Category Archives: John Dortmunder novels

Review: What’s The Worst That Could Happen?, Part 2

“The thing is,” Andy explained, “when I feel I need a car, good transportation, something very special, I look for a vehicle with MD plates.  This is one place where you can trust doctors.  They understand discomfort, and they understand comfort, and they got the money to back up their opinions.  Trust me, when I bring you a car, it’ll be just what the doctor ordered, and I mean that exactly the way it sounds.

Looking dazed, Anne Marie said, “You people are going to take a little getting used to.”

“What I do,” May told her, sympathetically, “is pretend I’m on a bus going down a hill and the steering broke.  And also the brakes.  So there’s nothing to do but just look at the scenery and enjoy the ride.”

Anne Marie considered this.  She said, “What happens when you get to the bottom of the hill?”

“I don’t know,” May said.  “We didn’t get there yet.”

It wasn’t a car that came for Max forty minutes later, it was a fleet of cars, all of them large, all except his own limo packed with cargos of large men.  He couldn’t have had more of a parade if he were the president of the United States, going out to return a library book.

His own limo, when it stopped at the foot of the steps from the TUI plane, held only Earl Radburn and the driver.  Earl emerged, to wait at the side of the car, while half a dozen bulky men came up to escort Max down those steps, so that he corrected that image: No, not like a president, more like a serial killer on his way to trial.

The president image had been better.

It came up in the comments section last time, and bears mentioning here–this novel marks the total reversal of the original Dortmunder/Kelp dynamic.  In the first three novels, Kelp brought Dortmunder a crazy-sounding job, the job would go sour, and Dortmunder would blame Kelp, call him a jinx.  Then work with him again in the next book.

This couldn’t go on indefinitely, so in the next five novels, somebody else brought Dortmunder the job, or, in the case of Why Me?, the job was a simple one-man burglary that suddenly got very complicated.    Kelp might be help or hindrance, usually both.

This book starts with somebody bringing Dortmunder a job; a simple two-man burglary, that suddenly gets really complicated.  The billionaire Dortmunder is ostensibly robbing robs Dortmunder instead.  Takes a supposedly lucky ring May gave him right off his finger.  Humiliates him.  Dortmunder wants his lucky ring back.  He needs help.  He has to track down this billionaire and take that ring off his finger personally, to undo the insult.  It’s about self-respect, not money.

So he calls Kelp in, and Andy is atypically hesitant–this job sounds crazy!   Dortmunder has to sell him, and in the end it’s not loyalty that makes him agree–it’s that Dortmunder, who has been the real jinx all along, is suddenly himself a good luck charm.  Now that he doesn’t have the ring.  Now that he could care less about money, he’s making money hand over fist.  Everybody wants to work with him now.  He’s got the Midas Touch.

First he went back to Max Fairbanks’ house in Carrport LI, and pillaged it, all by himself. Then he got together a four man string to hit an apartment in a theater/hotel complex Fairbanks owns.  Everybody made out great from that score.  But both times he missed Fairbanks, and Fairbanks is wearing the ring, never takes it off, because it bears his corporate symbol, the I-Ching trigam Tui, and he believes it will bring him good luck (which he’s already enjoyed an obscene amount of). Dortmunder has to catch him offguard somewhere. And the guy has to testify before congress, so he’s going to be staying at a little place he’s got in the Watergate.  Because where else, right?

Dortmunder and Kelp should be able to handle that gig by themselves, but they don’t know Washington.  Affordable GPS devices are not a thing yet, even for Kelp.  They need a guide.  Fortunately, Kelp just hooked up with the very recently single Anne Marie Carpinaw, daughter of a 14-term Kansas congressman, abandoned by her husband at the Fairbanks hotel in Times Square.  She knows our nation’s capital like the back of her lovely hand.  And is ambivalent about it, as she seems to be about nearly everything in her life, Kelp included.  Well, when you get right down to it, everybody is ambivalent about that town. Though it can seem awfully stuck on itself.

“The George Washington Memorial Parkway?   They really lean on it around here, don’t they?”

“After a while, you don’t notice it,” Anne Marie assured him.  “But it is a little, I admit, like living on a float in a Fourth of July parade.  Here’s our turn.”

There was a lot of traffic; this being Sunday, it was mostly tourist traffic, license plates from all over the United States, attached to cars that didn’t know where the hell they were going.  Andy swivel-hipped through it all, startling drivers who were trying to read maps without changing lanes, and Anne Marie said, “Now you want the Francis Scott Key Bridge.”

“You’re putting me on.”

“No, I’m not.  There’s the sign, see?”

Andy swung up and over, and there they were crossing the Potomac again, this time northbound, the city of Washington spread out in front of them like an almost life-sized model of itself, as though it were still in the planning stages and they could still decide not to go through with it.

Basically this entire chapter seems to exist for the purposes of telling people who want to visit our nation’s capital that they really do not want to drive there, but Anne Marie gets them through the urban maze unscathed.  The stolen car with MD plates having been abandoned, John and Andy still have to scope out the Watergate complex, while May and Anne Marie (who get along great from the start) go shopping and sight-seeing, but in fact they do a better job casing the joint as well–join a group of prospective renters touring the apartment complex, find out everything the guys needed to know.

And turns out the joint is empty when they break in (this isn’t a residence, just a place to crash when Max is in lobbyist mode, so no valuable art to steal).  They set up camp there and wait.  Dortmunder is disgusted.  Andy is somewhat more enthused, because there’s fifty thousand dollars in bribes, I mean PAC money, waiting there for a Fairbanks aide to take it to various recipients, as they learn from the answering machine message the underling left, referring to the ‘PAC Packs.”  Possibly to be put in a Fed-Ex PAK.  Dortmunder is irritated by all the variant spellings of ‘pack’ (as his creator would have been).  Andy is just delighted to see this unexpected dividend.  And horrified when John doesn’t want to take it.

See, Dortmunder figures Fairbanks has to show up at some point, but this employee is going to show up for the cash, and if he doesn’t find it, he might call the cops, and he’ll certainly call Fairbanks.  John is adamant–if it screws up his getting the ring back, they can forget about the Fifty G’s.

Kelp’s agile mind searches feverishly for a work-around, and he says they’ll leave a note saying Fairbanks’ secretary took it for distribution.  Dortmunder grudgingly agrees, and they leave with the money, figuring they’ll come back later for Fairbanks and the ring.

(Anne Marie is doubled over with laughter when she hears about this–“At last,” she said, when she could say anything again, “the trickle-down theory begins to work.” )

But before they can go back to the apartment to try again for the ring, Wally Knurr calls, saying that Fairbanks won’t be staying at the Watergate apartment after all, and that his location will no longer be made known to his corporate empire at large–so Wally won’t be able to track him via the internet anymore. What gives here?  Well, Mr. Fairbanks, staying at his beachfront condo in Hilton Head, has been consulting The Book, as he calls it.  And the ancient wisdom of the Orient is urging caution.

