Review: Thieves’ Dozen


The fifth and final collection of Donald Westlake’s short fiction published in his lifetime turned out to be the best.  Which is not to say the previous four were lacking in merit.  There were very fine stories in each of them–surrounded by stories that were not so fine.  It was never easy for him to come up with a whole book’s worth that could live up to the standard he’d set in his novels.  This collection marks the only instance where he achieved this.  With a character plucked from a series of often rather broad-ranging novels, and set upon the short and narrow-focused for a change.

Mr. Westlake had his troubles with this form.  Mainly relating to character, which for him was the foundation of everything he aspired to as a writer.  Yes, plot matters, technique matters, style matters, subtext matters–and none of it matters a damn if you can’t create people with their own unique voices and identities.  When he only had a few pages to work with, he was hard-pressed to make that happen.  I suppose all writers have their troubles with this form, and find different ways to deal with them.

In my biased estimation, the greatest short story writer in English was, is, and shall remain that crafty Corkonian, Frank O’Connor (a pseudonym, wouldn’t you know, his birth name was Michael O’Donovan).  He wrote little else in the way of fiction besides short stories.  Quit the novel after two early attempts, and for good reason: he worked best in miniature.  His characters don’t leap out at you, so much as they pull you in; make you laugh with them, scowl at them, grieve for them (read The Impossible Marriage sometime, or any of his stories–you’ll see what I mean).  Having said all he needed to say, even one additional page would be art crime.  No more about it.

O’Connor drew heavily on people he’d met for his models, his countrymen and countrywomen; vivid, flawed, noble, innocent, brave, brilliant, begrudging, stubborn, perverse.  He wrote of his mother (who was all of the above), with love and wonder, that he’d bribed a London hotel chambermaid to bring her meals, and when he came back a short time later, the mammy had gotten that poor Devon girl to cough up her entire life story over tea and scones; enough material for a novel.  She could seemingly get a novel out of anyone she met, and he could only lament that she never wrote any–not her purview–but she passed that gift for gleaning to her shy subtle son, who boiled a novel’s worth of insight into a nutshell of narrative.

Westlake, himself a shy subtle New York Irish boy, likewise endowed with a formidable mother (and a far better father than O’Connor’s scapegrace sire) had a comparable eye for human complexity, but he was less inclined to draw too directly from life, preferring a bit more distance between himself and his subjects; relying more on genre templates as part of that distancing technique (and to make rent, of course).

O’Connor’s autobiographical writings are without superior (I can think of other short story writers I admire who did well in this regard, which may well mean something).  Westlake’s memoirs remain forever unfinished and mostly unpublished.  For all his outward garrulousness, he was a deeply private man, unwilling to make himself too vulnerable to scrutiny–the Stark in him–the less people know about you, the safer you are.

Closest he got to the confessional was when he wrote as Tucker Coe, a persona he rejected, then ritually slaughtered in a mock-interview.  (Didn’t help that his most personal early novel under his own name was rejected, and went unpublished in his lifetime.) Whatever the reasons, he needed more space to create characters who lived and breathed and spoke to him.  To find ways to reveal himself more obliquely to us.

His models would have included Hammett, O. Henry, and others in his chosen field–better teachers would be hard to find.  But when it came to short fiction, he usually fell far short of the standard they’d set (while writing novels that read like short stories, so his apprenticeship was not wasted).

Having tossed off scores of stories for the pulps in the late 50’s and early 60’s (good practice, needed income, unsympathetic editors), his production slacked off a lot when he found his footing as a novelist–by which time he’d created his two signature series characters. Only one of whom was destined to spawn a series of short stories (and one novella) to augment his long form adventures.

Though Richard Stark began his existence as a short story writer, never once that we know of did he assay to write a short story about Parker, Grofield, or any member of his large supporting cast of players.  Hard to believe he didn’t at least consider it.  Did he try, and find the results wanting?  Stark’s great virtue is succinctness–you’d think that would have translated well to the shorter form.  A mystery that seems unlikely to be cleared up.

It was Dortmunder’s lot in life to do the jobs Parker turned down.  In his introduction to this anthology, Westlake recounts once more how in 1967, he was trying to write a more humorous Richard Stark novel, in which Parker would have to steal the same thing over and over again.  As Westlake puts it, Parker thought this was beneath his dignity, though in the novel that did result from that attempt, he was perfectly willing to do subcontracting work for a group of African revolutionaries.

Still seeing merit in the notion of repetitive theft, Westlake conjured John Dortmunder out of a neon beer sign, and although the initial attempt at a novel stalled out, he returned to it a few years later, with great success.  As with Parker, he didn’t write the first novel with the idea of there being more of them, but more happened anyway.  He’d finished Nobody’s Perfect, when a scrap of conversation between Dortmunder and a well-dressed man came to him, the bare bones of an idea he knew wasn’t enough for a novel.  This could be the start of something small.

It worked out to ten Dortmunder shorts written and published over the course of twenty years, mainly in Playboy.  Not a venue you’d think Dortmunder would feel at home in, but it must have paid well.  Some of the latter run of stories Westlake wrote with the notion that he just needed a few more to make a book out of them, reminiscent of the genesis of Levine.  But he wasn’t trying to finish off a character arc (or the character) here, as he was with that collection of police procedurals that don’t amount to much individually, but somehow pack an emotional wallop when read together.

There’s no discernible arc whatsoever to the Dortmunder shorts, or any emotional wallop at all, because it’s not called for.  More like doodling in the margins.  Inspired doodling, because he’d finally found what he’d always been lacking when it came to short stories–readymade voices, people whose quirks he already knew inside out.  With the problem of character out of the way, he could concentrate on plot and motivation.

These stories are all perfectly balanced in a way the novels rarely were.  No need to come up with elaborate heists for Dortmunder to pull (no time to pull them). No need to come up with separate subplots for an ever-expanding cast of regulars, all clamoring for their moments in the sun. Just the right number of moving parts here.

You never get the whole ensemble (except in the last offering here, which isn’t a Dortmunder).  The stories were either about Dortmunder and Kelp, or Dortmunder as a single-o.  The solo stories were some of the best.  Focused.  Precise.  Yet still with the loose-jointed nonchalance that distinguishes the series as a whole.

There are, when you think about it, a host of chapters in the later Dortmunders that stand apart from the main plotline, that could have easily been repurposed as short stories with a cursory rewrite. No doubt some of them began as ideas for short stories that were never written, or some that were.  Dortmunder working a short con as a faux encyclopedia salesman going door to door, in The Hot Rock and Bank Shot, was an idea filched directly from a story Westlake wrote about just such a fly-by-nighter–and the versions with Dortmunder are far superior, because Dortmunder is real in a way few of Westlake’s short-form protagonists ever were.

There’s something about Dortmunder, a lean laconic quality that oddly lends itself to vignettes, anecdotes, tall tales.  He feels like somebody O. Henry could have easily dreamed up, but didn’t (and this is one reason my vote for the best Dortmunder novel might well go to the one that reimagined The Ransom of Red Chief).

One more oddity–Dortmunder usually wins out in these stories.  Not such a sad sack in the shorts.  Not without his share of setbacks, sidetracks, and petty humiliations, to be sure, but I think he’d have gladly given up the arduous and too-often futile two to four hundred page slogs in favor of maybe ten modestly profitable short-term ventures a year–as opposed to ten in a lifetime.  The bottom falling out of the market for short stories was one reason that was never gonna happen.  But as always, he made the most of what came to hand.  Let’s see if we can do the same.

Ask A Silly Question: By all means, let’s.  As we join him, Dortmunder is having a conversation with an elegantly dressed older man, in a splendidly appointed Manhattan townhouse at Park & 65th, and he’s being asked what people of his sort usually drink.

“Bourbon,” Dortmunder said.  “Water.  Coca-Cola.  Orange juice.  Beer.”

“Bourbon,” the elegant man told one of the two plug-uglies who’d brought Dortmunder here.  “And sherry for me.”

“Coffee,” Dortmunder went on.  “Sometimes Gallo Burgundy.  Vodka.  Seven-Up.  Milk.”

“How do you prefer your bourbon?” the elegant man asked.

“With ice and water.  People of my sort also drink Hi-C, Scotch, lemonade, Nyquil–

“Do you drink Perrier?”

“No,” said Dortmunder.

Playboy published this in February of 1981, a bit over a decade after The Hot Rock, and Dortmunder was hardly so famous by then that Westlake could presume universal familiarity with his brainchild’s quirks.  He’s not taking a shortcut here, writing Dortmunder fanfic for a quick buck. He’ll do it right, or not at all.

