“It’s just that I have to keep in mind,” Dortmunder explained, “what it says across the bottom of my family crest.”
Tiny lowered an eyebrow; in fact, half an entire forehead. “And what’s that, Dortmunder?
“‘Quid lucrum istic mihi est?’”
“What’s in it for me?”
Everybody seemed to like this book when it first came out. There was, one senses, an almost audible collective sigh of relief upon its release. At last, back to doing what he’s supposed to do! Even the previous Dortmunder was a bit too dark (and bizarrely long, much like my review of it). Lighten up, Westlake!
The New York Times delivered, as always, the official verdict– “In this era of thrillers about serial killers and child molesters, Mr. Westlake’s psychology-free capers are balm for the nerves. “Don’t Ask” is one of his best.” And let’s just forget all about the last book hardly anyone read about Armageddon and God and Demons and really bad things happening to really good people.
I mean, after you’d spent much of your life writing scores of brilliantly insightful books about the human quest for self-understanding, some comic, some decidedly not, how would you feel about being referred to as ‘psychology-free’? No doubt there’s a compliment in there somewhere, and Westlake never did cotton much to psychiatrists as such, but motivating his characters, explaining the choices they made, was his primary goal as a storyteller. Most people never got that. Even those who were ostensibly paid to get it.
David Bratman, in his great groundbreaking collection of thumbnail Westlake reviews, had this to say about it, years later–
The eighth Dortmunder novel, a successful mixture of light comedy and something entirely new to the Dortmunder series. Once again, there’s a sacred object disputed between two countries, and as in The Hot Rock Dortmunder is hired by one country to steal it from the other. This time the two countries are Slavic, and the object (which again is in New York) is a saint’s relic, a holy bone. Once again, the object must be stolen several times, lost each time for reasons reminiscent of those in The Hot Rock. What saves this book from being a retread is the freshness of the writing, and the new tone of the second half of the book. Having been tricked and bamboozled by his antagonists, Dortmunder decides, in his last attempt on the bone, to wreak a thorough revenge and embarrassment on them — and he succeeds. At last, he is no longer purely a sad sack. It’s richly satisfying.
Except that’s a retread as well–a vengeful Dortmunder was featured in both The Hot Rock and Why Me?–what’s different here is that he’s planning an elaborate caper with multiple confederates to exact retribution. Far more ambitious, to be sure, but it’s the same pattern we’ve seen before, adapted from Parker–Dortmunder gets mad, Dortmunder gets even. He won’t kill you. He’ll just make you wish he had.
He was never purely a sad sack. Westlake told a variety of stories in the early years of the series, and sometimes it suited the story to have Dortmunder lose from beginning to end (Jimmy the Kid comes to mind, and that of course was adapted from The Ransom of Red Chief), but more often his good and bad luck, his good and bad ideas, all balanced each other out–he’d win some and he’d lose some, and he’d live to steal another day. Good Behavior was probably his most triumphant exploit to date, not this book.
In fact, he loses quite a bit here (including the loot). But what he’s mainly losing, sad to say, is my attention. I enjoyed this novel the first time I read it (it is, in many ways, the most generically representative of the Dortmunders, containing basically every key element from the series as a whole). I was looking forward to reviewing it here, but on second reading, I found my opinion of it would shift radically from chapter to chapter–I’d get into it, then find my attention lagging. So many good moments, so many ingenious contrivances, but even admitting that there had always been some necessary and enjoyable repetition in the series, there’s far too much of it here, and what’s more, Westlake knows it. The conviction isn’t there.
He’s going through the motions. In a manner more clever and creative than most writers could ever aspire to, but as fertile as his imagination remains, his heart isn’t quite in it this time. And I still think this one merits an electronic edition–other than the one after it, this seems to be the only Dortmunder not currently available on Kindle–except it is in Germany. What’s that about? Don’t ask.
Maybe Westlake wasn’t quite ready to get back to Dortmunder yet (it had been just about exactly three years since the last one), but he probably had no choice–he had to make bank, for himself and his loyal publisher, after several recently failed attempts to expand his options as a writer. Hence Dortmunder, his only available fallback position with Parker out of the picture (so maybe time to start thinking about getting Parker back?).