                                            The Image
Thunder in the middle of the lake:
The image of FOLLOWING.
Thus the superior man at nightfall
Goes indoors for rest and recreation

Hmmm.  The Book often spoke of the superior man, and Max naturally assumed it was always referring to himself.  When it said the superior man takes heed, Max would take heed.   When it said the superior man moves forward boldly, Max would move forward boldly.  But now the superior man goes indoors?  At nightfall?  It was nightfall, and he was indoors.

(At this moment in time, unbeknownst to Max, Dortmunder was breaking into his apartment at the Watergate for rest and remuneration, which for him amounts to the same thing.)

He probes further into the text, which is suggesting that someone is following him.  Could it be the annoying Detective Klematsky, who suspects him of burgling his own residences for the insurance?  He needs more information, so he does another coin toss, this one leading to a hexagram–The Marrying Maiden. Max doesn’t like that one.  He strives for the proper interpretation, and suddenly it comes to him–the ring!   That burglar is coming for his ring!

And Max is as perversely determined to keep the ring as Dortmunder is to regain it.  So this is why he never came to the Watergate apartment as planned, and this is why he’s made his movements a secret, even to most of his employees.  But there’s one trip he can’t conceal–he needs to go to his casino in Las Vegas.  And it occurs to him that this thief will make a try for the ring there–so he can set a trap.  He shall yet prove he, Max Fairbanks, is the superior man, not this bilious brigand!

So Max heads for Vegas, making the needed arrangements with his security staff to nab Dortmunder in the act of lèse-majesté.  While Dortmunder begins to put together a string for what will prove to be his biggest and best heist ever.

In the meantime, Andy Kelp has one of his little tete-a-tetes with his friend Detective Klematsky at a New York restaurant, a New Orleans themed eatery this time.  And weirdly, this time Klematsky is buying.  Because he’s the one that needs information.  He wants to know if his old friend Kelp has heard about any people in his profession doing fake burglaries as part of an insurance fraud scam.

He knows that Andy’s eyes blink rapidly when he tells a lie.  What he doesn’t know is that Andy can do that on purpose too.  So Andy tells him he never heard about anything like that, his eyes blinking furiously all the while.  Telling Klematsky exactly what he wants to hear, while pretending to do nothing of the sort.  Like Alan Grofield (the Stark version of that character), Andy Kelp can even lie with the truth.  And confirmed in his suspicions, Bernard Klematsky, who finds insurance fraud particularly offensive, is now determined to arrest Max Fairbanks for one of the very few white collar crimes Max Fairbanks is not guilty of.

And as Dortmunder enters the O.J. Bar and Grill, we get another scintillating discussion relating to issues of the day, while Rollo the bartender attempts to put up a new neon beer sign.

“It’s a code,” the first regular was saying.  “It’s a code and only the cash registers can read it.”

“Why is it in code?” the second regular asked him.  “The Code War’s over.”

A third regular now hove about and steamed into the conversation, saying “What?  The Code War?  It’s not the Code War, where ya been?  It’s the Cold War.”

The second regular was serene with certainty.  “Code,” he said,  “It was the Code War because they used all those codes to keep the secrets from each other.”  With a little pitying chuckle, he said “Cold War.  Why would anybody call a war cold?”

The third regular, just as certain but less serene, said, “Anybody’s been awake the last hundred years knows, it was the Cold War because it’s always winter in Russia.”

The second regular chuckled again, an irritating sound.  “Then how come,” he said, “they eat salad?”

The third regular, derailed, frowned at the second regular and said, “Salad?”

With Russian dressing.”

After a while, they start arguing about what the code is called–zip?–civic?–Morse? Rollo the bartender tries telling them it’s called a bar code, and is accused of having a one-track mind.  And you have seen far weirder and more uninformed conversations than this happening online, probably participated in a few, and there wasn’t any beer being served during them.  Think you’re so smart. Hmph.

Dortmunder is not kidding around with this job.  He’s calling in the heavy artillery.  If you know of anything heavier, all I can say is, I surrender.   This cannon already settled the argument up front by demonstrating a cold cure that involves squeezing all the bad air out of a person.

Kelp continued to hold the door open, and in came a medium range intercontinental ballistic missile with legs.  Also arms, about the shape of fire hydrants, but longer, and a head, about the shape of a fire hydrant.  This creature, in a voice that sounded as thought it had started from the center of the earth several centuries ago and just now got here, said, “Hello, Dortmunder.”

“Hello, Tiny,” Dortmunder said.  “What did you do to Rollo’s customers?”

“They’ll be all right,” Tiny said, coming around the table to take Kelp’s place.  “Soon as they catch their breath.”

“Where did you toss it?” Dortmunder asked.

Tiny, whose full name was Tiny Bulcher and whose strength was as the strength of ten even though his heart in fact was anything but pure, settled himself in Kelp’s former chair and laughed and whomped Dortmunder on the shoulder.  Having expected it, Dortmunder had already braced himself against the table, so it wasn’t too bad.”  “Dortmunder,” Tiny said, “you make me laugh.”

“I’m glad,” Dortmunder said.

Tiny is even more amused to hear Dortmunder’s plan–to rob an entire casino.   Knowing in advance that Fairbanks will be setting a trap for all of them.  Vegas is a hard target at the best of times. But casinos are one of the few places left in this modern electronic world that have a whole lot of untraceable cash on hand.  And in the midst of yukking it up over Dortmunder’s recent professional embarrassment, he’s been hearing about all these amazing scores that follows it. He’s listening.

So are Stan Murch and Ralph Winslow–the latter a lockman who is known for always having a glass full of liquor and ice cubes in one hand.  A string of five is usually as big as Dortmunder wants to get–he likes to say that if a job can’t be pulled with five guys, it’s not worth pulling.  But this is no ordinary job, and will require no ordinary string.  And it will require a plan.  Which falls on him.

“You must have an idea,” Andy Kelp had said at one point, for instance, but that was the whole problem.  Of course he had an idea.  He had a whole lot of ideas, but a whole lot of ideas isn’t a plan.  A plan is a bunch of details that mesh with one another, so you go from this step to this step like crossing a stream on a lot of little boulders sticking out and never fall in. Ideas without a plan is usually just enough boulders to get you into the deep part of the stream, and no way to get back.

Westlake had Kelp say something like this in Drowned Hopes, and clearly he’s talking about more than heists here.  A novel, you might say, is a bunch of details that mesh with one another, right?  Westlake liked to write from what he called the ‘push’ method of narrative storytelling, where he would start with some basic ideas, and then push forward into the story, working things out as he went, listening to the characters, minding the terrain.  Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.  Fact is, a plan worked out perfectly in advance of a job is one of those things God loves to laugh at (along with Dortmunder).