It’s important for his own working methods that he knows his guy, and he does, but he still has to make sure he’s established that guy in the mind of some some gentleman of leisure who has never even heard of Dortmunder ere now, and is merely taking a quick break from ogling Miss February (Vicky lynn Lasseter, I googled, nice eyes), so he can go on pretending he buys this publication for the articles.  I don’t believe even The O’Connor Don ever established character more efficiently than The Don Westlake does here.

The elegant man married some sweet young thing who turned out more young than sweet.  A nasty divorce followed afoot, with no accompanying prenuptial agreement (elegance not necessarily implying prudent foresight).  As part of her punitive inroads on his worldly goods, she demanded his most prized possession, a Rodin nymph in bronze.  Unwilling to part with one nymph to appease another, he had a copy made, and bribed a court-appointed expert to certify it the original.

All well and good, but now for tax purposes she’s donating it to the Museum of Modern Art, and there’s no bribing them.  The elegant man (let’s just call him Tem, inelegant as that sounds) wants Dortmunder to tell him how to steal the copy back that very night, so  his subterfuge may never be revealed. But the ersatz nymph weighs over five hundred pounds, enough to give Jove himself a hernia.  How can she be carried away undetected?

Various potential schemes are floated by Tem, and shot down contemptuously by his contrarian consultant–Dortmunder is irritated at having been picked up by Tem’s plug-uglies as he was on his way to the O.J. to discuss a potential job with the usual suspects.  Tem wants to pay him a measly grand for his advice. Dortmunder bargains him up to five, but Tem decrees that for so large an honorarium, they’d like the honor of his company during the heist.  Dortmunder phones Kelp at the O.J., explains he’ll be late.  Kelp says no problem, they’re having a nice discussion on religion and politics.

One very satisfying plot twist later (I’m going to try to avoid revealing those when possible, but no promises), Tem is in a most inelegant fix, and the vengeful Dortmunder is planning a raid on his now-unguarded townhouse with the gang from the O.J., which one would hope includes the recently introduced Tiny Bulcher (for heavy lifting), but would you want to discuss religion and politics with him? Be my guest.

A hard one to improve upon.  But Westlake did, several times.  Including the very next time, in a little equestrian yarn by the name of–

Horse Laugh: (Playboy again, June ’86, Rebecca Ferratti, I think we got a motif going here.)  Dortmunder and Kelp are in the process of stealing a thoroughbred champion named Dire Straits who is now gone out to stud in the wide open spaces of western New Jersey (Money for nothing and your chicks for free, hmm, wouldn’t have thought he’d be into that band–probably just for the implicit wordplay).

Dortmunder, we later learn, bet on this very nag at the track on one of the rare days Dire Straits finished out of the money (Want to bet that’s a coincidence?  What odds you give me?).  His weakness for blowing his ill-gotten gains on the ponies should not be confused with any personal feeling for them.  He has no more reason to love these four-legged wallet-emptiers than they him.

Dortmunder looked at the horse.  The horse looked at Dortmunder.  “Ugly goddam thing,” Dortmunder commented, while the horse just rolled his eyes in disbelief.

“Not that one,” the old coot said.  “We’re looking for a black stallion.”

“In the dark,” Dortmunder commented.  “Anyway, all horses look the same to me.”

(Again, character established from the starting gate.  You’ll enjoy these stories more if you’ve read some of the novels, but it’s by no means obligatory.)

The old coot, Hiram Rangle, works for some screwy squire with more horses than sense.  He wants better bloodlines for his broodmares (sans stud fees), so they’ll throw a few winning foals nobody will expect great things from, because they won’t know who really sired them. The real money will be in the large bets he lays on them–you see, it’s only illegal to bet against your own horse, at least in America.  Stealing them is a problem pretty much everywhere.

So Dortmunder and Kelp are doing work for hire again, and Hiram, their employer’s employee, is there because he can identify the goods, then cajole said goods into coming along for the ride.  A recalcitrant hotblood equine being a far trickier proposition than a 500lb Rodin nymph, even if he can move around by himself.  (Well, that’s going to be the problem, you see.)

This one’s special to me because it’s the single most sustained look into animal behavior that Westlake ever attempted.  Westlake featured animals in his work fairly often, but they were rarely central to the narrative–a dangerous dog, a hovering hawk, a prattling parrot (we’ll get to him)–sometimes POV characters, but briefly.  More often mere plot devices.  But there’s always this underlying consciousness that they are, in fact, conscious, volitive beings with their own agendas–and that they, unlike we, know what they want.

I’ve read that Westlake once had a cat named James Blue, who provided him with one of his pseudonyms (the kind he wrote pseudo-porn under), and nary a reference to cats can I recall from his oeuvre (too close to home?).  All I can divine from his fiction, vis a vis our fellow vertebrates, is that he was interested in them, and perhaps sometimes afraid of them.  And it’s this tension between fear and fascination that tends to inform his writing about them. Leading to many an absurd situation

Walking through his first barn, Dortmunder learned several facts about horses: (1) They smell. (2) They breathe, more than anything he’d ever met in his life before. (3) They don’t sleep, not even at night. (4) They don’t even sit down. (5) They are very curious about people who happen to go by. And (6) they have extremely long necks.  When horses in stalls on both sides of Dortmunder stretched out their heads toward him at the same time, wrinkling their black lips to show their big square tombstone teeth, snuffling and whuffling with those shotgun-barrel noses, sighting at him down those long faces, he realized that the aisle wasn’t that wide after all.

“Jeepers,” Kelp said, a thing he didn’t say often.

(Okay, how is a devoutly urban thief who probably never even finished high school supposed to know horses usually sleep standing up?  I assume Westlake knew this, but the thing about autodidacts is that they always know more and less than you assume.  We’ll be talking about that when we get to the parrot.)

So they find Dire Straits, and Hiram sweet talks him (which includes doling out sweets in the form of sugar cubes), and they get him outside, and it all goes to hell, really fast.  A complication they hadn’t counted upon.  See, the staff at this place don’t know the thieves are there, but the horses do, and they’ve heard via the equine grapevine that there’s sugar cubes in the offing. Giddyap.

Further complication–coming into the place, Dortmunder and Kelp dislodged the rails of a fence bordering the road, then put them back up without the nails to hold them in place, to facilitate their exit with the loot.  The excited horses have now pushed their way through the fence like a herd of TV zombies, making their way to the fatal complication–an orchard full of green apples, right across the road.

“Like shit through a goose” doesn’t half say it. Geese have nothing on horses.  The stable environs are now fully Augean. The staff are now wide awake, and running around, slipping and sliding in the love offerings of man’s noblest companion, futilely trying to persuade the horses that they’re domesticated animals who only do what they’re told.  Oh yeah?  We’re gonna have a midnight snack, two-legs.  How ya like them apples?

The police are arriving to restore order and will inevitably realize who was responsible for the chaos.  Hiram, who like any horsey person, dreamed in his lost youth of riding some Farleyesque black stallion on a desert isle, leaps aboard Dire Straits, and makes a mad gallop to freedom.  It does not go well.  Dortmunder and Kelp decline the role of Tonto, and through a typical ruse, manage to commandeer a truck to get them the hell out of there.

I will spoil this ending, but only because it’s spoiler-proof.  It turns out Dire Straits took a shine to one or both of them, followed them away from the madding crowd, and they could steal him easy, take him home, and–what then? What could they possibly do with him? Hiram’s boss will be joining him in the hoosegow, shortly.

Kelp isn’t Dortmunder.  He’s never been a horse person, he’s mainly thinking about the million dollars this horse is worth (that they could never in a million years get), but there’s something plaintive in the “Can I keep him?” discussion that finishes out the tale. (As a girl, my significant other begged her father for a horse like she was Richard III.  They lived in a Manhattan apartment.  “Where would we keep it?”  “On the roof!”  She settled for a puppy, who grew to the size of a small horse.)

We don’t just keep animals we don’t eat because they’re useful to us (and so often, you know, they are impediments to our daily enterprise).  They charm us, and this one’s starting to charm Kelp.  Dortmunder, being something of an animal himself, is deaf to this Siren’s song, and drags Kelp away.

But not even the wildest of horses ever dragged anyone away from–

Too Many Crooks: (The usual, August ’89, Gianna Amore, lives up to the name.)  Probably the most famous short story Westlake ever wrote (it’s this or Nackles, and this is a much better story than Nackles).  Won him his second Edgar, on his way to the coveted trifecta (superfecta, if you count the Grandmaster thing).  The story that gave us the perhaps over-used John Diddums gag.  (It’s Welsh.  You knew that).

This is the one that people who don’t know spit about Dortmunder sometimes still know.  “Oh right, he’s robbing a bank, and then he finds out somebody is already robbing it.  Funny!”  You wouldn’t think so if it happened to you.  What’s funny to me is this friend of mine who admits to having read no other Westlake than this, and I just now realize I never inquired where she read it.  Not in this book. She’d have remembered Horse Laugh.  Probably anthologized elsewhere.  I’m sure that’s it.