Hence the next book in our queue as well, another sequel that fails to live up to what came before it–both books having quite a lot in the way of keen social observation in them, something Westlake was still vitally interested in, and that keeps either book from being a total loss. But when it comes to the characters, I’m just not feeling it, which I of course interpret as him not feeling it either. Yes, you may roll your eyes now at Fred the Psychic Book Reviewer, Spirit Medium to dead mystery authors.
But ask yourself this, oh skeptics–if he felt he’d done this story full justice, why would he basically rehash the latter half of it in the very next Dortmunder, three years after this one came out? Like a dog with a bone was Donald Westlake with an imperfectly executed idea.
Much as the 90’s marked a return to greatness for him, the first half of that decade was a discouraging process of trial & error. And yeah, I think his attitude towards writing this book–and several subsequent Dortmunders (though not the next one)–fell very much along the lines of Quid lucrum istic mihi est? What was in it for him was money, of course–and breathing space.
It’s a fairly long book, and I could stretch it out, but I’m not making any bank here, and I’m mainly going to focus on the things that do feel inspired, and therefore inspire me. That’s my quid pro quo. No synopsis, or a very incomplete one, anyway. We’ve heard it all before. What was good enough for Dancing Aztecs (a much better book about New York and its environs) will do fine for this one. I think I’ll start out with–
A Dubious Dedication:
Westlake dedicates this novel, ‘in awe and admiration,’ to Robert Redford, George C. Scott, Paul LeMat, and Christopher Lambert, ‘Dortmunders all, and who would have guessed.’ You really wouldn’t think it would be that hard a role to cast appropriately, would you? Unless you read a lot of Dortmunder novels, in which case you’d realize that it’s entirely appropriate that the movie adaptations never, and I mean ever, work out. Moving on to–
Kelp the Climatologist:
Stuck in traffic on the Williamsburg Bridge out of lower Manhattan in a stolen frozen fish truck full of stolen frozen fish at 1:30 on a bright June afternoon, with construction out ahead of them forever on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, with Stan Murch on Dortmunder’s left complaining about how there are no decent routes anymore from anywhere to anywhere in New York City–“If there ain’t snow on the road, there’s construction crews”–and with Andy Kelp on Dortmunder’s right prattling on happily about global warming and how much nicer it will be when there isn’t any winter, Dortmunder also had to contend with an air conditioner dripping on his ankles. Cold drips. “My ankles are freezing,” he announced. As if anybody cared
“Nobody’s gonna freeze anymore,” Kelp assured him. “Not with global warming.”
Dortmunder is all for it, and decides to hasten the process by turning off the air conditioning, only he actually turned off the refrigeration unit, and by the time they get the fish to the Long Island restaurateur illicitly buying them (ever notice how often Dortmunder does theft for hire?), the entire load is spoiled, and Dortmunder has screwed up his own heist. Can’t even blame Kelp this time. Though he really wants to.
And if it hadn’t been for the ferocious summer heat, combined with the now-unavoidable traffic jams, probably this wouldn’t have happened. Dortmunder is once more confirmed in his deep philosophical divide with Kelp. Change is not good. But Kelp the climatologist still looks forward hopefully to the death of winter, and somehow never quite grasps what summer would be like by then. Or else maybe he loves hellishly muggy days, who knows? He can have all of mine.
So now Dortmunder could really use a good score, to make up for this humiliating failure, and then he and the rest of the gang get a call from Tiny Bulcher, who has a problem for them to solve, namely–
The Osteology of Votskojek (grrrrr–and apologies to E.B. White):
“Tsergovia,” Dortmunder said. “I never heard of it.” He glanced at Kelp, who shook his head, and at Stan, who said, “If it isn’t in the five boroughs, I never heard of it.”
Tiny said, “This poor little country, it really got screwed around with over the years. It was independent for a long time in the Middle Ages, and then it got to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and one time it was almost a part of Albania, except over the mountains, and later on the Commies put it together with this other crap country, Votskojek–”
“–and called it something else, but now the Commies are out, that whole Eastern European thing is coming apart, and Tsergovia’s becoming its own country again.”