He can’t work it all out without going there and seeing the lay of the land. Knowing who he’s working with, what tools he has in the kit.  And the string keeps growing by leaps and bounds, as more and more old associates, many of whom have not been seen in some time, volunteer for this Vegas casino heist. You might say they’re an all-star cast.  Or you could come up with some ruder term.  Something rodentine, perhaps?


Let’s lay it out.  Planner: John Dortmunder.  Drivers: Stan Murch and Fred Lartz (and his wife Thelma, who does all the actual driving in the Lartz family these days).  Lockmen: Ralph Winslow, Wally Whistler, and Herman X (who is now just Herman Jones, after doing a stint as Herman Makanene Stulu’mbnick in Africa, and being a Jones must make life much simpler for a thief, all things considered).  Utility infielders: Andy Kelp, Tiny Bulcher, Gus Brock, Ralph Demrovsky, and the frequently unfortunate Jim O’Hara (but not this time, baby).

That’s either twelve or thirteen (depending on whether you count Anne Marie, along for the ride, much to Andy’s consternation), and we’ve seen Westlake put on this kind of passion play before, in The Score, and Butcher’s Moon–one more indication that a long-buried alter-ego is stirring within him–but there’s also seven unnamed associates in the string, for a grand total of twenty.  Even Parker never had a string that big.  Or a target this well-guarded.

Most of them come down from New York with Andy and Tiny, in a purloined mobile home, an Invidia, and of course Westlake made that name up, along with a bunch of other fictional mobile homes they considered at a dealership in New Jersey, before deciding this was the one they wanted to steal.  There were Dobermans guarding the dealership, but they got some nice raw hamburger with happy pills inside, and went happily to sleep, dreaming of rabbits.  Cute.

But all this time, Dortmunder has been checking out the scene in Vegas (with Kelp, who then heads back to New York to round up some needed items, as mentioned).  And everybody who sees Dortmunder figures he’s up to something, which of course he is, and they’re all telling him forget about it.  Vegas is a burial ground for guys with big plans.  He keeps insisting he’s just a tourist, here to see the sights, try his luck.  “Uh-huh” they keep saying–the waitresses, the motel clerk, everybody.  He just does not look like the sight-seeing type, and the only gambling establishment he’d fit in at would be a racetrack.

The security men spotted him as a ringer almost immediately when he showed up at the casino, but Kelp got him some new clothes.  Which are very definitely going to stay in Vegas when he goes.

The pants, to begin with, weren’t pants, they were shorts.  Shorts.  Who over the age of six wears shorts?  What person, that is, of Dortmunder’s dignity, over the age of six wears shorts?  Big baggy tan shorts with pleats.  Shorts with pleats so that he looked like he was wearing brown paper bags from the supermarket above his knees, with his own sensible black socks below the knees, but the socks and their accompanying feet were then stuck into sandals.  Sandals?  Dark brown sandals?  Big clumpy sandals with his own black socks, plus those knees, plus those shorts?  Is this a way to dress?

And let’s not forget the shirt.  Not that it was likely anybody could ever forget this shirt, which looked as thought it had been manufactured at midnight during a power outage.  No two pieces of the shirt were the same color.  The left short sleeve was plum, the right was lime.  The back was dark blue.  The left front panel was chartreuse, the right was cerise, and the pocket directly over his heart was white.  And the whole shirt was huge, baggy and draping and falling around his body, and worn outside the despicable shorts.

Dortmunder lifted his gaze from his reproachful knees, and contemplated, without love, the clothing Andy Kelp had forced him into.  He said “Who wears this stuff?”

“Americans,” Kelp told him.

“Don’t they have mirrors in America?”

And it works.  The same security guys who started tailing him the moment he showed his face don’t give him a second look in this get-up.  Just another rube contributing to their payroll (as opposed to stealing it).  The motel clerk, who has seen them all come and go, just says “Uh-huh.”  She may be impressed, but she’d never admit it.

Dortmunder’s plan is starting to come together in his head now.  He’s made contact with a   former New Yorker, a former heist-man running a perfectly legitimate shady business operation manufacturing cheap knock-offs of famous brands of this or that, fellow named Lester Vogel.  He’s quite happy to provide needed materials for the job.  Just delighted to hear a New York accent again, accompanied by New York rudeness.  A bit confused as to why Dortmunder is expressing interest in tanks of various gases he has on the premises.

And staying at the hotel that goes with the casino, Anne Marie Carpinaw is wondering what the hell she’s doing here, and so is Andy, and yet they do seem to enjoy each other’s company, and quite a lot of sex seems to be going on, though this being a Dortmunder novel, it is only vaguely alluded to in passing. At one point, in her room, she says she’s not sure they belong together, but then he asks her if this is a good time to bring that up, and she says “Well, maybe not.” Not such an unusual conversation for a new couple to have.

She is, however, going to some pains to make sure she doesn’t get rounded up with the rest of the gang if the heist goes sour.  She watches a lot of Court TV. Actually appearing on it doesn’t appeal to her.

So all the players have been assembled in one place–even Detective Bernard Klematsky is on his way to Vegas.  And little hearkening to any of these impending events, other than his imminent capture and final defeat of that pilfering plebe who should learn to know his place, Max Fairbanks waits at a guest cottage on the casino grounds, his security men instructed to not stay too close to him, so as not to scare Dortmunder away.  They are not happy about this, but he’s the boss.

He’s also got to deal with the manager of the Gaiety Hotel, Battle Lake, and Casino, Brandon Camberbridge, a happily closeted gay man, with a wife who happily cheats on him with various non-gay men, a dowdy older secretary who happily serves as a surrogate mother, and he loves his job as much as anyone has ever loved any job in the history of work.  And in the course of his conversations with Brandon, Max realizes that this guy actually thinks of Max’s casino as being his casino, and makes a mental note to transfer him elsewhere.  Doesn’t pay to let his employees ever forget they are just employees.  Only one person actually matters, and that is Max Fairbanks.

Um, yes–the Battle Lake.  Las Vegas was, by this time, getting to be more and more about putting on a show for the tourists, and less and less about honest gambling.  A theme park with slot machines.  The Battle Lake is an artificially created body of water upon which remote controlled full-sized replicas of various warships do ersatz battle with each other, for the edification of the masses.  It sounds a bit more Disney than Vegas, but I guess that’s the point–that and the fact that the Tui symbol on that ring Max is defending, and Dortmunder is seeking, means Joyous Lake, and Max’s recent I-Ching readings have been referring obliquely to a lake, and intimating that less than joyous developments are in the offing.

