Review: What’s So Funny?


May knew John had a very bad tendency, when things got unusually difficult, to sink with an almost sensuous pleasure into a warm bath of despair. Once you’ve handed the reins over to despair, to mix a metaphor just a teeny bit, your job is done. You don’t have to sweat it any more, you’ve taken yourself out of the game. Despair is the bench, and you are warming it.

May knew it was her job, at moments like this, to pull John out of the clutches of despair and goose him into forward motion once more. After all, it isn’t whether you win or lose, it’s just you have to be in the goddam game.

I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
‘S a sma’ request;
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
An’ never miss’t!

(Donald Westlake did not write this.)

Look what I found, rummaging about the dust-free virtual attic–a cops and robbers chess set!  Pretty cool, huh?  This leads, as ever, to a question–if you were going to make a Dortmunder-themed chess set, how would you arrange it?  Obviously Dortmunder, simultaneously peripheral and central to everything, vulnerable and fugitive at all times, is the king.  Of crime.  And kvetching.

The queen must needs be female, someone with great power and freedom of movement, so I’d go with J.C. Taylor, no slight intended to May, who is nothing if not supportive of her larcenous liege in this story, but not a major player in it, not that J.C. is either.   May’s got old movies to watch, and this is not her game.  I’d say that’s maybe Parcheesi.  Mah Jongg?

Knight is the easy one, that cute bastard, always moving in a crooked line.  You never see him coming.  Drops in unannounced and helps himself to a beer.  Do I even have to say it?

Tiny Bulcher would be the castle.  Because he’s massive.  And comes straight at you.  Best not call him a rook.  He might take it as a compliment, but I wouldn’t chance it.

I guess that makes Stan Murch the bishop by default?  Is there an automotive angle to work with here, as with the cops & robbers chess set?  Maybe his mom could be the other bishop.  She’d be in her cab, him in a purloined getaway car (that only goes slantways).  Problem solved, but then I wonder if Rollo the bartender would be better suited to that role.  The Bishop of Bourbon.  I bet that used to be a thing. (checks)  Well, I was almost right.

Dortmunder begins as something of a pawn in this novel, and a fair few others.  So a looming confident Dortmunder as king, and a bunch of shrunken furtive-looking Dortmunders as the pawns?  Or make them all unique quirky supporting characters who only showed up now and again, your Herman X’s, your Wilbur Howeys, your various Wallys?  Aesthetically pleasing, but expensive to manufacture and confusing to play.

Arnie Albright is in the pawn game, you might say, but imagine looking at eight of him.  You’d be sacrificing pawns right and left just to settle your stomach.  The other pieces would sacrifice themselves to get away from him.  Are pawns even appropriate in the context of a writer who celebrated the individual?

As to the other side of the board (which no decent person would even want to play), an assortment of vindictive lawmen, arrogant tycoons, crooked foreign dignitaries from fictive nations, and I guess we could fit Tom Jimson in there somewhere (a very dark knight indeed).  Pawns could just be burly no-neck security men.

These things always break down when you think about it too much.  Chess, as we play it now, is based on the old feudal system, and when we try to update the roles, the analogies get strained.  Sets based on Japanese feudalism work beautifully, but most others fall apart.  I mean, the American Civil War was a lot of things, but it wasn’t feudal, and both sides are always blindingly white, so how do you even know who moves first?  Point is, we already know who moved last.

Putting such distractions aside, I ponder the central question further, and a ray of light appears–make it specifically a Good Behavior themed set–that book is about neo-feudalism, so it works.  Sister Mary Grace could be Dortmunder’s bishop.  (I suppose the Curia might object, but the Pope is cool, we’d get a dispensation.)  A What’s The Worst That Could Happen? set also has its attractions, but the temptation to make Max Fairbanks look like You Know Whom would be overpowering, and we’d get tied up in court for eons, possibly jailed for lèse-majesté.  Please feel free to make further suggestions in the comments section, especially if you have access to a 3D Printer.

I prefer checkers myself.  Draughts, if you want to be British about it. Also referenced in this book.  But you can’t do themed checkers sets.  How about Dortmunder Stratego?  Risk seems too obvious to mention.  Chutes and Ladders?  Monopoly is definitely not his game, and anyway it’s trademarked. Okay fine, we’ll talk about the book.

This is one of the longest Dortmunders, 359 pages in the first edition.  Like all the longer books in this series, it has a lot of extraneous material in it–I’m tempted to call it Six Subplots in Search of an Author.  But once I worked my way through through a somewhat muddled opening gambit, I was pleased to find the author does in fact show up to play.  Pirandello he ain’t, but he has his own decided take on theater of the absurd.

It’s not mainly about the heist, but the heist is great.  It’s got a lot of fol-de-rol in it about characters we’ll never see again, who are only tangentially involved with the heist, but somehow Westlake does a better job here making them mesh with the overall story than he did with the previous two, which ended up feeling like several different books stitched together.  At this point, as previously discussed, it’s almost impossible for him to find anything new to say about Dortmunder & Co.  He needs new characters with new identity crises to work on.  Or else it’s going to be a short book (like the next and final one, which does somehow find one more thing to say about the main cast).

It’s got two very different rich people as pivotal characters, and surprise–they’re both oddly likable, and neither is Dortmunder’s nemesis.  Neither is an aggressive narcissistic billionaire, either–both have some irritating rich people quirks, but they’re not villains, per se.  The rich are human too.  No, seriously.

It’s also got two very different private detectives (another peevish pet of Mr. Westlake’s), and that’s a more complicated discussion.  It’s got a variety of very different young people seeking their footing in the world, variously finding and/or losing it.  All this plus Captain Francis X. Mologna, the somehow still solvent Continental Detective Agency, perhaps the finest extant sample of Dortmunder parkeur, a golden bejeweled chess set, a subplot ripped straight out of a sleaze paperback, and Edgar Allan Poe.  Still not a patch on the early classics, but I might go so far as to call it a late one.

Let’s just lay out the set-up.  Dortmunder walks into the O.J. Bar and Grill, and wonders why none of the regulars are talking about things they don’t know about, or talking at all, for that matter.  Because there’s a cop in the bar, that’s why.  Not in  uniform, but he might as well be, with the ‘plainclothes’ he’s wearing.  Not a man, woman, child, or dog there couldn’t spot a cop blindfolded, if he came in dressed like Quentin Crisp.

As if that’s not bad enough, Dortmunder realizes, to his horror, that said cop is there to see him.  For which crime, he wonders?  Remember, Dortmunder is now, as ever, on double secret probation with the law–one more strike and he’s out–of circulation, ’til death or compassionate release, whichever comes first, and they’d amount to the same thing, really.

When is a cop not a cop?  When he’s done his twenty, retired from the force, and his wife in the ‘burbs told him to find something to do with himself before they both went nuts.  This is how Johnny Eppick (for hire), formerly of the NYPD, ended up a P.I., duly licensed, with an office on East 3rd St., far east as you can go without drowning.    He could have just taken a job with some security outfit, which is what most retired cops who decide retirement sucks do. But there’s a romantic streak in Mr. Eppick (that’s why his card says ‘Johnny,’ instead of merely ‘John.’)

Having hung out his shamus shingle quite recently, Eppick lucked his way into the kind of job most real P.I.’s only encounter when they’re watching TCM.  An eccentric millionaire named Hemlow, an inventor no less, in a wheelchair no less, wants him to help recover a priceless chess set, made of (almost) solid gold, encrusted with precious gems, heavy as hell, with a fascinating history behind it that of course they insist on sharing with Dortmunder, who is no more successful at preventing them from doing so than Parker was with that Lost Mourner of Dijon, and you’re not skipping the history lesson either, so there.

Hemlow’s father and his army buddies found the chess set in an abandoned warehouse in the port city of Murmansk, while involved in the ill-fated American military expedition to Russia after WWI. It had been meant as a gift to the czar and his family, but that ship had already been shot and bayoneted multiple times.  These shivering young shavetails dreamed of using it to become pioneering media moguls in radio once their government let them come in out of the cold.