“Free at last,” Grijk said.
“So it’s gonna be a real different country,” Tiny said, “from when my grandparents decided to get the hell out of…” He frowned and turned to his cousin. “What was the name of that place again?”
“Styptia,” Grijk said.
“Yeah, that’s it,” Tiny agreed. “My ancestral village home.”
Bosnia and Herzegovina were (was?) recognized as an independent nation by the U.S., the European Union, and the United Nations, about a year before this book made it to stores. The result was not peace and prosperity for that tiny nation, but one of the bloodiest civil wars in modern European history (and that’s saying something).
I don’t know when Westlake began work on Don’t Ask, but almost certainly before the shooting started, and I rather think he would have chosen another region if he’d known that was going to happen so soon (we’re told the two statelets are in the Carpathians, not the Balkans–given that all that separates the two ranges is a river, and both border Serbia, it’s kind of a moot point). But he definitely saw the problems presented to parts of Central Europe by the break-up of the Soviet Union. He knew there were a lot of ‘countries’ on the old maps that only existed on paper, and were only being held together by force.
So he imagines this scenario where two tiny nations in what was apparently a hybrid nation very much like Yugoslavia are each vying to be recognized by UN, and what will give one of them the edge is having the thigh bone of a saint revered by both. Both claim to have it, but Votskojek (grrrrrr) actually does, and is in the process of proving it scientifically, in their embassy, an old freighter moored on the East River, alongside Manhattan. Dortmunder & Co. are to steal the bone, so Tsergovia can say they had it all along.
This is a funny part of the book, particularly the part where the narrator gives us the unfortunate history of St. Ferghana, the far-from-virtuous daughter of a family of thieves and murderers, who saw the light and tried to reform them, and ended up dead for her pains–she whose preserved femur serves as the bone of contention here.
But it’s maybe a bit too Ruritanian in its approach (maybe? there were goddam rape camps!). Real life events overtook the fictional ones in this story (not the first time this had happened in Westlake’s career), and it’s not so funny to hear Tiny’s cousin Grijk (whose name only Dortmunder can pronounce correctly) say that the people in these two little countries would need only the slightest provocation to start slaughtering each other like sheep.
Votskojek (grrrrr…) is pretty clearly a slimmed-down Serbia, and yet what’s Tsergovia? A cut-back Croatia? Where do the Bosnian Muslims fit in? I’m sure the satire was never intended to be that direct–and back when most Americans barely knew these countries existed, that was fine. If it had been written a decade earlier, we’d call it prescient–now it just seems a bit–irrelevant. And nobody cared when it came out, because the Dortmunder books were supposed to be irrelevant. Westlake loved to sneak political messages into nonpolitical books, but his timing was off here.
The great tragedy of the Balkans conflict was that all the major players were guilty of horrendous war crimes (or of only selectively condemning them), and the people got crushed between them all. And for once, the United States getting involved in a foreign civil war turned out to be a good thing. So the fight between these two little nonexistent countries over which one gets recognized by the UN seems to me a bit too trite and beside the point. Again, I think he was too far into the book to fix it by the time the outlines of the war became clear.
And yet so much funny dialogue–
Tiny continued: Also by that time you got two religions involved. You got the regular Roman Catholic Church out of Rome that said the leg was a saint to begin with. I mean, the girl was the saint, the whole girl. And then there was a schism, the Eastern Unorthodox,”
Stan said, “Jewish, you mean.”
“No, no,” Tiny said, waving a big meaty hand. “There’s no Jews around there.”
“Dere was vun,” Grijk siad, “bud he went to Belgrade. Or Lvov, maybe. Somevere. Anyway, now we godda get our suits from Hong Kong. It ain’d da same.”
Yeah, something tells me there’s more to that story, Grijk. But to me, by far the most interesting (and neglected) story in this book by far is–
The Founding of The Great Nation of Maylohda:
Banks don’t give loans to people,” Stan said in the tones of outrage he usually reserved for traffic jams. “My Mom knows some cabdrivers, can’t get any kind of loan. Working stiffs, good credit. Taxi loan, house mortgage, home improvement, refinancing, you name it, you can forget it.”