He tries once more to divine his future through the coin toss, and the passages they lead him to, and here’s the thing–it’s pretty clear that in this story, the I-Ching really does work.  But convinced as he is that he is a Man of Destiny, Max is doomed to keep projecting what he wants to see onto the auguries of The Book.  “When one has something to say, it is not believed.”  (And would you believe that every single I-Ching quote in this novel is 100% real?)

He comes very quietly, oppressed, in a golden carriage.
Humiliation, but the end is reached.

Well, wait now.  Who comes very quietly in a golden carriage?  The plane that had brought Max here, he supposed that could possibly be thought of as a golden carriage.  But had he been oppressed?

Well, yes, actually he had been, in that he was still oppressed by the thought of the burglar out there, prowling after him.   So that’s what it must mean.

It couldn’t very well be the burglar in a golden carriage, could it? What would a burglar be doing in a golden carriage?

Again, Max went to the further commentaries in the back part of The Book, where he read,

“He comes very quietly,”: his will is directed downward.  Though the place is not appropriate, he nevertheless has companions.

I have companions.  I have Earl Rayburn, and Wylie Branch and all those bulky security men.  I have the hotel staff.  I have thousands and thousands of employees at my beck and call.  The place is not appropriate because a person in my position shouldn’t have to stoop to deal personally with such a gnat as this, that’s all it means.

And that’s why there’s humiliation in it, the humiliation of having to deal with this gnat myself.  But the end is reached.  That’s the point.

Come on, Mr. Burglar.  My companions and I are waiting for you, in our golden carriage.  The end is about to be reached.  And who do you have, to accompany you?

Oh, he really should not have asked that question.   And the Invidia has actually been painted silver, but that’s such a niggling little detail.

Stan Murch, Jim O’Hara, Gus Brock, and the one and only Tiny Bulcher start off the caper.  Stan and Jim pose as deliverymen bringing more oxygen tanks for the casino to ‘enrich’ the air inside the casino, encouraging people to stay up later,and lose more money.  The tanks are green, from Lester Vogel’s establishment, but what’s inside them is nitrous oxide–laughing gas.

And with a bit of not-too-gentle prodding from Stan, Jim, Gus, and most of all Tiny, the guards prove quite willing to show them just where those tanks need to go.  This is an upsetting and painful experience for the guards, as it would be for anyone, but they start to relax shortly afterwards.  These are considerate robbers, who bring their own anesthetic.

There’s some nice scenes with Herman, posing as one of Max’s employees from Housekeeping, marching right into Max’s guest cottage on the pretense of needing to clean up, Uncle-Tomming his way around Max and the guards (unable to process the notion that Dortmunder might have a black associate, or any associate)–laughing at them on the inside.  (And wouldn’t Sammy have been just perfect to play Herman, back in the day?   This is Vegas, I hardly need say which Sammy I mean.)

Herman is done playing around with politics, foreign or domestic.  He’s just a straight heister now (well, presumably still bisexual, you know what I meant). He’s going to let his profession know he’s back, black, and better than ever.  And I still think Westlake should have given him his own novel, but a bit late now.

So they do the heist.  That’s not really important to Dortmunder.   Much as these guys may be his friends, they’re still professionals, independents.  Nobody’s errand boys.  He needed to give them a reason to stick their necks out this far, and money usually works.  He’s not leading them–he gave them a plan, and they ran with it.  And now the rest is up to him.  He wants that ring.

He waits until the string is ready to leave with the loot (two million–more than Parker ever got by a long shot), then he calls the cops, and reports a robbery. And all holy hell breaks loose.

Klematsky picks this moment to try and arrest Fairbanks–he assumes this casino heist is just another insurance scam–Max’s local security man is disgustedly assuming the same thing–explains Max’s odd behavior–he was working with the heisters.

Max, unable to process that he, not Dortmunder, is being arrested, lams it out onto the grounds, as the Battle Lake catches fire, and bits of burning artificial shrubbery are flying everywhere.  All he can think now is that he needs lawyers, lots and lots of lawyers.  But first he needs someone to get him out of this inferno.  A helpful fireman in a smoke mask offers his services.  Guess who.

“Give me that ring!”

“No!” You’ve ruined everything, you’ve destroyed–”

“Give me the ring!”


Max, inflamed by the injustice of it all, leaped on the false fireman and drove him to the blacktop.  They rolled together there, the false fireman trying to get the ring, Max trying to rip that mask off so he could bite the fellow’s face, and Max wound up on top.

Straddling him.  Winning, on top, as he always was, as he always would be. Because I am Max Fairbanks, and I will not be beaten, not be beaten.

You didn’t expect this, did you, Mr. Burglar?  You didn’t expect me to be on top, did you, holding you down with my knees, ready now to give you what you deserve, kill you with my bare hands, rip this mask–

And at this point, wouldn’t you know, up runs the normally mild-mannered Brandon Camberbridge, in the grip of a berserker rage.  He must have heard about how Fairbanks set up the robbery.  His beautiful hotel.  Ruined.  Pillaged. Ravished.  He beats the bullshit out of Max, as so many other of his employees must have yearned to do across the years.  And as Max lies there, defeated, barely conscious, Dortmunder, back on his feet, calmly reaches down, takes his ring right off Max’s finger.  And that’s game.

As the book concludes, we learn that the insurance fraud charges didn’t stick (because they weren’t true), but in the process of being closely investigated, all this other stuff Max had gotten up to started coming to light.  His business, like his life, not to mention his character, could not hold up to close scrutiny.  Hey, I didn’t say anything, it’s just a fun crime novel.

So what was it all about?  How was this about identity?  Sure, we got Anne Marie Carpinaw’s crisis, going from unhappy wife to oddly entertained heister’s moll, and she and Andy will, against all odds, somehow stay together the rest of the series, and I don’t really care.

And we got Andy Kelp himself finding a new side to his identity; more stable, effective, reliable, amorous–but still crookeder than Lombard Street in San Francisco.   And we got Herman X/Jones, back from Africa, recommitting to life on the bend, having found that thieves are often more trustworthy than politicians in a developing nation (or any nation). And we got the confused identity of Brandon Camberbridge, the lackey who thinks he’s the boss, to amuse us, and serve as a convenient plot device for the climax.

And this is all entertaining enough, adds to the general fabric of the story, but none of it really matters.  This was about John Dortmunder vs. Max Fairbanks.   Who was the ‘Superior Man’ referred to in the I-Ching?   Who is the Superior Being in any clash of personalities?   If you’re Donald Westlake, you’d say it’s the one who knows himself.  (Or herself.)

Dortmunder could never, ever, if he lived to be a hundred, think of himself as superior to anyone.  The word isn’t even in his vocabulary.   He’s been a sad sack and a loser all his life, born under an unlucky star, cursed to be Fortune’s Fool, and he doesn’t kid himself about that.  But he knows who he is, and he knows what he’s capable of.   Never overestimating himself, he can rise to the occasion when destiny calls.  However, he doesn’t waste his time trying to know the future.  Not his department.