But instead, their sergeant, a sly bastard named Northwood, made off with it, dropping from sight, along with their dreams.  Hemlow’s father never recovered from the loss, his family has never stopped grousing over this injustice, even as his chemical patents made them all quite comfortable. But where’s the romance in chemical patents, I ask you?

It was his lawyer granddaughter, an amateur historian, who much to her surprised fascination, found out that Northwood used the set to set himself up in real estate (no better field for an unrepentent cad), and he’s long dead of course, but his very wealthy family is still fighting over his estate–including the chess set.  Now ensconced in a bank vault in the subbasement of the very building she works in, she being a minor functionary in a major law firm, which represents one of the squabbling heirs.

I mean, put yourself in the dick’s flat feet.  This is the stuff dreams are made of, schweetheart.


(I couldn’t find a Maltese Falcon chess set.  Maybe the black birds could be different colors, sizes? Wear crowns, miters, perch on tiny castles, horses, etc?  Different species of falcon?  I’ll get to work on that right after the Dortmunder chess set sells its first million units.)

Since the gumshoe part of the program has already been attended to by the granddaughter, what’s left for Eppick?  Well, the ailing Hemlow wants to get that chess set back before he dies.  Legally speaking, he’s got no leg to stand on (that was insensitive), no way to prove prior ownership of something the gypped GI’s didn’t technically steal, and didn’t technically own, either.  He’d die long before the lawyers finished collecting their fees.  He doesn’t need the money himself, but dreams of righting past wrongs, seeing that the other families get their rightful wrongful due.  You know–closure.

Hence–a heist.  Eppick is to seek a suitably skilled specialist then solicit the sap to steal the serially stolen set.  And what’s to stop a professional thief from just making off with the goods?  Why would he even attempt such a risky job for the relative pittance of a fee that Hemlow shall provide?

Leverage.  Eppick did his research, figured Dortmunder was the right wrong guy for the job, and obtained images from surveillance footage of him burglarizing a store.  Blurry images, but if Dortmunder declines the job offer, all Eppick has to do is point and his cop buddies shall descend like vultures upon our hero’s slope-shouldered carcass.  Even if they can’t make that particular charge stick, they’ll find something. And he’ll find his old cell waiting for him.  As he will if they catch him trying to get that chess set.  And anyone trying to get into that bank vault and back out again with a 680 pound chess set tucked in his pockets is getting caught.  Catch-22.

Much as he hates the idea, rather than plagiarize Joseph Heller, our metropolitan mutt considers leaving New York forever.  This passage contains one of those lines people always quote without necessarily remembering exactly how it goes or which book it came from.

Riding down, alone this trip, he thought his best move now was to go straight over to Grand Central, take the first train out for Chicago.  That’s supposed to be an okay place, not that different from a city.  It could even work out.  Meet up with some guys there, get plugged in a little, learn all those new neighborhoods.  Get settled, then send word to May, she could bring out his winter clothes.  Chicago was alleged to be very cold.

(I believe that is a known fact about Chicago.  The city thing remains a matter of opinion.)

Eppick, wise to the ways of felons, anticipates this fantasy of setting out for the territories, and shuts it down cold.  Police departments are communicating much more than they used to, via the internet.  He’d put out feelers, and the blue network would find Dortmunder, no matter what godforsaken hole he curled up in.  Oh now, Chicago, don’t be so sensitive, you’ve got that deep-fish pizza or whatever and that tower named after a nigh-defunct chain of department stores.  And did you just win a World Series recently?  Twice in the last century?  That’s cute.

(Tiny later informs Dortmunder the loophole to Eppick’s outreach would be someplace like Biloxi–southern cops still don’t talk to Yankee cops, let alone those that root for the New York Yankees–Biloxi is not even theoretically a city, so that still wouldn’t work. He might as well try Mayberry.  Maybe he did, lot of eps I never got around to watching.)

Though initially, after they see him with Eppick,  his felonious friends treat him like he’s come down with a mild case of plague, loyalty mingled with curiosity mingled with greed brings them in to confer.  Maybe there’s some way they can get this thing.  Maybe there’s even some way they can keep it.

Eppick knows quite well that Dortmunder can’t pull this job by himself, and is pleased when he learns Kelp has come in–a bit less pleased when Kelp turns out to be his opposite number in more ways than one, and not the least bit intimidated by Eppick, now that he knows this isn’t a real cop anymore, and (more to the point) that he’s actively engaged in soliciting an illegal act.  Kelp, more into pool than chess, sees angles to be played here.  Question is, what angle is Eppick playing?

The string in this one is composed of Dortmunder, Kelp, Murch, Tiny, and Judson Blint, who was only introduced in the last book, and is still working his day job with J.C., keeping her old mail order cons alive, while she concentrates on being her own country. That’s a photo of four of them up top.  Murch isn’t there, must be working on the warp drive or something.  I think you can guess which one Judson is.  Oh, that was mean.  But it gives us an opening for–

The Crusher Conundrum:

Kelp said, “You know, we got another little conundrum here. I know it isn’t as important as the main problem—”

“The vault,” Dortmunder said.

“That’s the problem I was thinking of,” Kelp agreed. “Anyway,” he told the others, “you see these pictures of these two rooks.”

“Those are castles,” Stan said.

“Yes, but,” Kelp said, “rook is a name for them in chess. Anyway, everything weighs the way it’s supposed to, except this one rook here is three pounds lighter than the other rooks.”

They all leaned over the pictures, including Judson, who got up from the radiator and came over to stand beside the table, gazing down.

Stan said, “They look alike.”

“But you see the weight,” Kelp said. “They wrote it down right there.”

Stan nodded. “Maybe it’s a typo.”

“This stuff is all pretty careful,” Kelp said.

Dortmunder said, “I don’t find this as gripping as the main problem.”

“No, of course not,” Kelp said. “It’s just a mystery, that’s all.”

“No, it isn’t,” Judson said. “That part’s easy.”

Judson Blint is something of a prodigy, something of a ‘Nephew’, and 100% a Wesley (I should not need to explain).  And maybe just a wee bit of a Mary Sue, Westlake’s idealized younger self, stepping into an exciting criminal underworld, and grasping its finer points with alacrity.  The amateur learning how to be a pro.

And he’s all over this book, even though little further attempt is made to develop his character.  He’ll be playing this role for the remainder of the series, which isn’t saying much.  He figures out things the more seasoned heisters, including Dortmunder, are baffled by.  A fresh young mind.  Is this necessarily a good thing?  Well, it’s a thing, whether we think it’s good or not.

Hence The Mystery of the Cooked Rook.  Looking at the vital statistics of the set provided them by Hemlow’s granddaughter, Kelp notices one of the pieces is much lighter than it should be.  It’s Judson who has the sleuthly flash of insight that this is because Northwood, having stolen the set, needed some ready cash in order to get out of town and then make his fortune with it as collateral.  He raised it by selling the gold and jewels from one of the castles–and replacing it with a clever copy, so as to seem not to have broken up the set, thereby reducing its value.

This later leads to the gang doing the same thing themselves, Anne Marie knowing a jeweler of flexible ethics in DC (yes, we all get the joke, Mr. Westlake). But it does not solve the problem of how to get into the vault, and when asked how they do that, Judson says they can’t.  It’s impossible.  The gang wracks its collective brains and comes up with zip.  Dortmunder is in despair, and Judson feels bad.

It’s Dortmunder, the full professional, with more than amateur brilliance to guide him, who will find the answer.  But this answer doesn’t come to Dortmunder immediately,  and in the meantime Judson is at the bank building (the good old Capitalists and Immigrants Trust from Bank Shot, called C&I International here), casing the joint to try and find the solution himself, and Kelp comes along to tell him he’s doing it wrong, drawing too much attention to himself.  Kelp continues to take Judson under his wing, because Kelp is the Riker in this crew.  Dortmunder is Data.  Tiny is Worf.  Murch would be some combo of La Forge and O’Brien.  There is so not a Picard here.  There are a whole slew of Trek-related chess sets we might look at, but let’s don’t.