“Oh no, no, no,” Grijk said, “not if you’re a pipple. Pipples don’t ged no money from a bank. Bud if you’re a country, no problem.”
Tiny said, “I looked into this with Grijk, and it’s true. There’s countries haven’t even paid the vigorish on their loans in nobody remembers how long, never mind the main money, and the banks go ahead and loan them some more, anyway.”
J.C., more interested in this conversation than she’d expected to be, said, “How do I get to be a country?”
Grijk took that as a serious question, having recently gone through the experience himself. “First,” he answered, “You have a var.”
Okay, confession time–one of my personal grudges against this novel is that it’s the first time we’ve seen the magnificent Josephine Carol Taylor since her debut in Good Behavior, and she has her own rather brilliant subplot–and it’s shamefully brief. Inspired by Grijk using Tsergovia’s credit to pay the gang members something in advance for their services, she tells Tiny she’s got something to do, vacates the apartment they share, and sets off to set herself up as a nation. The nation of Maylohda (she explains later that her Noo Yawk accent makes her pronounce her usual post office based venue for chicanery that way).
This might have made a good book in its own right, or at least a much more substantial subplot, and do we get to see J.C. strut her stuff with the United Nations and the World Bank, and etc? Do we even get to see her fabricate a ‘var’? Nope. She just tells the gang all about it (over the course of three pages) when she gets back. It makes a good final flourish to the book, but it could have been a lot more.
It does tie up one plot thread–Maylohda will happily buy Tsergovia’s rock, its only export, using borrowed money (with J.C. skimming off the top), and dump it somewhere in the Atlantic, thus providing much-needed hard currency for the struggling statelet, and many a good time for her and Tiny. She figures maybe someday there’ll actually be some land there if they do that long enough. It’s not enough of a pay-off for me. She deserved better, and that mainly continued to be true for the rest of the series. I read this passage, from inside Ms. Taylor’s febrile female brain, and I mourn what might have been.
A cacophony of countries, a mob, a milling throng, a legion of nations. Who would have guessed there were so many mother and father lands? You could hide in a crowd like that.
And do what?
Westlake’s longstanding interest in small nations, all those obscure flags that even your average Jeopardy! champion couldn’t pick out of a lineup, does get a vigorous workout here, and it’s fun to see. Just not developed enough. Too many irons in the fire to make it work. And speaking of torture–
Dortmunder’s Not-So-Extraordinary Rendition:
Oh, is there no story to cover this? Let’s see:
“I’m an undercover CIA agent, infiltrating the Tsergovian secret police, and…”
“I had amnesia! Wait a minute, my past life is coming back to me! The year is 1977, and I live in Roslyn, Long Island, with my dear wife, Andreotta, and our two charming children, uh…”
“FBI! You’re all under arrest!”
“Thank God you understood those signals I was sending. Those bloodthirsty fiends kidnapped my mother and forced me to help them in their evil…”
“My left leg is artificial and filled with dynamite. If you don’t release me at the count…”
“Whu–Where am I? Who are all you people?”
The first heist fails, as you’d expect, since it involves water, boats, and Dortmunder. So much intricate use of Manhattan/Brooklyn geography here, and it’s enjoyable, as always. The embassy is in an old freighter, as mentioned, docked by an old abandoned ferry station. Dortmunder has to get off the tugboat they’re using to scope the place, because he’s seasick.
The ambassador, an oily customer named Hradec Kralowc, empathizes with Dortmunder’s mal de rio (he came to America on that very freighter). He has no reason to suspect this queasy-looking person of any nefarious designs, and is proud of his cushy riverfront ambassadorial digs, so he shows him the whole place, shows him where they’ve got the bone, shows him exactly how to steal it, and man isn’t Dortmunder lucky? And what always follows Dortmunder having some good luck?