Westlake used to say Parker was about romantic crime, and Dortmunder was about the mundane reality, and that’s a crock.  Real bank robbers shoot people.  Dortmunder hardly ever points a gun at anybody.  Suppose it went off or something?  The rules are, Parker never shoots anybody who doesn’t deserve it, and Dortmunder never shoots.  So towards the end of avoiding messy gunplay, he and Kelp are tunneling into a bank vault–in the daytime.  During banking hours.  Sure, why not?  I know this sounds critical, but here’s the thing–when you read the story, you 110% believe it.  Fiction isn’t about realism.  Westlake knows this.  Many others seem confused on that point.

In the meantime, a gang of more Starkian heisters have taken the traditional approach, with guns and masks and everything, but being in Dortmunder’s universe they screwed it up royally, and the place is surrounded, come out with your hands up, you know the drill, but they figure they can just take everyone hostage and get out that way.

There’s so many people in that vault when Dortmunder and Kelp break through the wall, that the other gang doesn’t even realize Dortmunder isn’t one of the hostages, and the real hostages think he and Kelp are cops coming in the back way to rescue them.  Kelp beats a hasty retreat through the tunnel, the hostages follow his lead, thereby rescuing themselves, and Dortmunder ends up being the only hostage, having been randomly picked to go outside and relay the demands of the nervous felons with machine guns to the equally nervous cops with sniper rifles.  (Randomly?  Ya think?  Maybe if this is the only Dortmunder story you ever read).

His situation is further complicated by the fact that his story began about two hours after this other, less whimsical, story, and he’s a bit slow catching up.  And one of the guys with the machine guns is a mite oversensitive.  Well, if you’ve got a machine gun, and you’re the emotional type, you tend to use it.  That’s kind of the chief argument against machine guns.

“We’re gonna give the our demands,” the robber said.  “Through you.”

“That’s fine,” Dortmunder said.  “That’s great.  Only, you know, how come you don’t do it on the phone?  I mean, the way it’s normally–”

The red-eyed robber, heedless of exposure to the sharpshooters across the street, shouldered furiously past the comparatively calm robber, who tried to restrain him as he yelled at Dortmunder, “You’re rubbing it in, are ya?  OK, I made a mistake!  I got excited and I shot up the switchboard!  You want me to get excited again?”

“No, no!” Dortmunder cried, trying to hold his hands straight up in the air and defensively in front of his body at the same time.  “I forgot!  I just forgot!”

He forgot.  As if anyone could ever forget. A vital clue, that the detective in this story, namely the red-eyed robber, seizes upon later to unravel the locked-room mystery of where this Diddums jerk came from.  Much good that does anyone, but the formal demands of the genre have been met.  A few pages later, the more informal demands of a Dortmunder story are met, to even Dortmunder’s satisfaction.

I’m not sure I consider this the very best story in the book (tough call), but rest assured it’s the best story about concurrent bank robberies anyone’s ever going to write.  They did later make a movie with that very premise, incidentally.  Flypaper.  No awards.  No nominations.  No audience.  9% ‘Fresh’ with top critics (the one good review is from the Times, and it’s not that good).  I think Dortmunder’s niche is secure for the forseeable future.

What’s not so secure is the future of live theater in the hinterlands, which brings us to–

A Midsummer Daydream:  (Ditto, May of ’90, Tina Bockrath.)  Due to a little professional misunderstanding, Dortmunder and Kelp head about 80 miles upstate to stay with Kelp’s cousin, Jesse Bohker (no relation to Tina, I’d assume) until things cool off back home.

Cousin Bohker has a farm.  Ee ey ee ey oh.  And on that farm he’s got a summer theater where they do Shakespeare for the multitudes, during the afternoon, so as not to conflict with cable TV.  Ee ey ee ey oy fucking vey.  I mean, there’s a guy walking around in a donkey’s head.  There’s fairies prancing all over the place, and not the fun urban variety. Dortmunder says enough with the iambic pentameter already, and goes outside.

And when it turns out the box office proceeds–two thousand, seven hundred twenty-four dollars, not a bad score–got lifted while Dortmunder was standing outside the converted barn with no alibi.   Cousin Bokher has an ultimatum–ee ey ee ey dough.  Or he calls in the state troopers.

The point of this exercise is to put Dortmunder in the position of having to play detective.  He needs to finger the real culprit, to avoid having some upstate Dogberry take a good look at him and Kelp, and finding out there’s much ado about everything where these guys are concerned.  But also–he’s innocent.  Innocent, I tells ya!

The experience of being unjustly accused was so  novel and bewildering to Dortmunder that he was almost drunk from it.  He had so little experience of innocence.  How does an innocent person act, react, respond to the base accusation?  He could barely stand up, he was concentrating so hard on this sudden in-rush of guiltlessness.  His knees were wobbling.  He stared at Andy Kelp and couldn’t think of one solitary thing to say.

(Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into comes to mind, but that’s probably copyrighted.  Great thing about The Bard is you never have to inquire about copyright.  There are inquiries being made about the latest Shakespeare in the Park production, but those are of a different order.  Once more into the breach of etiquette!)

What makes this such a neat little mystery is that the way Dortmunder solves it makes perfect sense for the person he is, and the experiences he’s had.  Westlake liked turning his thieves into detectives (though he never made an entire franchise out of it, the way Lawrence Block did).  Should go without saying, Dortmunder never cared about whodunnit.  He only wanted to prove he didn’t, and then get payback for the cousin assuming he did.  His sense of aggrieved innocence certainly gets an overdue workout here.   Speaking of which–

The Dortmunder Workout:  (New York Times Magazine, 1990, no centerfold, killjoys.)  The shortest story on offer here.  A mere vignette.  Dortmunder walks into the O.J. Bar and Grill.  Apparently just to have a bourbon and catch up with Rollo the bartender, but the regulars have things to discuss, relating to physical fitness and related issues.

The first regular said, “I don’t get what you mean by this food groups.”

“Well,” the second regular told him, “your principal food groups are meat, vegetables, dessert and beer.”

“Oh,” the first regular said.  “In that case, I’m OK.”

Yeah, you’ve heard it before.  Worth hearing again, but not much point parsing it.  Onwards to–

Party Animal: (Back to the motif. January ’93, Echo Leto Johnson.  No that’s her name, honest. I think all these girls somehow escaped from paperback sleaze novels of the 60’s. Hard to be sure, those books are so badly lit.)

As has happened in past, we join Dortmunder on a fire escape at night, cops swooping in from above like flatfooted owls, cops waiting expectantly below, like crocodiles with badges.  The window he’s currently crouching by is cracked open.  There’s a party going on inside. A Christmas party, since that’s the time of year.  He’s going to try and crash it.  Not his usual scene, but hum a few bars and maybe he can avoid going behind them.

It’s cold outside, so the bedroom he’s entering is the traditional repository for coats (nobody in Manhattan has that much spare closet space).  Underneath the pile of coats on the bed, a couple is trying, and failing, to join the party equivalent of the mile high club.  Dortmunder stows his gear, hides his loot, joins the fray.  As he thought, most people there don’t know most other people there.  He can blend into this crowd.  Yet he would fain be gone through yon waiting portal.  But hark, the doorbell rings–tis the coppers, seeking their rightful prey.  He’ll stay a week or two–he’ll stay the winter through–yet I am telling you…..

Who’s the person  you notice least at a catered party?  The lowly server, handing out food.  Which makes no sense at all, that’s the one who can actually do something for you, but there you are.  There’s a little Trump in all of us.  I must get mine surgically removed at some point.

But returning to the point at hand, Dortmunder sees the harried caterer, a not-bad blonde, wearing a perpetual angry frown, precipitated in this case by the fact that the guy supposed to be helping her out here with these party animals never showed.  Dortmunder, good Samaritan that he is, volunteers to fill the gap, pass out the canapes, while she assembles them in the kitchen.  She’s suspicious, but in no position to look a gift server in the mouth.  (As the narrator reminds us, we don’t say ‘servant’ in America, because we’re all equal here, sheahright).

So as he makes the rounds, tray in  hand, little snatches of conversation come to us….

There’s only twenty guys gonna be let in on this thing.  We have seven already, and once we have all the seed money….”

“She came to the co-op board in a false beard and claimed she was a proctologist.  Well, naturally….”

“So then I said you can have this job, and he said OK, and I said you can’t treat people like that, and he said OK, and I said that’s it, I quit, and he said OK, and I said you’re gonna have to get along without me from here on in, buster, and he said OK…so I guess I’m not over there anymore.”

“And then these guys in a rowboat–no, wait, I forgot.  First they blew up the bridge, see, and then they stole the rowboat.”