He tells May he’s not superstitious (while she rolls her eyes a little and says nothing), but he thinks now that ring isn’t lucky after all–he’s not going to wear it again.  All its luck must have been used up by her uncle, and now it’s a  jinx–losing it meant good luck for him, bad for Max Fairbanks.  That’s his explanation for what happened, for how one of the unluckiest guys alive turned the tables on Scrooge McDuck crossed with Gladstone Gander (the Beagle Boys always go to jail in the comic books).

But really, it was more about Max.   Max may have started out knowing himself, after a fashion–knowing he was a scoundrel and a liar, knowing that nobody mattered to him but him.  And that’s fine, I suppose, in its place–as long as you don’t start taking yourself too seriously.  If there’s anything more deadly to an honest unflinching sense of self than being filthy goddam rich, it’s delusions of grandeur–and the two so often go together, you ever notice that?

The oppressed of the world (some of us vastly more oppressed than others) can’t afford delusions of grandeur.  We’re too busy trying to survive.  And now and again we do come across a Max Fairbanks. And now and again, we do manage, against all odds, to give him  one in the eye.

But most of us don’t know ourselves as well as John Dortmunder, it must be said.  The Max Fairbanks’s of the world and their delusions can be damnably persuasive.  They play on our vanities, as we tickle theirs.  So sure, why not take a preening narcissist, an ego in search of a human being, a megalomaniac who can never have enough power, a seething mass of resentment, misogyny, racism, petty tyranny, and rage, and make him the most powerful man on earth?  With nuclear weapons to boot.  What’s the worst that could happen?

The thing about Dortmunder is, he’s not a killer.  But the ‘hero’ of our next book learns, to his amazement, horror, and disturbed satisfaction, that he’s a damned efficient killer.  And he can’t afford to indulge his newfound gift on personal vendettas.  He’s got to use it for job-hunting.  And I’ll have to write a little intro to this one, before I get to reviewing it. And I’ll do that. After I bury my father. Not a metaphor.

Hey, the Ax falls on all of us, sooner or later.   That is a metaphor.  I hope.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: What’s The Worst That Could Happen?

“Max Fairbanks,” Max Fairbanks said, “you’re a bad boy.” The milky blue eyes that gazed softly back at him in the bathroom mirror were understanding, sympathetic, even humorous; they forgave the bad boy.

“Well, I’m not gonna chase him around London and Africa, that’s for sure,” Dortmunder said.  “I can wait till he comes back this way.  Washington isn’t so far, where’s he stay in Washington?  Got another house there?”

“An apartment,” Wally said.  “In the Watergate.”

“I’ve heard of that,” Dortmunder said.  “It’s some kinda place.”

Wally and Andy looked at one another.  “He’s heard of it,” Andy said.

Wally said to Dortmunder, “It’s a great big building over by the Potomac river.  It’s partly offices and partly hotel and partly apartments.”

“Apartments are harder,” Dortmunder said.  “Doormen, probably.  Neighbors.  Could be live-in help there, a guy like that.”

Grinning, Andy said, “John?  You planning a burglary at the Watergate?”

“I’m planning to get my ring back,” Dortmunder told him, “if that’s what you mean.”

Andy still had that crooked little grin.  “No big deal,” he suggested.  “Just a little third-rate burglary at the Watergate.”

Dortmunder shrugged.  “Yeah?  So?  What’s the worst that could happen?”

“Well,” Andy said, “you could lose the Presidency.”

I’ve read every Dortmunder novel, but none of them more than once before I started this blog.  I liked the first three best, a reaction confirmed by rereading and reviewing.  Since then, it’s been a bit of a roller-coaster ride, up and down and back up again.  I love them all, but love is blind.  A critic shouldn’t be.

The Dortmunder series isn’t really about crafting perfect stories, anyway.  It’s about renewing our acquaintance with these likable rogues, keeping in touch with them across the decades, seeing how they react to social change, how they adapt to it, and how they stay the same, in spite of everything.  If now and again a genuinely terrific book crops up, something that’s brilliant in its own right, not merely as an extension of the overall franchise, that’s just gravy.

This may be the last of those anomalies.  The last genuinely great Dortmunder novel.  I won’t be able to make my final determination on that score for a while yet.  Maybe the very last one also qualifies.  But I’m so glad we’re at this one.  It’s one of my favorites.  And more timely at the moment than even Westlake could have ever imagined.   Though he might not have been that surprised.  When you’ve studied and chronicled human absurdity as long and avidly as he did, nothing really shocks you anymore.

Starting with the fourth book in the series, struggling to find a way to keep this lucrative sideline of his going, Westlake began to experiment with making Dortmunder’s nemesis in the story a wealthy man–in that instance, an art collector/playboy, living off the wealth of industrious forebears, and at the very edge of his means.  Things don’t end well for him, but it’s only indirectly through Dortmunder’s actions that he is laid low.  Dortmunder is just trying to survive, as usual.  It’s one of the weakest Dortmunders.  Back to the old drawing board.

Cutting ahead to the sixth novel, Good Behavior, the villain of the piece is a billionaire tycoon, head of a multi-national corporation, a modern-day robber baron and part-time philosopher, out to dominate South America, and then maybe the northern part as well.  No playboy, he.  Very much along the lines of the Koch Brothers, not that Westlake was thinking about them at the time.  Dortmunder isn’t out to thwart this pontificating potentate in any way, he’s just obligated to rescue the man’s daughter from the penthouse prison he’s confined her in for becoming a nun, so she can resume the cloistered life she’s chosen for herself.

But again, through the strange alchemy of his being, unwitting chaos-bringer that he is, Dortmunder undoes this schemer’s grand plans, leaves him vulnerable to the law he thought he stood safely above, so that by the end of the story he’ll be lucky just to stay out of  jail, let alone indulge his neo-feudalist fantasies. And I love that book even more than this one, but they never really have a satisfactory confrontation (since this guy is so sure of himself he could never see someone like Dortmunder as a threat).  There’s room for improvement to that aspect of the story.

And once more skipping a book in the series (Drowned Hopes is about a lot of things, but rich pricks isn’t one of them), Westlake returned to the theme in Don’t Ask–but less satisfactorily than ever.  Here the rich man is an international hotelier, looking to establish himself in eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.  He’s happily married, a bit of an art collector himself, and he’s not so much a villain as a tunnel-visioned tool.  He’s not even Dortmunder’s primary target.