Rather, let’s take a closer look at a character not much older than Judson Blint, who plays a somewhat less intrepid role here, but also a more important and interesting one.  But though her role be large, she herself is not.

Ode to a Mouse:

“So you found this thing,” Dortmunder began. “This chess set.”

She laughed. “Oh, Mr. Dortmunder, this is too good a story to just jump in and tell the end.”

Dortmunder hated stories that were that good, but okay, once again no choice in the matter, so he said, “Sure. Go ahead.”

“When I was growing up,” she said, “there was every once in a while some family talk about a chess set that seemed to make everybody unhappy, but I couldn’t figure out why. It was gone, or lost, or something, but I didn’t know why it was such a big deal.”

She drank Diet Pepsi and give him a warning finger-shake. “I don’t mean the family was full of nothing but talk about this mysterious chess set, it wasn’t. It was just a thing that came up every once in a while.”


“So last summer it came up again,” she said, “when I was visiting my father at the Cape, and I asked him, please tell me what it’s all about, and he said he didn’t really know. If he ever knew, he’d forgotten. He said I should ask my grandfather, so when I got back to the city I did. He didn’t want to talk about it, turned out he was very bitter on that subject, but I finally convinced him I really wanted to know what this chess set meant in the family, and he told me.”

“And that made you find it,” Dortmunder said, “when nobody else could.”

“That’s right,” she said. “I’ve always been fascinated by history, and this was history with my own family in it, the First World War and invading Russia and all the rest of it. So I took down the names of everybody in that platoon that brought the chess set to America, and the other names, like the radio company they wanted to start, Chess King Broadcasting, and everything else I thought might be useful, and I Googled it all.”

Dortmunder had heard of this; some other nosey parker way to mind everybody else’s business. He preferred a world in which people stuck to their own knitting, but that world was long gone. He said, “You found some of these people on Google.”

Fiona Hemlow, daughter of Hemlow Senior’s third son, is in her middle 20’s, black of hair, slight of stature, efficient, decent-natured, and mainly a stranger to herself.  Like many people just out of law school, she’s a very small part of a very large firm–a ‘wee beastie’ she terms herself, and you know where that term derives from, dinna ye not?  A modern girl, probably not fluent in Lallans, she wouldn’t describe herself as sleeket, cowran, or tim’rous.  But aren’t we all, sometimes?  Us and all our best-laid schemes.  Beware of murd’ring pattles.

Fiona, like any mouse, has a tendency to poke her curious whiskers where they are not welcome. She’s clearly bored with her job, and to find that the fabled chess set of family lore is being kept in a vault beneath her tiny feet is not something she could be expected to keep to herself, so off she runs to the grandfather, the patriarch of her clan, the one whose inventiveness and drive brought them all up in the world with him, and no doubt paid for her schooling.

She herself is not to be involved in any way with the theft, naturally–Hemlow Sr. is repeatedly at pains to warn Dortmunder about that, wracked with guilt at any thought his granddaughter might suffer for his pursuance of an old vendetta. And yet here she is, talking to Dortmunder about it, in her own office, and feeling guilty about having put the poor man in this situation.  Her worries will be closer to home soon enough.

It’s a bit like the Stone Soup.  Seems so simple at first, then you get lured in, one ingredient at a time.  Dortmunder needs the specs on the set, he needs to know more about the heirs, he needs this, he needs that, or the soup will never be ready.  And Fiona self-evidently wants to play the sleuth as much as Judson does, but she is constrained by her position.  She can’t commit to the game, as Judson does, because she’s playing too many different games at once.

She forces herself to personally address one of the squabbling heirs, just because it’s such a thrill to meet a member of the family her family has had a shadow-feud with all these years.  Mrs. Livia Northwood Wheeler, who does not bear fools gladly, or at all (though she herself has never worked for a living in her life, would be mortally offended if you suggested she should).

Fiona makes up a story about how she’s always admired this woman, her guts, her refusal to ever let anyone get the better of her (least of all her own family), and only later realizes she really does admire Mrs. Wheeler for that, because that’s how she’d like to be (but such is not a mouse’s lot).

Mrs. W, as she’s known for most of the book, suspects a ploy (because she always suspects a ploy, literally every day of her life) and goes to Fiona’s boss, Mr. Tumbril (the term for the carts used to convey prisoners to the guillotine; you ever wonder how much time Westlake spent on names alone?)  She assumed Fiona was questioning her on Tumbril’s behalf.

Mrs. W., not quite the dragon she appears, Fiona’s fellow mortal (and female, in a man’s world), only realizes her mistake when Tumbril decapitates Fiona (in a professional sense) right in front of her.  A stunned Fiona mails out the intel Dortmunder needs, right before she cleans out her desk, with security watching her, and is conveyed in disgrace (but not in a cart) to the street outside.  Her wee-bit housie in ruin.

And the end result of this bleak December wind?  She winds up as Mrs. W’s personal assistant, in a fantastic office with a view of Central Park, a spy in the enemy’s camp, but really more of a double agent, because as mentioned, she truly does admire and like her curmudgeonly new employer, and is grateful for her suddenly improved prospects–but she’s embroiled in a plot to steal from her. How long before the cruel coulter (no, not that one) slices through her cell once more?  Forward tho’ she canna see, she guesses and fears.

Oh, and there’s some stuff about her no-good boyfriend (spoiler alert), but that can wait for later.

What could have waited for always is the one subplot (in this book crammed to the gills with them) I can’t for the life of me figure out why it’s there.  Maybe you can pierce the puzzle of–

Murch’s Muddled Mecca:

“I’m happy for them,” John said. “But up till now I don’t see your idea in here.”

“The dome,” Stan said.

John just looked at him, ostrich or bison visible in his open mouth.

So Stan said, “The dome got delivered before they shut down, and it’s gold. Not solid gold, you know, but not gold paint either. Real gold. Gold plate or something. It’s sitting out there on this empty construction site, it was delivered when the walls were supposed to be up, but of course the walls weren’t up, so it’s sitting there, with this crane next to it.”

“I think I’m getting this,” John said. “It’s your idea, we use the crane, we pick up this dome— How big is this dome?”

“Fifteen feet across, twelve feet high.”

“Fifteen feet across, twelve feet high. You wanna pick this up and take it away.”

“With the crane, like you said.”

“And where you gonna stash this thing?”

“That’s part of what we gotta work out,” Stan said.

“Maybe you can take it to Alaska,” John said, “and paint it white, and make everybody think it’s an igloo.”

“I don’t think we could get it that far,” Stan told him. “All the bridges. And forget tunnels.”

Poor Stan.  The world’s greatest getaway driver, the human GPS, and he gets no respect, no respect at all.  He never even gets to outrun the cops in a thrilling chase scene (because seriously, if you’re being chased by the cops, probably with news choppers overhead, the heist is already ruined, and you’re going away for a long time, to watch the chase footage in the prison rec room, over and over, on those damn reality shows).

So at least he gets a subplot here, but it goes nowhere.  He wants to heist the (partly) golden dome for a mosque under construction along the Belt Parkway–he drives past the site all the time, to and from Canarsie, and it’s calling out to him, “Stan!  Stan!  Come get me!”

Dortmunder really does not have time enough in the day to list all the ways in which this is an incredibly bad idea (he already had some kind of fatwah out on him in Why Me?, and that was just over a fucking ring).  He’s got this chess set to worry about, he’s got Eppick to worry about, and if anything, this dome job is even worse.  He gives a very hurt Murch the brush.

But Murch just won’t give up.  He gets Kelp out there, he gets Judson out there, they all have to go look at the golden dome, and they all think it’s a terrible idea to try and heist it, and finally Murch has to give up on it, and go along with this other job they’re all getting sucked into, because John (their brain, and down inside they all know it), is going to get sucked back into prison if they can’t manage to make it work.

What the hell was that about?  You keep waiting for it to get tied back into the main story (maybe they could hide the chess set under the dome?), and it never is.  Dortmunder subplots sometimes turn into dead ends, which is not typical of Westlake’s work as a whole.  The first three books were perfectly balanced–most of what followed was Westlake clearing out his mental attic, while spending time with old and cherished friends.