“Merry Christmas, you Jew bastard, I haven’t seen you since Ramadan.”

“And he said, ‘Madam, you’re naked,’ and I said, ‘These happen to be gloves, if you don’t mind,’ and that shut him up.”

A bit on the mundane side for such a gathering.  You who don’t hail from New York perhaps think I’m kidding.  You who do know I’m understating.  So is Westlake.  Dortmunder also hears the couple from the bedroom earlier, Larry and Sheila, and notes that Larry is basically blowing Sheila off because the coat coitus got canceled.

The caterer has noted the presence of fuzz, and is now giving Dortmunder funny looks–but saying nothing.  Just handing him more snacks for the revelers.  Dortmunder’s protective coloration is still holding up–he tests it by going up to the loitering lawmen and lawwomen, and asking if they want something.  They tell him to mind his own business.  Well, technically, that’s what got him in trouble.

The party is winding down.  The police have left the apartment, but not the chase.  They’re waiting outside.  They will search each departing guest.  Even if Dortmunder abandons his takings of the evening, his fake ID won’t hold up to close scrutiny (another thing that can happen at parties, though usually of a different age set).  Dortmunder has a fix–plant some of the jewelry he stole on one of those departing guests.  He’s kind of pleased it turns out to be Larry.  So are we all, really.

And the irate caterer, it turns out, has developed a little thing for Dortmunder.  She tells him he should know she’s married.  He tells her he is too, kind of.  Ships passing out hor d’oeuvres in the night.  As a token of what they have shared in this brief encounter, and also to say thanks for not blowing the whistle on him, he slips a gold brooch in the shape of a feather into her hair bun.  And then he’s off, free as a bird.  Larry can’t say the same, but they’ll figure out he didn’t do it, once he stops incriminating himself with his personality.  To all a good night.

A different kind of social gathering awaits Dortmunder in a less substantial tale with an interesting genesis to it, namely–

Give Till It Hurts:  This was first published in pamphlet form, by The Mysterious Bookshop, in November 1993, a gift for faithful mail order customers.  (No pin-up girls, perhaps deemed inappropriate for the holiday season, who can say?)  Westlake owed much to that shop’s estimable proprietor, Otto Penzler, but it’s Dortmunder who makes good the debt here–in more ways than one.

Dortmunder is disguised in Middle Eastern garb, having just stolen some rare coins at a hotel convention for collectors (good thing Parker isn’t into plagiarism suits).  Again, he needs to blow the joint before the law finds him, and the regular means of egress will not do.  Finding his way into a supply closet, he ties a bunch of sheets together, and lowers himself out the window in back of the hotel, abutting some smaller structures.  One of which happens to be (ta-dah!) The Mysterious Bookshop, not that he knows what that is, or cares.

So this guy named Otto comes in and sees him, and assumes he’s the ringer ‘Don’ sent in his place.  He jokes that he hopes Diddums (Welsh, remember?) is a better poker player.  That’s what this is.  A friendly poker game in the back room.  Soon other players arrive.  Larry, Justin, Al, Henry.  I know who Larry is, and perhaps someone can fill me in about the others?  I don’t know everything.  But I can easily deduce that all these gentlemen are involved with the mystery genre–also known as crime fiction.  Dortmunder has walked right into the lion’s den, you might say.

So Dortmunder figures he can bide his time until the heat fades, and might as well make a little something extra for the Christmas stocking, right?  He sits down to play, and he cheats a bit. The cops (who I have to say, seem a lot more thorough in Dortmunder’s world than they are here) come knocking, and the other players, being into detectives and all, quickly realize two things–1)Diddums is the thief! and 2)That’s why he’s been winning all our money!

They don’t talk to the law.  Honor among thieves?  Fuck that, they want their money back.  With interest. Dortmunder has to stay for the whole game, lose every hand, and then he will be allowed to leave.  The mills of the mystery gods grind slow…..

The next story is a direct sequel to this, and I believe I will give it short shrift.  It’s got Arnie Albright in it.  No, Arnie, it’s not you, I’m just going long here, and how much am I supposed to write about a story called–

Jumble Sale:  Published in The Armchair Detective [v27 #3, Summer 1994] .  Here’s the cover.  For all I know there’s a centerfold model within, perhaps dressed in nothing but a chalk outline.


(Peter Straub is a mystery writer?  Since when?  I guess since he picked up his phone and said “Sure, I’ll give you an interview.”)

So Dortmunder brings his coins to Arnie Albright, everybody’s favorite least-favorite dealer in stolen goods.  The usual Arnie-shtik is trotted out; old calendars all over the wall, obnoxious personality tics, nose like a tree root, et all.  My own feeling about Arnie is that he takes up a lot of space in the Dortmunders that should have gone to J.C. Taylor, and that you’ve read one chapter with him in it, you know all you ever needed to know about him.  But this story isn’t bad, for all that.

Summing up briefly.  A man and a woman show up to interrupt the transaction.  Arnie forces Dortmunder to pretend he’s a relative.  They say they have a semi parked downstairs on W. 86th, full of stolen flatscreen TV’s.  They keep insisting they’re not a couple.  So obviously they are a couple.  Why would a couple of crooks claim they’re not a couple in the other way?  That’s the mystery.  Solve it yourself, or read the story.  I’m moving on (seriously, Arnie, I like you fine, but I’m over 6,000 words here) to–um–what now?  Oh right!

Now What?:  (December 1999, Brooke Richards, 34”/24”/35”, measurements courtesy of Wikipedia, oh brave new world…) Quite possibly the best story in the book, but again, tough call.  Definitely the longest, all of twenty-three pages.

Dortmunder more or less accidentally stole a bounteously bejeweled brooch, reportedly worth 300k, from a movie star and his intended.  Her name is Felicia, a rather jaundiced reference to a much nicer girl of the same name marrying a much nicer movie star in Trust Me On This.

The actor made a big scene out of it with the press, like they always do, claimed the daring thief broke in and snatched it before their very eyes.  In fact, Felicia, thinking it was some cheesy pin being fobbed off on her, threw it out the window, where Dortmunder just happened to be passing by on one of his beloved fire escapes.

But this is all prologue.  The story is how he tries, and tries, and tries, to fence the brooch, traversing the urban jungle with the goods all the while concealed within a ham sandwich in a brown paper bag.  Knowing as he does, that for reasons perhaps only a tabloid editor could explain, the theft of the brooch is the #1 story in the world that day.  The heat, as they say, is on.

And everywhere, there’s cops.  Keaton never saw more cops.  Not looking for him, specifically.  The entire NYPD is not on 24/7 Dortmunder detail, much as it seems that way at times.  But situation after situation emerges in his quest, in which cops emerge from the woodwork, and he has to restrain the innate impulse to run like a rabbit, stay cool, say thank you very much officer, oh yes that’s my lunch, almost forgot it, must be off now.  He has bad luck, then it’s balanced out by good, then back to the bad again. As the gags build, it’s getting hard to know the difference.  Maybe there isn’t any.

Now there were cops all over the place, just as in the recurrent nightmare Dortmunder had had for years, except none of these came floating down from the sky.

Just wait until they get jetpacks.  So after trying two different fences, in two different boroughs, taking breaks along the way to deal with track fires and terrorists, Dortmunder sadly shrugs his already-shrugged shoulders, and heads for Arnie Albright’s place on 86th.  (See, Arnie, I mentioned you in two different sections!  And you thought I didn’t like you.)

This one ends on a bit of a down-note (and not just because Arnie now has this appalling skin disease), but looks like Dortmunder is still (eventually) getting seven grand for a very long day’s work, which is better than I’ve ever done.  Also, a guy tried to scam him with the old “Is this your wallet” routine?  Dortmunder said yes it is, and walked away with it.  God save the conman, when the mark is Dortmunder.  300 bucks, not bad at all, what are you crying about, John?  You chose to live in New York.  For most of us working stiffs here, this qualifies as a good day.

And what follows qualifies as the very last Dortmunder short ever composed, unless there’s a hidden stash somewhere….

Art And Craft: (August 2000, Summer Altice.  I’d snark the name, but thing is, I’m a sucker for long dark hair.  I suppose I could pretend she’s J.C. Taylor….?)

One of Dortmunder’s old prison buddies pops up, and when is this ever not good news?  That’s right.  Three Finger Gillie, so called because of this thing he did with a trio of digits on his right hand, that you probably would not like if he did it to you.  Neither would Dortmunder, so he hears the guy’s proposition out, at a restaurant.