But because he enabled Dortmunder’s true nemesis, an unscrupulous diplomat, to make a fool of Dortmunder, he also finds himself on the receiving end of a grand vendetta, and a plan so ridiculously convoluted that it’s hard to buy into.  I went into this in some detail in my review of that novel, which I found much less satisfactory on the second reading.  It’s too many mismatching ideas crammed between two covers.  Westlake doesn’t invest enough time in the billionaire to make him a very believable character.  And his real-life models–Helmsley, Hilton, etc–aren’t suitable for this kind of story.   They aren’t scurrilous enough.  You need someone truly scurrilous, someone who richly deserves to suffer Dortmunder’s wrath.  And what’s more, he needs to enjoy being scurrilous.

And Dortmunder needs to be better motivated.  Motivating the vendetta was so important to Westlake that he dismissed one of the best Parker novels, The Jugger, because he felt he hadn’t gotten that one thing right.  Badly as Dortmunder was treated in Don’t Ask, it seems a bit much for him to want to revenge himself on a man he never met, who he knows was only tangentially involved in his disgrace.

So as I said in that review, Westlake probably came away from that one knowing he’d muffed it, feeling like he still hadn’t given this idea its best possible treatment, and maybe that’s why when it came time to write the ninth Dortmunder, he went right back to that well–but with a different bucket.  Well, maybe a composite of two different buckets–you see that photo up top.  You know who those men are.  You probably couldn’t pick 99.999% of the billionaires on this planet out of a line-up at the police station (though wouldn’t that be a fun day out?), but you know them.

And you also know that one of them (the poorer by far) is notoriously litigious.  The other has rather extensive media contacts, that extend to the publishing industry.  So perhaps it was prudent to give Max Fairbanks, the billionaire in this story, an origin that doesn’t closely resemble that of any famous rich person.  Though if you squint just right, you can still make out the general outlines.

As with so many self-made men, Max had begun by marrying money.  He wasn’t Max Fairbanks yet, not back then, the century in its fifties and he in his twenties, but he’d long since stopped being his original self.  Had there ever been loving parents who had given this child a name, their own plus another, no one by the 1950’s knew anything about them, including Max, who, having found himself in London, called himself Rupert, and soon made himself indispensable to a brewer’s daughter named Elsie Brenstid.  Brenstid père, named Clement for some reason, had found young Basil Rupert far more resistable than his daughter had, until Basil demonstrated just how the Big B Brewery’s company-owned pubs could be made to produce considerably more income with just the right applications of cajolery and terror.

The marriage lasted three years, producing twin girls and an extremely satisfactory divorce settlement for Basil, Elsie being by then ready to pay anything to get away from her husband.  Basil took this grubstake off to Australia, and by the time the ship landed he had somehow become a native Englishman called Edward Wizmick, from Devon.

Elements of Mr. Murdoch’s general bio (and his name) can certainly be discerned here, but with so many variations as to make it impossible to say it’s him, even though Max is described as having a media empire, newspapers, TV stations, etc.  None of which figure much in the story at all.  Nor does Max seem to have any interest in politics, other than bribing politicians to give him what he wants in terms of tax breaks and deregulatory measures.

At the time this story begins, the most salient fact about Max Fairbanks is that he just went through a rather bruising Chapter 11 proceeding, due to having overextended himself financially.  That and the fact that he owns hotels and casinos.  And that he’s a shameless philandering bastard, with utter contempt for women, and really for everyone.  And, it should be said, a genuine knack for self-promotion.  He’s as much a celebrity as anybody who performs at his casinos.  And perhaps this explains why the paperback reprint from Warner Books (A Time Warner Company) had this on the back of it.


Because, you know, obviously.

And to hammer the point home, while there were several possible models for Max Fairbanks, only one of them was named Donald, which would make him an even more irresistible target for Westlake.   The most famous rich SOB on earth, even if his billionaire status was largely a hollow public charade, a cardboard castle covered in gold paint.  And, leave us not forget, the one most likely to sue if he felt he’d been attacked in some way.

So yes, Max is a composite.  Yes, he’s a fictional character with his own unique quirks.  Yes, he is different from Trump in many key respects (most notably in that he was not born wealthy, and yet is clearly much richer and more powerful than the real Trump ever was).  Everybody knew who Westlake was really writing about here, who he was sending up.  But nobody could ever prove it.

Westlake had learned a lesson or two from his failed attempt to publish a book with a protagonist based so directly on Bob Hope that it couldn’t be anybody else.  Don’t make it too obvious–not while the guy is still alive, anyway.  Look at all the trouble Orson Welles got into, and poor Marion Davies didn’t deserve to be portrayed like that.   Don’t get too literal about it.  Just tell the damn story.  Let reality take care of itself.  And I think I’ll follow that advice myself now.

Dortmunder is doing a job on Long Island, in a rich sleepy little town called Carrport (yet another sly little reference to Comfort Station, a long out of print book published under a pseudonym that most of his readers had never even heard of) .  His partner in crime for this job, the guy who suggested it, is Gus Brock and it involves burgling the house of Max Fairbanks.  Which is supposed to be empty, because a court has ordered this Fairbanks guy not to go there until this Chapter 11 matter has been included.  “Is this a person or a book?” Dortmunder asks.

Gus explains that although Fairbanks is technically bankrupt now, he still has huge amounts of money, all kinds of fancy possessions, but he owes a lot of people more than he wants to pay, and this is his way of stiffing his creditors, all legal-like.  Dortmunder, baffled as ever by the wiles of white collar crime, concludes “Okay, it’s just one of those cute ways rich guys have to steal from everybody without having to pick locks.”  (Is it too late to draft him for President?  Oh well, he’d probably prefer prison.)

So a judge has told Max not to be in this house, the law says he is not supposed to be there, but Max doesn’t think the law applies to him, and there’s this blonde bubblehead Max wants to bed–she’s a centerfold model, but she has dreams of getting into TV news, so she’s receptive to his advances, and there they are in bed, and they hear the burglars downstairs, and Max has a gun.  And he certainly thinks the law applies to people who are robbing him.

He only manages to catch one of them, and we all know which one that is (Gus slips away undetected).  He holds a thoroughly disgusted Dortmunder at gunpoint until the local constabulary arrive.  And then, just before they take him away in cuffs, Max notices something on the fourth proximal digit of Dortmunder’s right hand.

It’s a cheaply made ring with a strange symbol on it, which Max recognizes as the I-Ching trigram Tui–meaning The Joyous Lake.  His own lucky sign, and the name of his company.  Max is a believer.   (And we’re going to get a lot of I-Ching mumbo-jumbo in this book, just like we got our fill of Astrology in A Jade in Aries.  Westlake probably didn’t believe in either sytem, but he believed in luck.  It’s a story. Go with it.)