I would think Westlake himself was driving past a construction site for a mosque, or saw it on TV, and thought “hmmmm.”  And then “naaaaahhh!” Maybe this ties back to research he did for the first Samuel Holt novel, which hinged upon a newly built golden-domed mosque in L.A. (In that case, it was the entire four book series that went nowhere.)

Now I say he doesn’t tie it in to the main heist, but axiomatically speaking, you might say he does.  Because Dortmunder finally hits on it.  What they have to do in order to get that chess set.   That is in that vault.  The one even Judson says they can’t possibly get into and back out again.

“No, you were right,” John said. “That’s what I’ve been saying all along, there’s no way to get into that vault.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Fuggedabodit. See, what it is I gotta do, I gotta stop thinking about getting into the vault because I can’t get into the vault. That’s the backwards part.”

Judson said, “It is?”

“The mountain,” John explained, “gotta go to whatsisname. Mohammed.”

Fearing the worst, May said, “John?”

“You know,” John said, and gestured vaguely with both hands. “He won’t go to that, so that’s gotta go to him. Same with the vault. We can’t get in at the chess set, case closed, no discussion, so what we gotta do is get the chess set to come out to us.”

“That’s brilliant, John,” Andy said. “How do we do that?”

“Well,” John said, “that’s the part I’m working on.”

Let’s work on it next time.  I’d say next week, but look how long it’s been since my last post.  Whenever.  Oh, and Murch to Kelp 2.  Check.  Your move.



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

63 responses to “Review: What’s So Funny?

  1. It seemed odd to me that no one recalled encountering Feinberg, Kleinberg, Rhineberg, Steinberg, Weinberg, & Klatsch before (and fairly recently at that), as that’s the firm that supplied Fitzroy’s DNA specialist in Bad News (and in that book, Tiny recognized them as the folks who helped J.C. set up her country). Oh well. These guys have more important things on their minds than to keep a bunch of dead lawyers’ names in their mental Rolodexes.

    Here’s something else that snagged at me:

    They kissed, they clinked glasses, they sipped the wine, which they didn’t know any better than to believe was pretty good, and then he went back to the kitchen to plate their dinners while she stood leaning in the doorway to say, “How was your day?”

    That “didn’t know any better” seems like a rare moment of authorial condescension. The Dortmunder narrator has described the actions of a fair number of fools and naifs, but is usually content to let those actions speak for themselves. There’s just a whiff of judgment here in the character’s taste (or lack thereof) in wine. Still, it’s a telling moment. These two are playing out of their league.

    I’m glad you singled out the passage with Dortmunder hating “stories that were that good” (I would have if you hadn’t), because Westlake and Stark (and their readers) love stories that good. Still, it’s another detail binding Dortmunder to Parker. The finger is always too long-winded, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. Trying to hurry them up just confuses them.

    I too thought of Sam Holt with the mosque subplot. I think you’re right that there was some leftover research kicking around. But it really did go nowhere. Sometimes the narrative push pushes you into a dead end.

    • P.S. Can you fix my pitiful tagging?

    • I suppose it could be called condescension–except wouldn’t Mr. Westlake himself have been drinking wines he could afford in the early days, and thinking they were pretty good? And until you can afford the best (if ever that day should dawn), do you really need to know the stuff you’re drinking is cheap swill? I’d call it hindsight.

      I can’t afford the best wine, or the best liquor. I can afford the best beers, and they’ve ruined me for Heineken, Molson, or even Beck’s, all of which I used to sip with pleasure at jazz clubs, to meet my two drink minimum (I never drank a Bud or Coors in my life, and I intend to keep it that way). I’d rather one good Belgian style ale a month than a score of lackluster lagers. Which is to say nothing against lagers in general, some of my best friends and all….

      I tend not to spend much time with Mr. Westlake’s various law firms. Certain individual attorneys, yes. Firms, no. I suppose, given how many shout-outs to past books there are here, I should have thought to check Feinberg, Kleinberg, et al. Like you, I doubt Dortmunder & Co. ever paid much attention to the law firm in Bad News, or any other firm, unless they were robbing it. Not their department.

      Honestly, I won’t be talking much about them in this review, either. Some funny stuff, but none of it central to what I want to talk about. And this is one of those books where I have no choice but to pick and choose, unless I want to do another four parter, which I sure as bloody hell do not.

      I have to think that at this point in his career, nobody really wants to edit him. Not when he’s doing Dortmunder or Parker, anyway. If he was doing something different, there might be an editor to watch over him, but wouldn’t an editor have cut that mosque subplot out? Maybe it was suggested, and he wanted it left in, because it tied into the Mountain/Muhammad thing. Or just because you can’t have too much Murch.

      I shall take pity on your tagging. No additional charge. Hey wait a minute, there was no original charge!

  2. rinaldo302

    It sounds like we’re building a consensus on the Murch subplot. What a relief it is to see others notice it (and where else would I turn for relief like that?).

    • Well, you could always try Mecca. 😐

      The late Dortmunders are all a bit messy, with too many moving parts, but usually you at least know what all the parts were for. I can only guess about Murch’s dome. Truthfully, Murch doesn’t have much to do in this one, and it might be as simple as wanting to throw him a subplot. Murch’s subplots are usually a bit off the beaten track (like all the way out at the end of the track, at Maximilian’s Used Cars). But they tie into the main story, somehow. Not here.

      Now we have seen this kind of cul-de-sac before, in a much earlier book–the subplot with the various extremist groups in Why Me?, banding together to find the infidel dog who stole The Byzantine Fire, and do away with him in the grand old manner; something with boiling oil in it, or molten lead. And it seems like that’s going somewhere, and then it just stops. Fun while it lasts, though. Unlike Murch’s dome. That just lies there.

      Maybe we’re missing the point. I mean, I totally missed the reference to Robert Burns, first time out.

  3. mikesschilling

    You keep waiting for it to get tied back into the main story

    Maybe there’s a support group for people waiting for the mosque to be finished, and they meet in the back room at the OJ.

  4. mikesschilling

    No idea if Westlake was a Marx Brothers fan, but Feinberg, Kleinberg, Rhineberg, Steinberg, Weinberg, & Klatsch definitely reminds me of Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, and McCormick. (I almost left out a Hungerdunger. And the main one, too. )

  5. mikesschilling

    Apropos the Walking Around Money discussion of Dortmunder by Stark, the first two chapters of this one both begin “When Dortmunder …” Both sentences are more prolix than you’d expect from Stark, so it’s more like Westlake imitating him than Stark taking over.

    • Good bet he wrote this around the same time as the novella. Who knows what kind of Jekyll/Hyde transition went on when he switched personas. If that’s the right pop cultural meme to apply here.

      “Don’t make me pithy. You wouldn’t like me when I’m pithy.”

      Oh, I beg to differ, sir. Can’t wait to get at that triptych. 😉

  6. Your Pirandello reference was inspired and inspiring. Looking forward to seeing what you do next time with Ilf & Petrov.

  7. Anthony

    Nothing new to add to the Golden Dome discussion, other than I think I recall an interview in which DEW said something to the effect that he drove by a construction site having a golden dome, and that he thought he had the perfect gang to steal it (a la the trailer in Bank Shot). He couldn’t make the idea work, and rather than waste it he gave it to Murch so that the gang could make fun of him. The thing is, I might be imagining the interview. Seriously.

    Nothing new to add to the cheap wine discussion, other than I didn’t think it judgmental. I’m on the smiling wistful hindsight team.

    Judson seems to have been kept on the team to represent the…beats me. Least interesting gang member in the whole series. I know not what characters others may prefer, but as for me, give me Grijk or Wilber Howie or Wally Knurr or give me death.

    • Dortmunder: The Next Generation. Whether Westlake watched any version of Trek or not (there is a Star Wars reference in this one, and 007 reference as well–Mr. Westlake was no stranger to the geeky side of life).