Dortmunder pretends to be interested in visiting Votskojek (grrrrr) as a tourist, which has Hradec all agog–they’ve never had any foreign visitors on purpose before, unless they were invading (for the record, I would love to visit the Balkans, as long as they weren’t killing each other too much while I was there). Dortmunder works out a scheme to distract the security guards (hired from the Continental Detective Agency, we’ll get to that), while he distracts the embassy staff, and Kelp sneaks in from the river and nabs the relic.
So what happens is, they get the bone, but they lose Dortmunder, and then they lose the bone to the DEA, which impounds the boat they ‘borrowed’ from a guy who used it to smuggle drugs–with the bone still in it. Meanwhile, Dortmunder is now in the hands of some very unhappy Vostkojekians. Vostkojites? Never mind. And grrrr.
(This whole episode marks the beginning of a running gag in the series that I for one could have lived quite well without–Dortmunder has to come up with a false name for himself when he first meets Hradec, and on the spur of the moment, he calls himself Diddums. John Diddums. It’s Welsh. No it bloody well is not. There is an old English name, Diddams, and there is also an expression of sympathy used with small children “Aw, diddums skin your widdle knee?” That sort of thing. Point is, Dortmunder went on using this alias throughout this book, and several subsequent books, and he always feels obliged to tell people the name is Welsh. And I guess somebody must have enjoyed this, but it never got so much as a chuckle out of me. Aw, diddums not like the widdle Diddums joke?)
And here begins Dortmunder’s less than extraordinary rendition, because Hradec needs that bone, and is prepared to go to any lengths to get it, other than actually killing or torturing anyone, which is one of the reasons I have a hard time believing Westlake wrote this thing after the Bosnian conflict was all over the papers. Yes, I know, it’s a Dortmunder novel, but c’mon.
Dortmunder is introduced to a mad scientist who goes by the name of Dr. Zorn, who dabbles in trying to make inedible substances into food, but his main specialty seems to be the less polite forms of interrogation. And there is a brief gem of character writing for Dortmunder here–
Thoughts of truth serum flashed through his mind. How would his system react to truth serum? Wouldn’t it be like an antibody inside him? Would his vital parts survive such an invasion?
He never finds out, because Dr. Zorn doesn’t believe in the stuff, and just slips him the old Mickey Finn. Dortmunder wakes up in a cell, which he is told is located inside Votskojek (grrrrr?). He is somewhat abused by the guards, but not really. He is fed some unpalatable-looking green substance, but he is fed. So that he should understand that his employer, whoever that is, has been filling his head with foul propaganda, he is given a tour of the rustic lovely countryside and charming (Potemkin) village life of Votskojek, but no ‘grrrrr’ this time, because guess what? The crappy Soviet-era car they’re driving runs out of gas, he escapes his captors, and then he finds out he’s in Vermont. Those fiends! The Hague shall hear of this! And maybe Ben & Jerry!
And here is where the trigger in Dortmunder’s head, no less implacable than Parker’s, is irretrievably set off. No, they didn’t actually hurt him. Yes, they had a right to try and get their bone back, that’s all within the rules of the game. But they made a fool out of him. Dortmunder already has to live with the fact that he is Fortune’s Favorite Fool. He has to put up with that, God being safely out of range. He doesn’t have to take it from mere mortals. He will be revenged on the whole pack of them.
An interesting side-note to this whole episode is that at no time does Dortmunder come close to telling what he knows–partly because he doesn’t think it’ll do him any good, partly because that would mean telling tales on Tiny Bulcher, but mainly because the entire scheme, borrowed variously from 36 Hours, Mission Impossible, and Westlake’s own Ex Officio, has a crucial defect. They think he did this bonehead burglary out of misplaced belief in the just cause of Tsergovia, when in fact he was only in it for the money. They’ve been wallowing in nationalist zealotry so long, they can’t understand a man who can scarcely be said to have any national loyalties at all. Unless you count New York City as a nation.
The problem was, Hradec never did understand Diddums. He neither knew nor understood that Diddums was a prisoner and knew exactly how to be a prisoner. Hradec acted throughout as though he were dealing with an amateur, but Diddums was a pro, from his expressionless face to his barely moving feet, and would not be impressed.