The ring had been delivered to Dortmunder and May’s apartment days before.  It belonged to a late uncle of hers, a denizen of the race tracks.  It was, the lawyer’s enclosed note explains, his lucky ring.  He left it to May in his will, but it won’t fit her.  May makes a diplomatically worded suggestion to Dortmunder–

“Skill you’ve got,” she hastened to assure him.  “Adaptability you’ve got, professionalism you’ve got, good competent partners you’ve got. Luck you could use a little. Try it on.”

He does.  It fits perfectly.  And this is the kind of luck it gave him.  He’s going to  jail, probably for a long time, possibly for life.  But hey, them’s the breaks when you’re in his line of work. Can’t blame anybody for that.  Not until Max Fairbanks points at the ring and says it belongs to him.  This thief took it.  He must give it back, now.  The Carrport cops, knowing who Fairbanks is, insist Dortmunder take it off and hand it to the smugly smiling billionaire.  Enjoying his little joke so much.   Not knowing or caring who he’s playing it on.  Not comprehending the psychic chain reaction he has triggered.

Dortmunder was very very very angry.

To be arrested was one thing, to be convicted, sent to prison, given a record, made to wear ill-fitting denim, forced to live in close proximity to thoroughly undesirable citizens, listen to lectures, take shop, eat slop, all part of the same thing, all within the known and accepted risks of life.  But to be made fun of?  To be humiliated?  To be robbed…by a householder?

He was ready to go quietly, to accept his fate, but this he can never accept.  This is one practical joke too many.  Max Fairbanks must pay.  Dortmunder wants that ring back.  Inspired by his rage, he becomes the Houdini of Crime, using the zipper tab from his own trousers to unscrew the window of the locked patrol car, jumping through that window, hands still cuffed, making his getaway before the fat suburban fuzz can register what’s going on.

He avoids the ensuing dragnet.  He breaks into a hardware store, gets the cuffs off.  He goes back to the Fairbanks house and strips it of all major valuables (a substantial haul, that Gus Brock will get no split from).  He makes his way home in Max Fairbanks’ own Lexus.  He fences the loot for 28 grand.  When he dumps it on the kitchen table, he tells May he’s got some bad news–all he can see is that ring.   There is nothing else for him now.

And he begins to make his plans.  And doesn’t immediately process the fact that his perennially bad luck has somehow–changed.  For this book, at least, Dortmunder makes even Parker look like a second-rater.  That 28 g’s is nothing compared to what’s coming.

Kelp, like all of Dortmunder’s other frequent string members, finds the story of Dortmunder getting robbed by the guy he was going to rob hilarious.  But he is taken aback by the unusual degree of focused intensity he sees in his friend’s eyes–and he can smell a good thing a mile away.  Dortmunder scored big off this guy, and there’s more where that came from.

He calls up Wally Knurr, their computer nerd pal from Drowned Hopes, who has not changed a bit, except that now he lives in Dudson Corners with Myrtle Street and her mom. (We’re told Myrtle is his ‘lady friend’, and she is a lady, and I’m sure they are good friends, and please don’t try to tell me it goes any further than that.  This isn’t The Big Bang Theory.  Wally is still five feet tall and just as wide.  Jimmy Rushing would stand a better chance with Myrtle, and he died in 1972.)

Wally doesn’t want any part of a violent revenge scheme, but properly reassured that Dortmunder only wants what is rightfully his, he can easily track Fairbanks online by hacking into TUI’s corporate database.  Max moves around a lot, and therefore so does that ring.  So Dortmunder will need to be able to anticipate his movements in order to get him.

He’ll need some help to get at his nemesis–and as word of his big Carrport score gets around, everybody suddenly wants to work with him again.  And when he drops the stolen Lexus off at Maximilian’s Used Cars (where all the best car thieves go), he gets a much better deal from that Max than he ever got before.  Yes, something’s definitely different about Dortmunder.  And it’s not the anger anymore.

The real fury that had driven Dortmunder on the eventful night, that had fueled his brilliance and expertise in escaping from those cops, was gone now; you can’t stay white-hot mad at somebody forever, no matter what they did.  Between the stuff he’d sold to Stoon, and the unexpectedly large return on the car, he’d cleared almost thirty grand from his encounter with Max Fairbanks, which was probably about three thousand times what the ring was worth.  So did he really want to pursue this vendetta, chase down some jet-setting billionaire who,as Andy had pointed out, would usually be surrounded by all kinds of security?  Or was he ahead now, enough ahead to forget it, get on with his life?

He can’t let this go.  It’s not about getting mad, it’s about getting even, and he can’t do that until he’s got the ring back.  Until he’s undone what Fairbanks did to him.  It’s Dortmunder’s equivalent of that button in Parker’s head you never want to push, because he will just keep coming after you until he’s negated the insult, erased it.  Parker does that by killing whoever pushed the button.  Dortmunder, born in Dead Indian Illinois, will settle for counting coup on the offending party.  A symbolic victory. That will come with a lot more cold hard cash into the bargain.  You can’t eat symbols.

And Max Fairbanks can’t catch a break, all of a sudden.  He had convinced the Carrport cops to keep the burglary quiet, but once John escaped them, that was no longer an option.  The judge overseeing his Chapter 11 proceeding is furious he violated that court order to stay away from the Carrport house.  So he just takes the house away–it’s going to be sold off to pay some of Max’s debts.  Max loved that house, and his rage is incalculable.  He’d like to strangle Dortmunder and the judge both (and the judge isn’t even Mexican).

The more we see of Max Fairbanks, the more we perceive that under his bad boy charm, he’s got a vicious uncontrollable temper.  A button in his own head, you  might say–that gets pushed every time anyone fights back, tells him no, forces him to act like he’s subject to any authority other than his own boundless hungers.   And the angrier he gets, the stupider he gets.  I can’t do that “Why does this sound so familiar?” thing I do, since I’ve already explained why it’s so familiar.   Mr. Westlake was doing his homework.  Would we had done ours a lot sooner.

But this is a comedy, and there’s a limit to how far he wants to push the parallels.  There is someone Max Fairbanks fears, and that’s his wife Lutetia.  Described as having an abundance of black hair and an aggressive way of walking that makes her look like she’s about to crush someone, she knows full well that Max is not faithful to her, but she’ll tolerate it as long as it doesn’t get in the papers, and she doesn’t get any STD’s.  She’s got lawyers of her own, and they are prepared to take Max out hard if he gives her just cause.  She’s not entirely unfond of him, which only shows there’s no accounting for taste.

(She’s also very aware of that temper of his–watching her handle him is a bit like watching a lion tamer act.  She’s the boss, she’s got the chair and whip thing down, but he could still turn and maul her at any moment.  Or anyone else in his way.)