      That’s what Judson represents–the next generation. It was in Westlake’s mind, as the hourglass emptied–there must be someone to pick up the torch of the old school independents when they finally let it drop. Someone more suited to the changing times. There’s a more more viable variant on the same notion in two of the last three Parkers.

      But Judson isn’t interesting enough to carry that torch. I mean, he’s learning at J.C.’s feet, and Kelp’s, and Dortmunder’s, and even Murch’s. He’s basically everybody’s apprentice, but since the story isn’t about him, there’s no way to round him out well enough. He’s going to be the world’s best grifter/heister someday? Those are two very different skill sets, as Dortmunder told Fitzroy Guilderpost a few books back. He’d have to choose one, eventually. Maybe that would have come up, if there’d been a few more novels, instead of just one more.

      I doubt anything would have made him able to carry a story on his own. But he doesn’t need to. He was okay in the last book, and he’s okay here, and the books would both be about as good if he wasn’t there at all. It’s not as if he detracts from either. I don’t really mind Wesley Crusher in the early seasons of Next Generation. I don’t miss him when he’s gone, either. Now his mom leaving for one season–that I minded. 😉

      Stealing a mosque’s dome–even in a comic crime novel–treads on somewhat sensitive ground, in the 21st (when ancient mosques are threatened on all sides, by all sides). You watch Topkapi now, and marvel at the innocence. Everybody just doing their jobs, Turkish cops and western robbers. No hard feelings, on either side. Now everybody’s off in their not-so-neutral corners.

      I don’t think it was just the logistics of the crime that daunted him. Anyway, he’d already done this general type of heist in Bank Shot, as you say. He was never going to improve on that.

  8. Here’s a link to an interview Westlake did with the Bookslut blog shortly before WSF?’s publication:

    Key quotes:

    “This is the first time that I’ve truly violated my own rules,” Westlake said of his newest Dortmunder caper. “I’ve seen a lot of people who have series characters who go to the well too often and they end up doing shtick. The characters get thinner instead of more complex and it just becomes a vaudeville routine after a while. The writers very often don’t see that they’re diluting the mix.”

    “What’s funny is that I did three in a row!” Westlake laughed. “Whatever else I do after that, it has to be something else. You do three in a row, you’re really going too far. I’ll have to write a greeting card next or something.”

    • They weren’t published one after the other–there were Parker novels in there as well, that I’m saving for (almost) last. So does this mean he wrote The Road to Ruin, Watch Your Back, and What’s So Funny? one after the other, without anything in-between? And that’s not mentioning Walking Around Money, that Westlake/Stark hybrid, which makes a lot of sense when you consider the shifting poles writing in these last few years.

      Doing these in publication order (more or less) has had its advantages, but it can be misleading. For the most part, his books didn’t come out long after they were written. But even towards the end of his life, he would often produce more work in a year than his publisher(s) could handle. If he wrote three Dortmunders in a row, that means there’s a decided gap between the time he finished this one and the date of its publication.

      2003–Money For Nothing
      2004–The Road to Ruin, Nobody Runs Forever, Thieves’ Dozen
      2005–Watch Your Back!, Walking Around Money
      2006–Ask the Parrot
      2007–What’s So Funny?


      • That was a long hmmmm, because I had to go upstairs and do something.

        In the interim, I pondered. We know, from other comments he made, that the final three Parkers were not written one after the other, not a planned trilogy, and he wouldn’t even call them a trilogy. Even though they are all closely linked, the events of all three taking place within a few weeks time.

        Westlake would finish one and the ending would suggest the beginning of the next, but he did not just wade right in and toss the next one off, as he did with the earliest books in the series. He thought about it a while.

        Here, if we are interpreting him correctly, he’s writing three Dortmunder novels, one after the other, and there’s basically no attempt to link them, other than to put Judson Blint in the second two. Offhand, I can’t see any linking themes, other than those that link most or all of the previous books.


        (Have to head out, maybe more later, or one of you could always pick up where I left off, that’s permitted, you know).

        • Well, one bit of picking up . . . whatever else Judson is or isn’t — I wonder if he’s more Reg Barclay than Wesley, myself — he’s definitely shown in this book to be more than the average young thief coming up these days, because there’s one of those fellows in here — in from Numbnuts, Nebraska (now there’s a non-city!) and we see what happens to *him*.

          • rinaldo302

            I liked Judson a lot in his first book; it had been a long time since the gang acquired a real new member, it was fun to see a newcomer get educated on their way of life, and in the end he had a crucial part to play. So I was looking forward to seeing how he’d continue, but the anticipation was better than the actuality.

            • Judson has no quirks. Nary a one. Developing him would have meant giving him his own unique behavioral tics. And as Fugue for Felons proved (to me, at any rate), Westlake was too set in his ways to create more series characters as interesting as the ones he’d given us in the 60’s. There’s a flexibility in youth, an openness to the new, that tends to dissipate as we age. Maybe that’s what Judson is supposed to recapture. Doesn’t quite work. But again, he doesn’t detract from the books much, and he’s okay as a contrast with the rest of the crew.

              Stark did a little better in this regard–just a little. But we’ll get to that.

              • Be fair — it takes time to develop real quirks . . . and perhaps to figure out what proto-quirks to encourage or discourage. Had Westlake had world enough and time, I’m confident he could have gotten Justin there. He had good models to pick and choose from — maybe starting with three quirks from Mister Smirk. . . .

              • Westlake, as a general rule, got his series characters right on the first shot, or not at all. Parker, Dortmunder, Grofield, Tobin–all very much themselves from the moment we first met them.

                Honestly, that may be true of all great series characters, at least in the mystery genre. Yes, they get better developed over time, but they don’t start out dull and featureless, and then acquire an interesting personality via accretion, or osmosis, or whatever.

                Judson got significant play in three books. I just don’t think there’s a there there. I also think he’s taking up page space I’d rather see devoted to May, J.C., and what the hell happened to Wally Knurr? Herman X was worthy of further exploration, surely. Thing is, Westlake probably knew he hadn’t gotten Judson right, so as was typical for him with a problem he hadn’t cracked, he kept going back to the old drawing board.

                His one truly great moment was spotting the Brueghel painting, taking it only because he liked it, identified with it. That was pretty good. Not enough to justify all the time he got afterwards, though. But the thing about the Dortmunder supporting cast is, once you’re in, you got tenure. You may not get in every book, but you will turn up again, like an expired one cent piece.

                We shall agree to differ. Judson Blint was never going to be one of Westlake’s better efforts, in my estimation. Not enough world and time in all the multiverse.

          • He’s not serious about thieving, though. All he wants is to get the chess set, figuring he can somehow sell it (to whom?), and then he can spend the rest of his days screwing this girl for whom he is merely a passing diversion.

            When Westlake wrote sleaze, the characters, boys and girls alike, were always in this transitional phase of their lives, not ready to get serious about much of anything, except maybe at the end. They’re all just bawdy picaresques to some extent.

            Judson isn’t written in that mode. He’s interested in the work for the sake of the work itself. It’s a journey of self-discovery, and say what you will about sex (and seems we all have something to say), the act itself doesn’t teach you much of anything about yourself. It’s more what comes before and after it.

            In fact, Judson never gets any nookie at all, never see him so much as try to get a date, unless I forgot something from Get Real, and I don’t think so. I suspect he’s sweet on J.C., which also makes me suspect he didn’t live long enough to perfect his craft. Not all of Tiny’s bloodcurdling stories are just stories, though maybe those are the ones he doesn’t tell stories about. 😉

            • There’s something in Get Real that at least makes me think he’s more over J.C. — as an uncomfortable and unwise fantasy — than Stan is over the dome (which cure J.C. also helps with, of course).

              Oh, and about that dome . . . all I can think of to add (if it is anything added) is that I for one can readily believe Westlake left it in largely to be the unconscious suggestion to Dortmunder about “this gotta go to him” and so on . . . , heck, I could possibly believe he actively put it in, though I’d like an interview quote to be more confident. But the incident could also play into the revival and redemption of Murch’s Brain (I’m a TOS man myself; one birthday overnight my friend and I got to see the original airing of “The Trouble with Tribbles”) in Get Real. About which later incident deponent, having been sternly advised before, sayeth nothing further.