All that talk, all those displays of cooling towers and happy peasants. The man Hradec called Diddums cared nothing about any of that. A prisoner does one of two things: (1) he goes along or (2) he escapes. That’s all there is. His keepers give orders, he obeys them. He doesn’t think; he doesn’t argue; he doesn’t engage in philosophical discussion. He does exactly what he’s told, and all of his concentration remains exclusively on watching for a chance to move onto (2). Then he sees an opening, and he coldcocks the economist from Yale, and he’s gone.
Anyway, while all this is going on, Dortmunder’s comrades have not forgotten him (well, Tiny kind of has, but he does that, and J.C. isn’t around to shame him into a rescue mission). Kelp has not forgotten, not least because his lousy timing in snatching the bone (it wasn’t his fault!) led to Dortmunder’s capture. But of course he doesn’t know where Dortmunder is. He does find out where the bone is, and the chapters dealing with that may be the best part of this book, as I shall now detail in–
Fox and Pig Are Friends:
Andy Kelp’s head appeared over the top edge of the ventilation tower. Fox eyes in a fox face scanned the darkness. It was two in the morning, and while the dishonest burglar in the ventilation tower conned the scene, the honest burghers of Governor’s Island lay peacefully asleep in their beds, dreaming of strikes and spares. (Some were having nightmares about splits).
This book sees the reintroduction of Kelp’s cynical cop confidante, Bernard Klematsky of the NYPD, last seen in Why Me? He knows very well what Andy does for a living, and he’d happily jail him for it given half a chance, but he figures that it’s good to know people in that line of work for both professional and recreational reasons–Andy can provide information, and he can also pay for the sumptious meals the penurious policeman loves to eat but never wants to pay for. Klematsky never picked up a check in his life, and no point starting now.
It was Italian food last time, long a favorite of Mr. Westlake’s, but there’s a new kid in town, namely Thai food, which Bernard says he loves because they put peanut butter on everything. Andy is skeptical, but ends up finding it rather good (without the peanut butter), and cheaper than Italian, even with that pricey bottle of wine Bernard ordered thrown in.
No matter how good the chow is, however weighty the check, Bernard won’t knowingly aid and abet Andy in the commission of a felony, but with a great deal of dancing on ethical pinheads, Andy convinces him that all he wants is the location of an item that belongs to him anyway, that he won’t be able to claim through regular channels. Well, let’s say Bernard, happily sated, agrees to be convinced, and with just one phone call he finds out where the DEA stashes impounded boats–which is Governor’s Island, site of a Coast Guard station, a self-enclosed community that lives its own bucolic surburban existence off the coast of Manhattan, bowling alley, golf course, and all. A brief history lesson (one of what seems like a dozen or so in this book) follows apace–
Just five hundred yards south of the island of MANHATTAN (qv) and even closer to the onetime proud city of BROOKLYN (qv) across Buttermilk Channel, but nevertheless governmentally considered a part of the borough of MANHATTAN (qv), lies a darling button of an island that the Indians called Pagganck, which seems unkind, but there you are.
In 1637, some enterprising Dutchmen bought the island from the Manhatas Indians (so that’s why!) for two ax heads and a handful of nails and beads, and changed its name to Nutten, which wasn’t much of an improvement. But they were still a lot sharper than those other Dutchmen who bought Manhattan itself from the Canarsie Indians, who didn’t own it, but were just passing through and knew a live one when they saw a live one.
The Dutch held on to Nutten only twenty-seven years before the British adopted it, not paying nobody for Nutten, and changed its name to Governor’s Island, because the governor of the colony of New York was going to live there. And so he did. The first one, Lord Cornbury, was asked to leave when he insisted on wandering around in lady’s clothing and instituted a bachelor’s tax, but some of the others kept a lower profile and would surely be proud to learn they are utterly forgotten.
(The parenthetical qv’s refer the reader to a brief footnote saying these are mere historical asides, and not for credit, so I shall not bother to find out if Westlake is making any of this up, and odds are he’s not, because when it comes to New York City history, the stranger it sounds, the more accurate it is likely to be).