It’s a doozy.  Three Fingers is a professional artist now.  Learned how to paint in the pen.  Seems to me he’s not the first or last felon to get into the art biz that way.  Hmm, let’s glance at the vital statistics:

Among the nymphs and ferns of Portobello, Three Finger Gillie looked like the creature that gives fairy tales their tension.  A burly man with thick black hair that curled low on his forehead and lapped over his ears and collar, he also featured a single, wide block of black eyebrow like a weight holding his eyes down.  hese eyes were pale blue and squinty and not warm, and they peered suspiciously out from both sides of a bumpy nose shaped like a baseball left in the rain.  The mouth, what there was of it, was thin and straight and without color.

I knew this reminded me of someone.  Not that he’s the inspiration for Three Fingers, unless Westlake had a crystal ball, which I’ve long suspected.  He was an artist too.  Well, so was Albert Nussbaum, after a fashion.  Different stories end differently.

Three Fingers is good with the brushwork, and he likes the art game, wants to stay in it (the old reference to how criminals and artists share the same personality profile).  But he also wants to make a nice living at it, which means good isn’t good enough.  You gotta have a gimmick, like the song lyric says.  His selling point is that he’s a former felon.  That got him in the door, provided useful publicity, and now he’s got a show downtown.  But not enough people are showing at the show, or (more important) buying his stuff.

The problem is that the postmodern art-buying public wants irony with their art.  Okay, fine, there’s some irony in a criminal becoming an artist.  But so old-hat.  Irony deficient.  Now what if other criminals were to break into the gallery and steal his paintings?  Irony within irony!  You see what he’s getting at, Dortmunder?

Dortmunder does, and the offer is generous.  The gallery is insured.  He can make a deal with the insurance company, and keep it all for himself.  Three Fingers just wants the publicity.  Three Fingers is not known for his generosity.  Something smells bad.  Well, he’ll check it out. Westlake lived long enough to see the beginnings of what is now the world’s most insanely crowded and overpriced outdoor mall.  Complete with pop-up stores, and a storied history.  Tell me if you’ve heard this one before.

The neighborhood had been full of lofts and warehouses and light manufacturing.  Then commerce left, went over to New Jersey or out to the Island, and the artists moved in, for the large spaces at low rents.  But the artists made it trendy, so the real estate people moved in, changed the name to Soho, which in London does not mean South of Houston Street, and the rents went through the roof.  The artists had to move out, but they left their paintings behind, in the new galleries.  Parts of Soho look pretty much like before, but some of it has been touristed up so much it doesn’t look like New York City at all.  It looks like Charlotte Amalie, on a dimmer.

(It should be mentioned, the starving artists who bought those lofts, and the buildings that came with them, can now afford to paint or sculpt on their own private tropical islands, if they so desire.)

So is there a catch?  Is this a Dortmunder yarn?  A damn good one, and I’ll leave the rest for you to savor.  Just one more in this Thieves’ Dozen, of eleven stories, and never does Westlake explain the joke in the title, though he does say he included this last one to justify it.

Fugue For Felons:   The Dortmunder who never was.  And who never was Dortmunder, but he might well have ended up replacing him on the roster, if certain persons in Hollywood had their way.  Westlake doesn’t provide names or dates, but seems that some suits involved in making one or several Dortmunder films decided they now owned the name Dortmunder. (You know, it’s a mystery why people so good at taking stuff are so bad at making movies about people who take stuff.)

Before the matter was finally cleared up, Westlake was seriously worried he would not be able to write any  more stories about Dortmunder, or the established characters pertaining to that franchise.  I’m going to guess that this was the production team behind The Hot Rock and Bank Shot–remember how the Dortmunder in the latter film, played by George C. Scott, was named Walter Upjohn Ballantine?  Hopefully not, since that film is terrible.  Westlake happened to reference it, and not fondly, in the Dortmunder novel he wrote around the same time he was assembling this anthology.  Perhaps not a coincidence.

(Perhaps also not a coincidence that it was around this time Westlake started saying he wouldn’t let anyone who adapted a Parker novel for the movies name the protagonist Parker, unless they bought the rights to all those novels.  Once bitten….)

My guess about who tried to heist Dortmunder from his creator could be wrong, and I say that because there’s a character who is clearly the alternate universe Tiny Bulcher in this story, by the name of Big Hooper.  Tiny didn’t make his debut until 1977.  Years after The Hot Rock came out, in 1972.  Bank Shot was ’74.  But then again, maybe Big Hooper is the prototype for Tiny–a rough preliminary sketch for the much more interesting man monster we came to know. Rough in more ways than one, and that goes for the rest of this gang of second stringers.  And yet, Westlake has more enthusiasm for Big Hooper than for all the rest combined–why?  Maybe because he’s not a retread, but an original in the making.

Dortmunder in this universe is short, and named John Rumsey, after an exit sign on the Sawmill Parkway.  Kelp looks about the same, and is named Algy (oh very good, Mr. Westlake, keeping the aquatic plant life theme alive).  Stan Murch is Stan Little.  No mention of his mom.  (Little’s Old Lady?  Stan’s Ma’am?  Doesn’t work.)

It’s about the new gang, acting as a bunch of single-o’s, trying to rob a bank somebody else just tried to rob.  Things go wrong.  I suppose that could have been a starting point for Too Many Crooks.  There’s a mean dog in it. And not a single laugh.

This story is by far the weakest thing in this collection.  Entertaining at points, sure.  If you or I had written it, we’d be fairly proud.  I also guess we’d get a lot of rejection notices when it made the rounds.  It’s interesting mainly for what it tells us–which is what I told you at the start of this review.

See, Westlake doesn’t know these people.  He can’t make them too much like the old gang, yet he needs them to be able to replace the old gang in future ventures in the same vein as the Dortmunder novels–which has a certain hobbling effect.

Maybe a truly great writer, like I dunno, E.L. James, can take some characters he or she really likes but doesn’t own the rights to, give them different names, make them not vampires or werewolves (you can’t copyright insipid ingenues on the make, nor would you want to), and a lot of people will read that.  For some reason.  Westlake didn’t bend that way.  Having created Dortmunder & Co. once, he could never do it again.  They are, as the ancient Romans would put it, sui generis.

But the bigger problem, the problem he always had with the short form, is that these characters are strangers to him.  Without that deep familiarity to build upon, he’s got to spend too much time filling out these profiles in pillage.  He’s trying to make us believe in them, when he doesn’t believe in them himself.  There isn’t a real story here.  Just a collection of loosely linked incidents, aspiring to storyhood.

I could go over some of the ways in which this felonious fugue works, and the many others in which it does not, but I’m now over 8,000 words.  There’s another Dortmunder looming on the horizon.  Again with the Arnie Albright.  Maybe none of your fellow felons love you, Arnie, but your creator sure does.  You bring J.C. back with you, so I won’t complain.  Too much.

What?  No Playboy centerfold for this one?  Well, it was never published anywhere but here, but I think I can oblige, all the same.  Towards the end of his introduction, Westlake mentions that he worked with Alice K. Turner, Playboy‘s longtime fiction editor, on all seven of the Dortmunder shorts that debuted there.  He says something about how she looked upon both him and Dortmunder “with bemused disbelief followed by stoical acceptance,” but I bet he got that a lot.  He says he also got a lot good input from her, something he always valued in an editor.

Images of her are rare online, but here’s one probably taken around the time she worked with Westlake.


Not bad.  Not bad at all.  She passed away not long ago, at 75–got a big Times obit.  Let me just read through that–oh WOW!!!!  Look at that résumé!  Hubba Hubba!  Twenty-three skiddoo!  I love my wife, but oh you kid!

(And that, dear readers, is how you finish out a motif.)


(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)


Filed under Donald Westlake short stories, John Dortmunder

55 responses to “Review: Thieves’ Dozen

  1. Glad to see this review!

    Of course, we also meet John Rumsey (complete with a middle name) in The Road to Ruin. Maybe this one would have been a better butler.

  2. I like it when the civilians who contract Dortmunder’s (and Parker’s) services try to discuss with them “the argot of the underworld.” (Think Menlo in The Mourner.) Neither thief is interested in such a discussion, but Dortmunder does take the time to inform Tem that “spill the beans” isn’t the argot of the underworld.”

  3. they could steal him easy, take him home, and–what then? What could they possibly do with him?

    Ditch him at a costume party. (“You know the Solomons.”)

    • I dunno, I think maybe that joke works better for Party Animal. But given that you have a Muslim and a Jew wishing each other a Merry Christmas at that party, it’s pretty clearly not restricted.

      • Anthony

        The Merry Christmas, you Jew bastard was also a nod to Art Dodge – it was one of his greeting cards….

        • So many books, so little remaining memory space (the next Dortmunder is using up what small processing power I have left). Yes, it comes back to me now. But that’s quite certainly not Art Dodge saying this. Not that you said it was.

