film was never made, and for all I know it would have been amazing–Rivers is still widely respected by other comedians for her contribution to the art of stand-up, and it’s a tragedy she devolved into the shallow showbiz figure haunting every red carpet and comparing everyone unfavorably to her daughter that she is now mainly remembered as. She had one last great moment on Louie, in that episode where Louis C.K. meets her in Atlantic City, and tries to express his deep admiration for her, in ways that are less than appropriate.

      The script Westlake wrote with her is apparently gettable, and maybe I’ll try to get it sometime, in my unending quest to review everything Westlake ever wrote (sometimes it seems like he’s moving the goalposts ever further away, even posthumously).

      The stuff about Movshon is a genuine contribution, and thank you very much for making it. For all I know there are people who will read this book, see those dedications, and come here looking for an explanation.

      As to why he’d dedicate those particular chapters to those particular people……??????? The greatest mystery Donald Westlake ever created was himself. 😉

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