So clearly not a good idea to invade the Coast Guard by sea–happily, the Brooklyn/Battery Tunnel goes directly beneath the island, and there is a ventilation tower from the tunnel below that pokes right up through to the surface. And then Kelp’s foxy face pokes right up through that, while Stan Murch waits down below, and he finagles his foxy way around the totally unguarded island until he finds the sacred relic, sacrilegiously deposited in a garbage can near the impounded boat. He wipes it off and kisses it hello, the late Saint being no doubt grateful for the smooch. What’s left of her. I think that’s worth a Papal dispensation, at least.
And since Dortmunder is now free, this would normally mean the story is over, the gang can claim the rest of their fee, and nobody is going to care that Dortmunder wants his revenge, but there’s something funny about the unenthused way Grijk accepts delivery of the bone, and Murch figures something’s rotten in the sovereign storefront of Tsergovia (their embassy is in a ‘taxpayer’, an unimpressive structure erected to host small stores until the owners of the land can think of something better).
He’s right. Hradec had their phones bugged, learned of the impending delivery, and the entire embassy staff was being held at gunpoint until perfidious Votskojek (grrrrr!) once more had that blasted bone in their possession. All that effort achieved precisely nothing–except to make John Dortmunder extremely angry. And an angry Dortmunder is a curious Dortmunder. How did they manage to find all those spots in Vermont to double as prisons and castles and villages in Central Europe, complete with guards and colorfully garbed locals? How could such an elaborate ruse be possible for such a cash-strapped little country? Answer–
Hilton, Helmsley–meet Hochman:
For a man like Harry Hochman, Eastern Europe in its current post-Soviet disarray was a kind of wonderful Christmas present, a model-train set all for him,; some assembly required. And Votskojek was the centerpiece. Once it was securely enconced in its proper traditional United Nations seat, once its economic treaties with its neighbors were in place, that little landlocked barren boulder in the Carpathians would become Harry Hochman’s stepping stone to Europe. All of Europe.
Harry Hochman was Hradec’s benefactor–his literally palatial home in Vermont was the castle Dortmunder saw, he owns all the various places Dortmunder had been kept in, and since he maintains a small summer theater there, getting actors to play menacing guards and such was simplicity itself.
I think he’s more Helmsley than Hilton–his wife Adele sounds a whole lot like the fabled Leona, only not so mean (maybe that came later?). But basically, he’s a composite figure, and the first real tycoon-type Dortmunder has come up against–first of several. But he’s not really developed well enough to be a suitable nemesis, coming along so late in the book–this is one of the problems Westlake would fix in later stories.
Dortmunder finds out about Hochman from the despondent Tservogians, who have files on him–and when Tiny asks what’s the point of revenge–what about his family motto, as seen up top?–Dortmunder points out that the Hochman estate in Vermont is the site of an art collection worth about six million dollars. Dortmunder has his army. Now he just needs a plan.
Fugue in D Major:
For the first but not last time, we see Dortmunder go into a sort of waking trance, a fugue state if you will, where he is piecing together a very elaborate plan–and he doesn’t like this, we’re told–great plans should be simple–but this one needs to be baroque. Because it’s not just a heist, but a sting he’s working out here, and he’s stretching past his normal thought processes, inspired by his fury.
He says he thinks he’s got a corner of something. But he spends a lot of time staring off into space. Because, you see, he needs to solve a whole lot of problems here–how to get the bone, how to make sure Tsergovia can properly claim it, how to make sure both Hochman and Hradek suffer horribly for their insult to him, how to get all that art and then get paid off for it (two entirely different things, since fencing famous objets d’art isn’t something Dortmunder’s regular contacts can do).
Shall I explain how he does all that? Nah. Read the book. If you already have, read it again (even a sub-par Dortmunder is still a Dortmunder). Point is, he does it. A brilliant heist, a brilliant scam, and everything works out perfectly. Except, of course, they lose the art to the law. Which all ties back to the beginning of the book.
They get some cash up front from a somewhat shady art dealer who was negotiating with the insurance company on their behest, so they did okay, but no big score like last time. And Dortmunder doesn’t care, because this was about satisfying honor. He got his own back, with interest. He does his tormentors the dirty about a thousand times worse than they did him.