  4. Westlake subtly (or maybe not so subtly) drops two Julius Caesar references back-to-back into A Midsummer Daydream: “And that was the unkindest cut of all” (Act 3, Scene 2) and “You too, Andy?” (Andy playing the role of Dortmunder’s Brutus). There may be other Shakespeare references sprinkled throughout, but those two jumped out at me.

    • It’s subtle when you have to review eleven stories in one article, and you are just bound and determined not to make this one a two-parter. The narrator has brushed up his Shakespeare many a time, but to Dortmunder, the play is not the thing. Cultural references, high or low, invariably fall flat with him. When he makes one, it’s only by accident–so there wouldn’t be too many. Don’t overplay the joke.

      When he started writing comedy in earnest, with The Fugitive Pigeon, Westlake piled on the pop cultural injokes, one after the other. It seems very modern of him, since we’re all doing that now. But he quickly realized there can be too much of a good thing, and scaled it way back. Dortmunder is the most sophisticated expression of his humor–ie, the most unforced. Let the joke tell itself.

      • Actually, I shouldn’t say that all pop cultural references are lost on Dortmunder. When he’s walking out on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Andy, who doesn’t want his cousin to be offended, asks Dortmunder doesn’t he want to know how it comes out. “I know how it comes out,” Dortmunder said. “The guy with the donkey’s head turns into Pinocchio.”

        My guess is, The Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery occasionally took their charges to the pictures (misery doesn’t have to be that eternal). Dortmunder was born the same year as Westlake, 1933. Seven years old when that picture came out. And wouldn’t you know, that was the image that stuck. Go figure.

  5. Ah, geez–I missed something. Well, I missed a lot of things, like I always do. This is maybe one I picked up on subconsciously, but never twigged to in the front office, so to speak.

    In Party Animal, the blonde caterer with the perpetual suspicious frown is Alice K. Turner.

    I mean, not literally, I’m sure she didn’t have the time to moonlight as a canapé monger at parties, but think about it. Westlake dealt directly with her every time he submitted a story to Playboy, There were quite a few other Non-Dortmunder stories he got into Playboy besides this, plus maybe a few he submitted that didn’t make the grade, so this was a long-term editorial relationship, with a smart interesting woman no less, and those were always important to him, on a whole host of different levels. (I think I have mentioned his life-long craving for female attention, right?)

    She fits the physical description–not a stunner, but a nice looking woman, particularly once she warms up to you. Also perceptive–she’s the only one who catches on to Dortmunder’s ruse. Westlake’s description of the way Turner reacted to him and his work fits the way the caterer reacts to Dortmunder, and you could make a case that the professional relationships match up–she’s in the kitchen, putting it all together, he’s the one out front. Neither is fully appreciated, but at least people reading a story in a magazine know there’s a writer–they completely forget the person back in the kitchen, and how hard she had to work to get all of this to them.

    She had a tough job, Ms. Turner–underappreciated–she said one time she heard Hef telling one of his centerfold girls that without women ready to take their clothes off, all he’d have would be a literary magazine. Turner was probably the most important talent that magazine ever had, put it on the map in ways nobody would have believed when it first appeared, gave an endless array of great writers (some still building their reps) a chance to make bank writing in a form that was rapidly dying out, for lack of a market.

    So that golden feather Dortmunder slips into the caterer’s hairbun–that’s for Alice. I mean, didn’t that seem a bit odd for Dortmunder? Not wrong, but odd. That’s Westlake letting the mask slip just for a moment. That’s his thank you. And perhaps his way of saying “Hey, maybe in another life….”?

    • Anthony

      I did always think the golden feather move was a little more Cary Grant than John Archibald Dortmunder. Good an explanation as any.

  6. Speaking of people you wouldn’t expect to be in Playboy:

    “A new Jeeves novel by P. G. Wodehouse.”

    Though Bertie is a playboy, in quite a different sense of the word. (As is Christy Mahon in yet another.) February 1960 would have been How Right You Are Jeeves and, in keeping with the motif, Susie Scott.

    • “Think about what Playboy pays as compared to, say, Harper’s, and you tell me what working writer who is actually supporting himself is going to quibble over a few nudes?” Ms. Turner said in a 1984 interview with The Missouri Review.

      Or herself, since she also published Ursula LeGuin.

      Wodehouse was before her time as editor, though–she landed that job in 1980. In 1960, there was still a short story market worth talking about in the remaining pulps. Not a lot of magazines that would publish an entire Jeeves novel, though. Plum worked on Broadway, and in Hollywood. He was interned by the Germans during WWII. I doubt anything shocked him. Certainly not naked pictures. If he even noticed them. Very focused. As was Westlake at times, but he probably noticed them. 😉

      • Might not have been the whole novel. I recall reading the first section of The World According to Garp there. The web says June 1976, which seems right. (Debra Peterson)

        • Well, that’s a very long novel. I’ll go so far as to say excessively long, which is kind of Irving’s wheelhouse. Wodehouse’s wheelhouse was short novels. But if you’re right about which one, Simon & Schuster published it in 1960, so maybe just an excerpt, yeah. Bertie’s not really the kind of playboy you think of when you think of Playboy, and I remember being a mite shocked when I read some of his latter short story anthologies and saw some of them credited to that magazine. Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison–not so shocked.

    • Confirmation appears to be here in this listing at Amazon . . . How Right You Are, Jeeves it is — though in the UK it had another name: Jeeves in the Offing.

  7. Anthony

    I’ll have to read some Frank O’Conner.

    My favorite short story is Harry Belton and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, by Barry Targan. It’s the Mary Poppins of short stories – pp in every way.

    Wodehouse was no slouch as a short story writer. Goodbye to all Cats is one of my favorite anythings ever.

    • Wodehouse has no equal as a purely comic short story writer, but the comedy is pretty much all there is (my personal favorite is Honeysuckle Cottage–the Mulliners were his peak as a short story writer, and maybe as a writer, period).

      O’Connor can make you laugh and weep at the same time. There’s no end of collections out there, but if you can, try some of the Pan paperback anthologies. Those were assembled not in any kind of chronological order, or to highlight any particular theme, but rather simply with the goal of having a perfectly balanced collection, that would display the author’s full palette in one book. And they all have pretty covers, which is nice. And easy to tote around with you, which doesn’t hurt.

      An Only Child is his Angela’s Ashes (or rather, Angela’s Ashes is Frank McCourt’s An Only Child, and great it is, but not nearly so great as O’Connor’s childhood memoir). That’s where he wrote about his mother, and all she went through, and I’m starting to tear up again, remembering the last line of that section. If they did a movie based just on that part of the book, I’d be first in line. With a pocket full of clean tissues.

      The Holy Door is a good short anthology, but there are no bad ones.

  8. Anthony

    Fugue for Felons: “There really isn’t a story here at all. Just a collection of loosely linked incidents, aspiring to storyhood.” (Fred Fitch)

    Fugue: “A musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated or imitated by successively entering voices and contrapuntally developed in a continuous interweaving of the voice parts.” (Merriam-Webster). A collection, in other words, of loosely linked incidents.

    In his introduction Westlake makes clear that the whole thing is an experiment. And, what the hell, it worked, both as a literary fugue and as an experiment (which shouldn’t have a prescribed outcome). I liked it fine.

    • I got why it was called Fugue For Felons, and if I’d been doing a full write-up of the story, I would have mentioned it. By the time I reached that story in my review, I was ready to wrap up–so much longer than I’d intended to go, you know? Well yes, that’s my fault, I do sometimes tend to get dist–SQUIRREL!!!!!

      It’s pretty obvious that it’s a fugue in that sense, and maybe set to music, with minimal dialogue (perhaps animated, Soviet-era Yugoslavian style?, or UPA in the 50’s?), it would have some merit, but I was comparing it with what came before, and so, let’s remember, was Westlake. He talks about it in both the general introduction at the start of the book, and again at the end, to provide a bit more detail as to its origins. And he himself did not seem impressed with his work in this case.

      What’s the point of an experiment? To find out if something can be made to work. And to find out what’s real. “Hypothesis–I can write a Dortmunder story without Dortmunder, sticking close enough to the original characters so that I retain the feel of those books, not to mention their readership, but not so close as to get me in trouble with the Hollywood suits, if I lose Dortmunder to them, which I better not.”

      Result–failure. Interesting failure. Perhaps even productive failure (failed experiments can often be productive in art, as well as science). But failure. Pray recall, Dortmunder is Dortmunder–a well-defined and engaging character who has our full attention, from the moment he blows his nose in the first sentence of the first chapter of the first novel.

      Who the hell is Rumsey? After reading that entire story, I have no idea. Other than short and round and ineffectually larcenous, nothing comes to me. Algy just seems like an anemic Kelp, and there’s no definable relationship between him and Rumsey, as there was between Dortmunder and Kelp by the end of the second chapter of The Hot Rock. Stan Little–geez, even the name isn’t funny. Though descriptive, since his otherworldly counterpart looms over him, as does that counterpart’s mom.