              • There’s always a lot of stuff in the Dortmunders that comes back to me when I reread them–they’re like that, and it’s one of their pleasures, though I eventually end up yearning for the simplicity of Stark (the Starkness of simplicity?)

                Part of it is that the first time through these books, I had much less context to work with, so my interpretations were more at the surface level. With Westlake, whatever name he’s writing under, it’s never all at the surface level. Never once. Not even in the sleazes he tossed off for rent money. Which I now have to start seriously thinking about collecting, if I want to go on reviewing Westlake. (The ones I’ve read that aren’t evailable were Ray’s, since I was acting as his ebay broker at the time. They’re all somewhere out near the Urals by now. A puzzle for some post-apocalyptic archaeologist to unravel.)

                TOS is okay. I mean, there wouldn’t be any TNG without it, you have to give it that. Did I ever share with you my theory about how great Starfleet captains have to have last names that are at least 50% hard consonant? Kirk. Picard. Janeway and Archer never stood a chance. I’m not optimistic about the new show. Leaving aside that it’s another damn prequel. STAR TREK IS SUPPOSED TO BE ABOUT THE FUTURE, dammit!

            • Now you’ve got me trying to remember if we ever saw Kelp dating anyone before Anne Marie — though we know from following her that Andy had had female companionship of one kind and another before she came along. We know how they paired off, of course; likewise for Tiny and J.C. as well as John and May — and Murch may not have conventional mother issues but he does seem to be, as one of the limericks in my old non-dirty Bennett Cerf paperback collection of them says, auto-erotic.

              I think Westlake would have had to come up with someone new for Judson to pair off with on anything but a momentary basis, if that was a goal for him. There are a handful of possible potential candidates in this book and the next, though none of them is a great match as is. Who might have been “a nice girl, a good match”? — from elsewhere in the series, maybe, or even from some other story. Perhaps that’s a plausible topic to discuss . . . or would you rather leave it for the regulars?

              • I don’t remember Kelp showing any interest in sex, prior to Anne Marie–and honestly, he and Tiny and (briefly) Herman X are the only members of the gang we see in any significant state of arousal (Dortmunder might be crazy for May, but he would never tolerate Westlake intruding on their privacy, and Westlake would be too discreet to ask–Kelp would be all too happy to share–different strokes–so to speak).

                You know, sometimes writers of series fiction involving perennial bachelors (sometimes in tights and capes) will write in a female love interest simply to try and dispel speculation about unstated sexual preferences. (It never works, but they try.) In this case, I think it’s that he gave Dortmunder May because he’d given Parker Claire, not that long before. Fair is fair. Plus it opens up certain story and character angles. May tells us things about Dortmunder we wouldn’t otherwise have known, as Claire tells us things about Parker.

                Having done that, he was moved (for whatever reason) to get Tiny and J.C. together, but we never really saw much of them as a couple, after the meet-cute. (Well, I thought it was cute.)

                Andy turned out to be quite randy. Actively pursuing Anne Marie from the moment he first laid eyes on her–and then being repeatedly seduced by her in subsequent books–she and Andy get significant play in all three of these novels that Westlake seemingly wrote one after the other. It’s definitely the most sustained love story of the series. And again, I don’t mind it, and wouldn’t really miss it. I mean, since we’re never going to get any actual sex in these books, it’s more of a tease than a sleaze, know what I mean?

                Point is, all these characters were interesting before they got girls. Judson isn’t going to get any more interesting if he starts dating somebody. I just don’t see how that fits in anywhere.

                (That’s what she said)


  9. Based on the clues Westlake offers in that interview, I’d guess he wrote Nobody Runs Forever and Ask the Parrot before RtR, WYB!, and WSF? At that point, the next Parker novel in the triptych didn’t have a title yet, but he must have been zeroing in on Dirty Money (should have kept zeroing). I don’t think he’s including Walking Around Money or Thieves’ Dozen in his accounting, so I’m guessing those were completed earlier. It’s a puzzle.

    • Well, most of Thieves’ Dozen was completed long before the book came out, but obviously he had to think a lot about Dortmunder while compiling and arranging it.

      Walking Around Money, I will just bet you, was turned out around the same time he was working on the first two panels of the triptych. He wouldn’t have done a Dortmunder at all then, normally, but is he going to say no to Ed McBain? (Possibly suspecting at the time that there might never be another chance to say yes.)

      He was always careful about how he deployed Parker–that’s why no short stories, no novellas, and no movie adaptations where they use Parker’s name in his lifetime. He’s not going to loan anyone Parker, even McBain. Dortmunder he can be more flexible about, and Dortmunder is at least as popular as Parker, well-established in the minds of readers.

      But he’s in Stark mode when McBain calls him, so he writes Dortmunder as Stark. An experiment, consciously embarked upon, but not one that just came to him out of nowhere. Precipitated by external factors. There was never a master plan for him. He didn’t just write by the ‘push’ method, he lived by it.

  10. Looking at the timeline of his final books again, and taking into account Westlake’s remarks to Bookslut, it seems that Nobody Runs Forever and Ask the Parrot had to have been written before Road to Ruin.

    At the time of NRF’s publication, Westlake was very concerned that fans would read it as a series-ender. He took pains on his website and in interviews to disabuse readers of that notion (which at the time seemed unusual to me), but he had to have known that circumstances could make it a series-ender by default. So, I’m guessing he wrote ATP immediately after finishing NRF, as an insurance policy against the ultimate editor. ATP is the first and only Parker to pick up seconds after the last one ended, so Westlake was still very much in NRF mode when he began writing. (ATP would have been a decent enough series-ender, but it must have pleased him to be able to tie up NRF’s loose ends with the final Parker.)

    This would make the WRITING order of the final works something like this:

    Fugue for Felons (I’m guessing)
    Nobody Runs Forever
    Ask the Parrot (just in case)
    *Walking Around Money probably slots in right about here, which makes sense based on the mode-switching that was about to happen*
    Road to Ruin
    Watch Your Back!
    What’s So Funny?
    (Whoa. That’s three Dortmunders in a row. Better do something else.)
    Dirty Money
    Get Real (Yes, another Dortmunder. That’s all you people want, apparently.)

    • Yeah, I buy this timeline . It makes sense. Fugue for Felons was one of his late experiments, one of his “If I had to do it all again, could I?” There comes a point for all of us when the answer to that question is no. Westlake probably reached that point right around then. He finally took no for an answer.

      It’s not just what people want–he’s always his own most worst critic. Some of his earlier attempts to break out may have been unfairly rejected, by publishers and/or readers, but he’d still know he didn’t quite hit the nail on the head with most of them, and it’s getting worse, not better. Fugue for Felons is a sketch, not a story. He had all this time to think about it, and it still didn’t gel. Money For Nothing convinced him the Nephews had run out their streak. Nothing left but Parker and Dortmunder. The core systems. Still functioning within their proper parameters. There to hold him up, keep him going. Nobody runs forever, but you run as far as you can, as fast as you can.

      So imagine his reaction when people start thinking he’s just written the last Parker. Nobody Runs Forever actually wouldn’t have been a terrible end to the series, I think–almost reminiscent of the end of The Sopranos (which came after NRF). I’m glad it didn’t end that way, but there is a certain logic to it, the ground giving out beneath him, the hounds literally closing in for the kill.

      Westlake’s not going to leave Parker’s ass hanging out in the wind like that, and he’s not ready to stop writing. Not until he’s ready to stop breathing. So yeah, you’ve got it–he wrote Ask The Parrot to prove Parker was still alive and free, and so was Stark, and so was he.

      He was never going to write the last Parker novel.

      But I do think Get Real was written as the last Dortmunder.

      We’ll talk about that, when we get there. In the very late autumn, I’d guess. Appropriate.

      • I agree that NRF would have been a fine capper (I like The Sopranos ending just fine), but Westake never saw it that way, and he wanted to make sure nobody else did either, not for a moment. (Other creators would have let fans marinate in the uncertainty.) I also agree that he’d never write the last Parker, but there’s a fitting symmetry to the way the series ultimately did end. We’ll get there too.