Dr. Zorn the torturer suffers the Chinese water torture (which it turns out is a thing) in his secret laboratory in the burned out Bronx, and by the time it’s done, he will never be the same again. He can dish it out, but he can’t take it, nyah.
Hradec Kralowc, the proud womanizer, is publicly labeled a homosexual deviant (in the 1990’s? We were a little more advanced by then, weren’t we?) Dortmunder makes everybody other than his long-suffering wife believe he’s having an affair with Dr. Zorn. This joke fell a little flat with me, it’s not like the guy was any kind of homophobe, and we never see him do anything that dastardly. But it’s a necessary part of getting the crusty old Archbishop in charge of awarding the UN seat to change sides. Okay, he would definitely not be advanced on that subject. Oh, and Hradec also gets framed for the art theft, and the bone-napping, and has to return to Votskojek (grrrrr) in disgrace.
And Harry Hochman will be answering questions for years to come about where he got all that stolen art from, and since many of his answers will never be fully satisfactory, he will have other things to ponder than the conquest of Europe. Which technically I think Conrad Hilton had already conquered, but never mind that now.
It’s fun. It’s clever. It’s a great idea for a Dortmunder story. And it’s too busy. There are too many threads. There are a few too many mean-spirited jokes (and this is not, in the main, a series that specializes in mean-spirited humor). Like Zara Kotor the hulking homely Tsergovian diplomat–a female Tiny Bulcher, who falls for the male one, and keeps throwing herself at him, while he retreats in terror, until she finds out he’s living with the beautiful J.C. Taylor, and her hopes are dashed. Was that really quite necessary? I feel certain H.L. Mencken would not have approved. And “Eastern Bloc Women Not in Spy Thrillers Are Ugly” was surely a meme well past its sell-by date, and was never remotely true.
An awful lot of this book isn’t really necessary, and the beautiful thing about a great Dortmunder novel is that every last bit of it is necessary. Why are there so many false notes here? Why did the piece as a whole not play sonorously for me on the second hearing? Because, I believe, the frustrated composer was not in the mood to write this composition. Sure, he enjoyed writing this or that part of it, as I’ve enjoyed writing this or that part of this review, but the process as a whole was more of a chore than anything else. He wanted to be more than The Dortmunder Guy, and people were talking like that’s all he was.
Even the title–Don’t Ask? Why not? Because if you did, you might find there isn’t really much of a meaning behind that title, or much of one behind this book, either. Where’s the identity puzzles? Okay, Hradec not comprehending Dortmunder’s true nature, but that’s hardly enough. J.C. playing with becoming a nation of one, but that’s barely touched upon in the book.
The previous book in the series had several characters created especially for it, each going through major crises/transitions in their lives, creating rich material for the novelist. But here Westlake is concentrating pretty much entirely on already-established characters–because that’s what people want from him. That’s why he basically trots out nearly every regular character from the series to date here, which I don’t think he ever did again.
And the problem with established characters is that they’re–you know–established. Identity puzzles are harder to craft from a fixed identity, characters that never change, because we don’t want them to. So from that perspective, this is the least satisfying Dortmunder novel to date–for me, and perhaps Westlake as well. I can only speak for me. It’s not necessarily the worst–that’s probably still Nobody’s Perfect. But I enjoyed writing that review more. If only because my expectations were lower.
So apologies to those who like this one–I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m just saying I was, when I earlier referred to this as a great Dortmunder novel. It’s merely the outer shell of one. The ineffable essence of the series is not quite here, somehow. Because Mr. Westlake’s heart was elsewhere when he was writing it. Where might that be, you ask? No, that’s okay, you can ask.
Not with our next book either, I think, but I’m rereading it now, and I may well write a slightly more positive appraisal than I thought I would–if only slightly. I’ve figured out which past book he reworked to make this one, and it’s not the one you think. And I rather hope to finish that review in one go as well. Because the Mid-to-Late 90’s beckon, with treasures beyond compare. And we shall be there in only a few weeks time. Mes enfants, would I dissemble?