      The character who half-works is Big Hooper–the name is awful. But there’s something there. Potential. Westlake gives him more time than the others (even though it’s supposed to be a Rumsey story), because he’s sensing he’s got something, and that’s why I think Big came before Tiny, was the prototype (one of them)–you see the logical progression. You want to create a really large intimidating character–in a humorous setting. He started out telling us the character’s size with the name, but that’s not funny–what’s funny is if the name says the opposite.

      And for legal considerations, he probably wouldn’t have given Big one of Tiny’s established taglines–“I always get mine.” Tiny got that line from Big. And if Big had any questions about that, I’m guessing Tiny answered them, and never more shall Big Hooper be seen again. He ran in terror, back to wherever he came from, like Japanese Kong at the end of that movie where he met Godzilla, and yes, that’s what happened at the end of that movie. 😉

      • Surely Westlake was also thinking of Fugue for Tinhorns.

        • You want to know how long I’ve known that song?

          This is the form I first heard it in.

          And I never even knew it had a title. I would have probably said it was I Got the Horse Right Here. Or possibly Paul Revere’s Ride.

          So yeah, I missed that ref.

          • It’s also used as the closing credits song in at least two movies: “Oh God, You Devil” and “Let It Ride” (a movie previously discussed on this blog when we got to Drowned Hopes because it’s based on a book by Jay Cronley).

            • I don’t even get the title. They’re professional gamblers. How are they tinhorns?

              Tinhorn: someone, especially a gambler, who pretends to be important but actually has little money, influence, or skill.

              Oh. Well then, I guess that works. 😐

      • Anthony

        Here’s the thing. I’ve always thought that Westlake wrote Fugue for Felons about the time that Thieve’s Dozen came out. In his introduction, he notes that with one more story he can use the title of the book, which i take to mean that at the time there were ten extant Dortmunder short stories. So he took this as the opportunity to try the different name experiment.

        I’m sure you are probably right about when the Hollywood lawyers annoyed him, and we know that Westlake could let things fester in him for years if not decades until he found a way to scratch the itch. This story is him scratching the itch.

        I agree that the Tiny doppelgänger is closest to real character, but I don’t think it’s because the story was written at the time Tiny Bulcher was being developed. Kelp is just funny as a name, whereas Algy is not. And so on. I think he was just going for loose connections to make it easier on the reader.

        • I think he did write Fugue late. He explicitly states it’s the latest “Dortmunder” short story he’s written. But I also don’t think he wrote it in the midst of the legal troubles. I think he had the legal issues and he came up with the name Rumsey just in case. Then the legal troubles cleared up, but Rumsey was still there, in the back of his mind, asking to be brought into existence. The idea buzzed around in there for what I imagine was years, until he finally decided to get it out, to see if a name change made a difference. Turned out it did.

          At least that’s how I interpret the sequence of events.

          • It’s a valid interpretation. But I think most of what he did here was write out the rough ideas he’d had many years before. That’s my explanation for why the story feels so blurry and unfinished. It was never more than a preliminary sketch that never got completely filled in.

            Incidentally, we can say this story is an experiment, but Westlake specifically says that he realized, halfway through writing it, that “it wasn’t an experiment that could be reversed or undone. I couldn’t simply put the original names back on the name tags, because these weren’t the original people.”

            Okay, the remark about putting the original names back suggests he was at least toying with making the story about Dortmunder & Co. After all, this is a collection of Dortmunder yarns, and the objective is to get to eleven, to justify the title. A Thieves’ Dozen because Dortmunder made off with the twelfth. People are buying this book for Dortmunder, not Rumsey. But if that’s the case, Westlake must have had the outlines of a Rumsey story in his head, and that could have been there for ages prior to writing it.

            He didn’t start with nothing but a name and a title. The first Dortmunder short story began, as he tells us, with him seeing Dortmunder and an elegant man having a conversation, and trying to figure out a story to go with that. He probably had some images in his head for this story, that dated back to the 1970’s (does it feel like a contemporary piece written in the 00’s? The Dortmunders always responded to the times they were written in.)

            I can’t think of any reason why Big Hooper would be so much more important to this story–when he doesn’t figure at all in any Dortmunder shorts, and really never had anything in the way of an independent subplot (can you think of one scene with Tiny in the novels we’ve covered up to now where he’s not with one or several members of the gang? There’s a scene with just J.C. and a new character in the next book. There are basically no scenes in the novels with Tiny as a single-o, as there are for Kelp, and Murch, and even Murch’s Mom (and May, and Annie Marie).

            There are such scenes for Big in Fugue for Felons. Big Hooper is a bigger deal than Rumsey (which isn’t hard, because Rumsey is a mere shadow of a character). So you could argue this means Westlake is trying to create a version of Tiny that could serve as more of a protagonist, but then why is he so much less convincing than Tiny, so much less of a person? He’s half-born, at best. The statue still partly encased in the marble.

            Now the problem for my theory is that Westlake would have no motivation I can think of to not come out and say “Tiny Bulcher began as an idea I had for the Rumsey books I never had to write.” But it may not have been that clear-cut. Creativity almost never is.

            Anyway, thanks to both of you for forcing me to think about it. Much as it may make my head hurt. 🙂

        • He wrote it for this collection, yes, but I think he had a lot more than just the name Rumsey before then. He says he had the title a long time before he wrote it, which presumably means he had other bits and pieces–he knew it was going to be a story about these alternate universe Dortmunderesque clones, each striving individually, before coming together as a group. His mind would have kept worrying away at the problem, and not put it aside until there was no problem anymore. As you say, even then he’d be wondering how it would have come out, but I don’t think he’d have written it if this collection hadn’t come about.

          He says he ‘brooded’ over it for a full month before he came up with that name. That’s a lot of brooding.

          So impossible to say for sure he came up with Big Hooper before Tiny (as I’ve said, I think there’s a character from Help I Am Being Held Prisoner whose predilection for telling scary stories about himself went into Tiny), but do you really think Donald Westlake, fearing the loss of one of his most successful characters, would do no more than type an alternate name a few times on a piece of paper?

          The Sam Holt series, remember, came from his wondering 1)If he could establish himself under a new pseudonym without anyone knowing it was him and 2)If he could reimagine Mitch Tobin as an unwillingly retired TV detective forced to solve real mysteries. He worked a whole lot harder on that, and it still didn’t turn out as he’d hoped.

          Sure, he could just write the same stories, only with different names–but as he tells us, once he’s changed the names, he has to change the characters too. Once the character isn’t named Dortmunder, he can’t write him as Dortmunder, see him as Dortmunder.

          All speculation, but I should have mentioned that he wrote the story out much later. My opinion about the story itself remains unchanged. It doesn’t gel. But how much of that was Westlake’s own declining creative powers remains an open question.

          • Anthony

            This is where is insistence on a typewriter worked against him. With a word processor he could write a Dortmunder story with the correct names and then simply use the find and replace to change them when he was done. That might have been interesting too…

            • Kelp would probably agree with this.

              Dortmunder wouldn’t even deign to respond.

              But you already knew that.

              Nobody could possibly know what Rumsey would think, because there’s just not a character there to draw conclusions about. He likes stealing stuff, and he’s scared of big dogs. That’s about it.

  9. You know, the idea that Westlake almost lost the Dortmunder name to the lawyers is positively criminal. It makes me unreasonably angry, even if nothing ever came of it.

    • I’d read that introduction years ago, and I just plain forgot about that until I reread it. Maybe blocked it out. Maybe just didn’t take it seriously, but obviously Westlake did, because he went as far as to start recruiting a replacement team.

      It’s not as bad as taking someone’s child away for purely profit-based reasons (which, let’s remember, happened millions of times in our nation’s august history), but it’s in the same order of villainy, even if this child only exists in one’s imagination.

      Sucks that so many comics legends lost their brainchildren to money-grubbing publishers, but at least they knew upfront that could happen. Westlake wasn’t playing by those rules when he created Dortmunder. Writers of prose fiction traditionally (and legally) keep the rights to their books–and the characters within them–for their entire lives, and their heirs for some time afterwards.

      So how did that almost happen? What the hell was in that fine print? It’s not the normal modus operandus when you’re selling a book to Hollywood (or no established writer ever would). Westlake had an agent, and a good one, to all accounts. Several good ones, across his career. He also knew some good lawyers in this area, thanks to Georges de Beauregard. Who screwed up here?

      And it must be asked–suppose the first Dortmunder movie had been a hit? Suppose there’d been a profitable franchise there? But who could have thought they could start a movie franchise–in the early 70’s–with Robert Redford OR George C. Scott, neither of whom would have been inclined to make movie after movie in this vein, and neither of whom needed the money that much?