      • Anthony

        “But I do think Get Real was written as the last Dortmunder.”


        But I doubt that’s a commitment he’d have honored if some new whimsical itch came along and Dortmunder was the perfect means to scratch it.

  11. mikesschilling

    By the way, I really enjoyed this book, much more than Watch Your Back. The fun of the late Dortmunders is spending time with the whole gang, or at least John and Andy as a double act, and there’s lots of that here.

    • This has a superior heist, and perhaps the greatest pre-heist (scoping the scene of the crime out in advance) Westlake ever wrote. There are elements within Watch Your Back! that I particularly enjoy, but I think it would have been better as a much shorter book. Even though this one is longer, the different plot elements are properly aligned, so you don’t feel like you’re reading several books instead of one.

      Also, Westlake finally stopped trying to make Arnie Albright a beloved literary character. (He could be terribly perverse at times.) Arnie is duly referenced here, in all his repulsive glory, but makes no appearance. Next book, of course, Dortmunder discovers a bottomless wellspring of his and Parker’s holy grail–untraceable cash–and Arnie shall be seen no more forever.

      But there’s not nearly enough with May and J.C., Tiny gets short shrift, Murch’s subplot goes nowhere, and I guess perfection is as hard to find in literature as in life.

      • mikesschilling

        If you take continuity seriously, you’d have to conclude that Arnie’s self-improvement was sadly short-lived.

        • mikesschilling

          Kind of a shame. A friendly Arnie that the gang wants no part of could be pretty funny.

          “John Dortmunder! Always a pleasure. Come on it.”


          “Great! Better every day. Hey, did your ladyfriend like the vase?”

          Dortmunder had left it in a nearby dumpster, having no clue how to explain its presence to May. “Um, yeah, terrific. Uh, thanks.”

          “Sure! You know, John Dortmunder, you’re my most loyal client. Even when I was awful. Man, we don’t miss those days, do we?”

          In many ways Dortmunder did,

          • In the meantime, J.C. Taylor never got a single book devoted to one of her vendettas; she barely even got a subplot after Good Behavior. May got basically bupkus after Drowned Hopes.

            I think we spent too much time with the Pawn Stars. Incidentally that guy who plays Chumlee on that show would be a great Wally Knurr, they should totally cast him if they ever do that series they’re probably not going to do. What do you mean he’s not an actor?

        • Basically, Arnie is one gag, repeated over and over–he pays better than Stoon, but is so obnoxious that sometimes you wish you’d gone to Stoon anyway. If he becomes all sweetness and light, the entire point of the character is gone.

          It’s not really made clear in this book whether Arnie’s less aggressively unpleasant mannerisms, adopted because he wanted to be less like Preston Fareweather, have taken hold long-term. We never see him in this book. He’s not even name-checked in the next and final one. He reportedly still gets these appalling skin conditions, which had cleared up in the tropical sun, but once he started spending most of the day in that apartment again, surrounded by stolen merchandise and old incomplete wall calendars again, wasn’t that inevitable?

          The problem with Arnie isn’t continuity. The problem, as Batman once said to the Joker, is that we’ve already heard it, and it wasn’t funny the first time. Not entirely fair, since I do enjoy some of the Arnie-shtik, but I think Westlake overdid it with him. Again, because he felt like he hadn’t done it right the first time.

          A lovably unlovable loser is a hard character to nail. Though it can be done! (In three panels or less.)

          • Anthony

            I know that this has been covered before, but it’s a slow morning.

            In my own personal Dortmunder mini-series – this is how it would be cast. Ignore such minor quibbles as English accents and actors being long dead.

            Prepare to roll your eyeballs hard enough to generate electricity:

            Dortmunder – Hugh Laurie (House version)
            Kelp – Ryan Stiles or young Donald Sutherland
            Tiny – The guy who played Dim in A Clockwork Orange
            Murch – The Weasley Twins
            May – Myrna Loy
            JC – Angelina Jolie (in Mr. and Mrs. Smith Mode) or the actress in the new Wonder Woman movie, which I haven’t seen but she was in the Israeli Army and looks fully capable of the JC dynamic
            Arnie – Woody Allen
            Maxmillian – any character actor. Could change every episode.
            Rollo – Bruce Willis (Pulp Fiction version)
            The OJ Regulars – all actors who ever sat around the bar on Cheers
            Chefwick – Bob Newhart
            Judson Blint – Matthew Perry
            Herman X/Jones – Jamie Foxx
            Wilbur Howey – Sid Caesar
            Tom Jimson – Lee Marvin
            Ann Marie – Amy Adams
            Francis Xavier Mahoney – Chris Christe

            • I may have to go see an opthalmologist, such was the eyerolling.

              Matthew Perry? Was he ever young enough to play Judson? I’m not sure Judson would even be in my miniseries.

              In my perfect world, Chris Christie is permanently unemployed, and banned from Bruce Springsteen concerts for life. He can have all the Oreos he wants, though.

              And who is this ‘Mahoney’ you speak of? Us Micks all look alike to you, is that it? Our last names, anyway. Not that I ever knew a Maloney who spelled his name Mologna, and I still think Westlake made that up.

              Could Hugh Laurie play Dortmunder? Of course. Should he? Probably not. Would he? Depends on how much of his House money he’s blown on the ponies (if he blew it all, I’d reconsider).

              Myrna Loy? Obviously Dortmunder’s luckiest day was the one May caught him shoplifting in that Bohack, but if he’s that lucky, the character loses all credibility. I know, I head-cast a 40-ish Winona, but she’s got issues, man. Myrna Loy is the wife you’re issued in heaven (man, woman, straight, gay, trans, space alien, doesn’t matter), after living a life of spotless moral rectitude and self-sacrifice. Also, Loy doesn’t remotely fit the physical description. Okay, there’s the Dillinger connection, points for that.

              I recently sort of fast-forwarded my way through the film version of What’s The Worst That Could Happen? And now I know the answer to that question! But I did think that Martin Lawrence was a perfect Herman X. Pity they had him playing Dortmunder. I am not remotely referring to skin color here. If Dortmunder were African American, Lawrence would still have absolutely no idea how to play him. Herman X he could summon forth without raising a sweat. Probably Kelp too. The rules of which roles may be racially-transposed and which may not are certainly confusing these days, aren’t they? Basically, I’m averse to having any really good-looking people play anybody in the gang. Dortmunder is for the irregulars amongst us, and that ain’t Jamie Foxx.

              Rollo is tall. Bruce Willis is short. And would move heaven and earth to steal every single scene he was in. Man doesn’t know any other way. Cast him as Rollo, the show is about Rollo.

              I’d cast Bob Newhart in anything. Just to say I’d cast him in something.

              My present Tiny Bulcher is Paul Donald Wight II. Who is, to all accounts, a lovely man, very funny, quite gifted, and he has acting experience, apart from his usual gig. Somebody start up a Dortmunder series, and cast him as Tiny Bulcher, just to save him from his present thankless job. Which is jobbing.

              Woody Allen would work. But you know he wouldn’t even return your calls, right?

              • William H. Macy has always been my Dortmunder. He’s a little too old now, but I’m thinking of a Fargo/The Cooler era, when he was at his hang-doggiest. He even has a Westlake adaptation on his resume (A Slight Case of Murder, reportedly based on the Westlake novella The Travesty — which, wait a minute, has that been published someplace?).

                My Kelp is Edward Norton, who can come across as friendly but with maybe a dangerous edge.

              • Pretty sure that Dortmunder cable TV series died in the development stages, much like the Dortmunder reality show that we’ll be talking about this fall.

                I think I already mentioned that Macy is my Wilbur Howey (and could still play that role). He can definitely do a hang-dog expression like few others. But I never see him when reading about Dortmunder, somehow.

                Dortmunder may, in fact, be more difficult to properly cast as Parker. I mean, at least Parker got Lee Marvin, and Michel Constantin. Much as I may think Duvall was a poor choice, he’s one of the greatest actors who ever lived, and he captured certain aspects of the character. Who did Dortmunder get?