      And for the life of me I can’t fathom why, if you’re making a bunch of movies based on a book franchise, you want the creator of that franchise to stop writing it–to, as it were, disen-franchise him. I mean, cross-promotion, right? Synergy. Not to mention, you’re permanently alienating that writer’s readers once word leaks out.

      Greed is perfectly normal in that biz. Who could be that stupid?

      Well, I’ve seen The Hot Rock (a slickly but clumsily made film) and I’ve seen Bank Shot (which gets rid of the slick part), and the only names you see on both movies are Hal Landers and Bobby Roberts. Who, like some other producers Westlake sold something to, turned out to be much less than met the eye (there’s a reason he has so little good to say about the entertainment industry, even though it was a huge source of income for him and his friends), and who would undoubtedly have loved to get a successful franchise going, to keep their faltering production shingle alive.

      So my money’s on them. Or some shadowy figure standing behind them. Da da dum. You know, there’s the bones of a perfectly good murder mystery here, that probably someone has already written. Multiple times.

      • Okay, here’s a thought–we know Westlake never originally intended to write more about Dortmunder when he wrote The Hot Rock, because he mentioned that multiple times, and because his series characters only ever worked out longterm if they weren’t created as series characters. (And I have this suspicion that this is not coincidence–Westlake unconsciously resisted putting himself in a position where he’d have to write about the same people over and over, even though it was a time-tested way of making a decent living as a writer. Confining.)

        So The Hot Rock was a big seller, and got optioned off to Hollywood, like a whole host of other books Westlake wrote that never became movies. Probably before he wrote Bank Shot. Certainly before he published Bank Shot. Options tend to happen around the time of publication (sometimes before publication), or not at all.

        So Westlake and his agent might not have been at pains to say “We want to retain the rights to Dortmunder.” Maybe Westlake wasn’t even consulted, because good bet the agent (still Henry Morrison, because Comfort Station was published in ’73) had heard him whining about what a pain it is to be stuck with a series character you have to keep cranking out books for.

        Landers and Roberts were involved in the Death Wish film franchise (their only real success). So the idea of taking a successful but not best-selling novel (like Brian Garfield’s 1972 vigilante epic) and turning it into a film franchise with a major motion picture star would be out there in the aether when all this was happening–the 70’s were precisely when franchises of all kinds became de rigeur in the movie biz. De rigeur mortis, you ask me, but nobody asked me.

        None of which would excuse such nefarious behavior on the part of the TPTB, but part of it could have been miscommunication, and the rest was conflicting interests and legal boilerplate. I doubt they actively wanted to take Dortmunder away from Westlake, but whatever is in the contract is in the contract. The machinery keeps cranking on, long after the purpose for it is gone (because of two consecutive flops). They’re going to watch their own backs first.

        And Westlake would have watched his own back a lot more carefully from then on. No, Mr. Producer, you may not have Parker’s name. I don’t sell my people down the river. You are renting, not buying.

        I just hope whoever drew up the contract for “Parker” had that in mind.

        PS: Interesting article about authors who had novels adapted. And how they felt about it the morning after. 😉

  10. rinaldo302

    “A friendly poker game in the back room. Soon other players arrive. Larry, Justin, Al, Henry. I know who Larry is, and perhaps someone can fill me in about the others?” I’m late getting to this review, and as I read this passage I was sure it would have been dealt with by now, but apparently I get to go first.

    I won’t venture on Al or Henry, but Justin, at least, is easy, right? You wrote about Justin Scott in connection with Drowned Hopes, where he was not just mentioned but served as a character. I would guess that allows us to surmise at least a poker-buddy level of acquaintance.

    • You know, I thought of him, and I even thought about referring back to that review, but I was wrestling with the complexities of parsing eleven stories in one article, and that review was a while back, and I was remembering him as a writer of nautical thrillers. I plumb forgot he also wrote a series of detective novels (even though I specifically mentioned that in the earlier review). And all mystery writers tend to show up at The Mysterious Bookshop, sooner or later. I’m sure Poe’s ghost is a regular. Would he need to stay at that cottage in the Bronx forevermore? I think not. He was a peripatetic fellow.

      It seems germaine to our discussion to note that the first of Scott’s Ben Abbott mystery novels, about an insurance investigator turned detective, came out in 1994. Meaning he’d be doing the genre networking thing prior to that.

      And, of course, there’s the Dortmunder connection–Kelp called Scott up to provide technical advice on the reservoir heist. Drowned Hopes came out in 1990, this story in 1993. Dortmunder wouldn’t make the connection, it should go without saying. But this serves to demonstrate that Justin Scott is an established character in Dortmunder’s universe (as is Richard Stark).

      It’s definitely Justin Scott. Take a bow, Mycroft. 😉

    • Very possibly. Though he doesn’t seem to have been writing much in the way of mystery by the early 90’s. Like that would disqualify him from a friendly game of poker. Henry is a surprisingly rare first name for mystery writers, so I consider this a solid lead.

      I suppose it could have been Henry Reed–or his creator, who was not named Henry, but did write mysteries. A mystery this remains, until someone definitively solves it.

  11. As for Al . . . I’d kind of like it if this were the guy:

    • I’d suggest it could be Alan Grofield, except Dortmunder would have recognized him. And nobody ever calls him Al.

      Westlake’s father was sometimes called Al. No, that probably doesn’t mean anything, except that Westlake liked using that name.

      • Mr. Gordon’s first book wasn’t published until 1998, so we probably don’t have to call him Al. (Or Betty.) OTOH, Otto does say that the other players are “writers and an editor and an agent”, so I suppose if Larry and Justin are writers, Al and Henry could be the editor and the agent. Unless Dortmunder is supposed to be Westlake’s editor or agent, of course — the person “Don” sent to take his place — which would leave Al or Henry as the other one of those two plus a third writer. Since we have a lead on Henry as a writer, would it make sense to check into editors or agents named Al?

        • Westlake’s agent was Knox Burger, for at least part of the 90’s (there’d be no mystery to that name, other than what his parents were thinking at the time). He could have had any number of editors. Since the game is being conducted under the auspices of Otto Penzler, in his own domain, we needn’t assume all present have some close professional or personal connection to Mr. Westlake.

          • Recall that in Knox Burger’s letter to Westlake regarding Fall of the City, he (reluctantly) offered to pass the manuscript along to “Bill,” who I surmised was Westlake’s editor at that time.

            • I just did refer to that pioneering piece, and in so doing, was reminded that fateful correspondence took place in 1998. Give ‘Til It Hurts was published in 1993. And writers don’t really choose their editors, do they? I mean, Stephen King probably can, but most others take who the publisher gives them, and hope it works out. And so often it does not. You remember that comment he made about the editor who ‘assisted’ him with Kahawa.

              This story is about as inside baseball as Westlake gets. We should all remember, it was not written for the general public, but for faithful long-term customers of The Mysterious Bookshop, who must have gotten many a mailing, perhaps newsletters (they still had newsletters in 1993) and it’s likely that many if not all of its original recipients could easily guess the last names of all the other poker players.

              But thus far, we’ve only got four. If I ever see Otto Penzler, I’ll ask.

  12. “Just one more in this Thieves’ Dozen, of eleven stories, and never does Westlake explain the joke in the title, though he does say he included this last one to justify it.” Isn’t that itself explanation enough?

    • Well, yes. My point was that Westlake never explains the joke, not that the joke is inexplicable. Sorry, maybe I should have explained my own joke. 🙂

      • I’m so taken with the phrase “thieves’ dozen” meaning 11 (the amoral equivalent of a baker’s dozen meaning 13) that I kind of wish it would enter the common parlance.

        • Try offering it at places like Wiktionary where you can start things going yourself. Heck, even one as uncool as I am (and I am) managed to get an entry into the Urban Dictionary: OTTH.

          • I really hope the mob never catches wind of this comments section. I’d hate to have this turned into a bust-out joint. 😐

            • Dan O'Cleese

              Weirdly, I’m reading a non-fiction history book that uses (once, so far) the phrase “thieves’ dozen” to mean eleven people: ‘Lost Lions of Judah’ about mercenaries in Ethiopia in the thirties. No obvious Westlake connection that I can see although IIRC he did write about mercenaries in a Dortmunder novel.

              • He also wrote about mercenaries turned train robbers in Kenya and Uganda. Not hard to imagine someone with this author’s specific interests having read Kahawa, and he might well have glanced at the overall bibliography, or seen this collection on a library shelf when he went to find the Africa novel. Or it’s a phrase with a life and history of its own. Or he just stumbled across it independently.

            • I for one am willing to give you a lot of credit for the blog — but I’m not sure if it’s enough credit out from which to bust. :}

Leave a Reply

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

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

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s