                Robert Redford. Seriously. Robert. Redford.

                George C. Scott. Who is actually the best of the bunch, in the worst Dortmunder movie anyone ever made. Still way too much of a drama queen.

                Teo Tecoli (I googled. Worse than you think.)

                Paul Le Mat (They couldn’t get Jason Robards? You see what I did there.)

                Christopher Lambert (Has he ever been well-cast in anything?)

                Herbert Knaup (Maybe he was great, but how would we ever find out? In Run Lola Run, he played the guy Dortmunder would get screwed over by and then take pecuniary vengeance upon.)

                Martin Lawrence. I already covered him. He just could never understand the character. Lots of great underrated black actors out there could play a version of Dortmunder, and he ain’t one of ’em.

                So we can fantasize all we like, but here’s the reality. If they ever do another Dortmunder adaptation, they will pick the most ill-suited actor available at that time to play him. It’s his karma. And he doesn’t care.

              • rinaldo302

                i’ve thought about the Dortmunder-casting question several times over the years and played the game with friends. Probably brought it up here too. One problem is that nobody whose essential quality (or a quality they can naturally assume) is a hangdog defeated-by-life attitude becomes a movie star. Or even a recognizable supporting player, usually.

                Macy, I agree, can convey it. Of the actual Dortmunders we’ve had, Paul Le Mat probably came closest (and not coincidentally was the least of a “star”). The young Gene Hackman, before he started to get leading roles, had some of the makings. But none of the three of them seem physically right to me, at all. I picture someone like Harry Dean Stanton, but without his scary edge.

                I could be forever content with George Segal as Kelp, though, if he could have been frozen at the age where he played him.

              • Jack Lemmon was a major movie star, still was in the early 70’s. I really don’t think Dortmunder has to be such a bad-looking guy. He’s an ordinary looking guy, who doesn’t try to pretend he’s a good-looking guy. What would be the point?

              • Anthony

                1. Matthew Perry – first season of Friends
                2. Mahoney.?! Yep. I blew that one. No excuse.
                3. Rollo is tall, Bruce Willis is Short. Maybe so, but I have an unlimited budget for special effects.
                4. Woody Allen doesn’t have to return my calls. I am God in this scenario.
                5. Judson would be in my mini-series. Because it would include every single book, novella, and short story, be shown on Masterpiece Theater, and be more popular than Downtown Abbey. Speaking of which…Mrs. Patmore as Murch’s Mom. Don’t tell me for one second she couldn’t play a tough broad from Canarsie.

              • Well, if Lady Mary can play a sexy Yank grifter with substance abuse issues (and steal her show’s title from Dortmunder), anything’s possible. But given all the homegrown talent we have, just right for Murch’s Mom, I might have to have you sent up for treason. What’s wrong with Margo Martindale?

                Incidentally, I like Amy Adams as Ann Marie. I like Amy Adams in just about anything, preferably something short and low-cut, so that’s not so much your peerless casting instinct as my shameless lust. 😉

  12. The FX Dortmunder project does seem to be dead, though a thorough excavation of everything written about it seems to indicate it was going to be a TV movie (The Hot Rock), and not necessarily a series. In any case, there hasn’t been a peep about it in nearly two years, so it’s likely been retired (with flowers).

    As for my question about The Travesty, I answered my own question. It was collected in Enough and you covered it back before I was commenting here. Did you ever see the TV movie?

    As far as a black Dortmunder, how about Donald Glover? Too young? That’s easily remedied, I’ve found.

    • Ah, you’ve been watching Atlanta too, I see.

      At some point, the rules of ethnic casting are going to have to be made consistent. Either no rules at all (the ideal), or you only switch races around if there’s a damn good reason. I hope this phase of “It’s racism to cast white actors as non-white characters and it’s racism if you don’t cast non-white actors as white characters!” is a passing thing. A period of adjustment, to make up for years of refusing to cast non-white actors as much of anything except comic relief. Statute of limitations has to run out at some point.

      But you know most of it is just about who gets paid. Image be damned. Are there any black children out there whose dreams will be crushed if they don’t get to see a black actor play one of literature’s most lovable losers? I greatly doubt it.

      But we can move past all that crap, and just be brothers and sisters of many hues, and each gets to play the role he or she was born to play.

      Yes we can.

      We mainly won’t, but you live for the little victories along the way, right?

  13. Anthony

    I suspect that Ann Marie may have been based on Amy Adams, so that’s all good.

    I will stand by Myrna Loy. Much of what you say is correct, but Myrna Loy could play May for the same reason that Barbara Billingsley spoke jive. Because it works.

    • Westlake would have been writing Ann Marie’s first scenes when Amy Adams was barely old enough to drink. She was on TV by then, but not in anything Westlake would be paying much attention to. And Ann Marie is clearly in her 30’s when she meets Andy, with a bad marriage behind her.

      We never get much of a physical description, but I’d say Ann Marie is tall, slender, dark-haired, aware of her effect on men, but not entirely comfortable with it, at least at first. A nice girl with baggage, whose passions take time to ignite. She seems like butter wouldn’t melt, but she can surprise you, and she has hidden talents. I’d go with Loretta Young. She hasn’t been getting much work lately, for some reason.

      We should all stand by Myrna Loy, who would have made a lovely Kate, had they done that Mitch Tobin film with Mitchum. They never worked together, did they? Well, she was over ten years older than him, but I don’t think Mitchum would have objected. Nobody ever objected, far as I know.

      • You’re describing Alison Brie.

        • Who will probably be lunching with Loretta before we get even a semi-faithful adaptation of the Dortmunder books, in any medium.

          Hey, how about a Dortmunder radio show? Just have a narrator (I vote for Will Lyman, in full Frontline mode) read the third person stuff, and actors speak the dialogue. Okay, I guess that would basically just be a more expensive book on tape.

          I don’t think Ann Marie has anything to complain about regarding Ana Gasteyer (the Ann Marie in the movie), who is talented, cute, and funny, and could not possibly be more wrong for the character. The writers were not the least bit interested in the character from the book. I don’t know why they even included her. I don’t see the point. The screenwriter’s previous IMDb credit is Color of Night, and I understood the point of that film quite well, which was to to show Bruce Willis and Jane March in flagrante delicto, and come up with some neo-noirish pseudo-Freudian nonsense to make it artistic, and therefore not porn (it’s damn good porn).

          Consider me shocked if we ever see any other version of Anne Marie Karpinow, ever.

  14. mikesschilling

    Greg Kinnear is the ideal Kelp, or was when he was younger.

    • He’s handsome, though. Yeah, Kelp has to have something going on, or he’d never have gotten Anne Marie, but then again, we’ve all seen ordinary schmoes with good-looking women, and maybe we’ve even been those schmoes once or twice. If Kelp looks like Greg Kinnear, he doesn’t need to scheme and schmooze the way he does to get a woman. We have to believe he’s making it on charm and nerve alone.

      Kinnear could understand the character, maybe, but he’d be to Kelp what Redford was to Dortmunder. Too much.

      I still like Mark Feuerstein, who fits the description, and is plausibly appealing without being movie star handsome–but maybe that’s just because he played a doctor on TV. An implicit joke. Every time he said “I trust doctors” you’d crack up.

  15. John O'Leary

    I saw Tiny on TV the other night. Antonio de la Cruz is an actor from the Canary Islands and is huge. I mean at least a foot and a half taller than anyone else on the screen. Not sure if he speaks English though.

    • I’d love to see a Spanish language version of Dortmunder–a Spanish filmmaker and cast might capture aspects of the books that Hollywood has never even touched. The Spanish loved Buster Keaton, called him ‘Zero,’ long before anyone heard of Zero Mostel. It’s so important to play Westlake’s comedy straight, without winking at the camera.

      But even though Tiny is of fairly recent immigrant stock, he says specifically “I was born in this country.” Judging by the sounds emanating from the area of the bar, when he enters the back room, it’s probably not a good idea to suggest otherwise.

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