So Max has to stay in New York, and of course he’s going to stay at her palatial apartment above the N-Joy Theater/Hotel in Times Square, a jewel in the crown of his media empire, currently hosting a production of Desdemona!, the feminist musical rewrite of Othello, complete with happy ending, culminating in the show-stopping number “Here’s the Handkerchief!”  (Mr. Westlake not entirely thrilled with Broadway in the 90’s, and it hasn’t improved a whit since then, but it keeps some people I know employed, and the tourists seem happy).

Dortmunder has his opportunity, and he and Kelp case the joint, and for reasons unknown, Andy Kelp gets his own romantic subplot.  Honestly, I think you’d have to say this is the only romantic subplot in the entire series.  The books have many seemingly felicitous domestic relationships, but don’t tend to dwell on them much.  Dortmunder met May between the first and second novels.  Tiny Bulcher and J.C. Taylor became an item between chapters in Good Behavior, and we never saw much of them as a couple afterwards.  Whatever’s going on between Wally Knurr and Myrtle Street, I do not want to know about it.

But starting with the job at the N-Joy Theater, we get a very extended subplot dealing with Kelp’s oddball romance with Anne Marie Carpinaw, who became a regular character in the Dortmunder books, and the only one she ever really contributed much to was this one.  Because she’s a midwestern congressman’s daughter (useful for a later subplot), and her marriage just broke up, and she’s pretty, and nice, and not really that interesting, but she’s looking for something different, and you have to give Andy this much–he’s something different.

But do I want to do a whole lot of analysis of that relationship and its significance in the overall scheme of things?  I do not.  They meet at the hotel bar, her husband has left her, Andy likes what he sees, and she figures what the hell.  And I figure about the same.  Let’s move on.

Dortmunder figures out a way into the Fairbanks apartment.  It’s fun for us to read about. It’s also fun for the string of pros who accompany him–Wally Whistler is the lockman (it’s fun to read about what absent-minded antics he’s been up to since last we saw him).  Gus Brock comes along for the ride–he was perturbed Dortmunder didn’t offer him a cut of the Carrport job Gus had masterminded, even though Gus turned out not to have been such a mastermind in this regard.  Dortmunder says he did all the work on that job, so he gets all the swag, but Gus can come along on this new job, just to show there’s no hard feelings.

By the time they leave the apartment, crammed with all kinds of priceless arts & crafts that a good fence will know how to put a price on, Gus says he and Dortmunder are square. They take it all out in the maid’s cart, and stow it in the room Dortmunder reserved for himself and May with a bogus credit card obtained from Arnie Albright (before she prudently left the hotel, prior to the heist taking place, May and Anne Marie began to become friends).

Gus is happy, Wally Whistler is happy, Kelp is ecstatically happy.  Only Dortmunder is not happy, because Max Fairbanks left–with Dortmunder’s ring–just as they were breaking in through the service elevator.  Lutetia insisted on going with Max, who is taking a last nostalgic look at the Carrport house (so Max won’t get to bring any more floozies there). They had a nice time there, almost like a real married couple. So she’s happy–until she gets back to her looted apartment.  Then she’s very decidedly unhappy.  And this means Max Fairbanks is unhappy.  And starting to get a little scared.  How is this happening to him?  And with his lucky ring still firmly ensconced on his finger!

And to make things worse, NYPD Police Detective, Bernard Klematsky (Andy’s old friend at the police department, who we’ve met in two previous books) is interviewing him almost as if he, Max Fairbanks, is a suspect in the burglary of his own home!  The Carrport police never dared suggest any such thing with regards to the burglary of his other home, but the NYPD is not a small town police force, and they don’t impress so easy.

Max doesn’t come out and ask Detective Klematsky “Do you know who I am?”, but he’s very obviously thinking it.  And the fact is, there are some things relating to these incidents that he can’t really explain to the detective, which just makes everything seem so much more suspicious than it really is.  And Klematsky is well aware, like everybody else on the planet, that Max Fairbanks just declared bankruptcy.

The absurdity of Klematsky’s suspicions, now that Max finally understood what they were, was so extreme that no wonder it hadn’t occurred to him what horsefeathers filled the Klematsky brain.  His own wealth and, in this instance, comparative innocence, combined with the distraction of thoughts about the burglar, had kept him from grasping Klematsky’s implications before this.  Now, astounded, horrified, amused, pointing at himself, Max said, “Do you think I committed these burglaries?  Hired them done?  For the insurance?”

“I don’t think anything yet,” Klematsky said.  “I’m just looking at the scenarios.”

“You should be looking at a padded cell,” Max told him.  “You think because I’m in bankruptcy court–?  Do you really believe I’m poor?  You–You–I could buy and sell a thousand of you!”

“Maybe you could buy and sell a thousand,” Klematsky said, unruffled, “but they wouldn’t be me.”

Well said, and Detective Klematsky is certainly a keen judge of character, but he is barking up the wrong tree here.  And normally, Max Fairbanks doesn’t have to worry much about the law, even when he really is breaking it.  Something’s gone wrong with his world, and he can’t understand it.   This kind of thing just doesn’t happen to him.  He’s been bragging to everybody about how he stole this thief’s ring right off his finger, and it is just now beginning to dawn on him that might have been a mistake–but Max Fairbanks doesn’t make mistakes.  He certainly doesn’t admit to them.  He just keeps doubling down, until he wins.  It’s always worked for him before.

And now he’s got to head for Washington, to face a congressional hearing.  Nothing dangerous for him in that, he’s just trying to get them to get rid of this entertainment luxury tax that is hampering him in his endless pursuit of wealth creation (who he is creating said wealth for, and how, is of course not relevant to the matter at hand).  He sarcastically remarks that maybe the congressmen broke into his apartment on his behalf.  “Wouldn’t surprise me,” Klematsky responds.  Well, it would be surprising if they didn’t get caught.

If Max Fairbanks is going to testify before congress, the world knows about it.  If the world knows about it, so does Wally Knurr, and well in advance of most people.  If Wally Knurr knows, certain other people know as well.  And if Frank Capra had made heist films, this would have been one of his best.  Mr. Dortmunder Goes to Washington.  He’s going to show G. Gordon Liddy and those Cubans how you do a little burglary at the Watergate.  We’re just about halfway through the book here.  I’ll try not to filibuster too long over Part 2.  Enjoy the debate.  Sheahright.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Don’t Ask

 “It’s just that I have to keep in mind,” Dortmunder explained, “what it says across the bottom of my family crest.”

Tiny lowered an eyebrow; in fact, half an entire forehead.  “And what’s that, Dortmunder?

‘Quid lucrum istic mihi est?’


“What’s in it for me?”

Everybody seemed to like this book when it first came out.  There was, one senses, an almost audible collective sigh of relief upon its release.  At last, back to doing what he’s supposed to do!   Even the previous Dortmunder was a bit too dark (and bizarrely long, much like my review of it).   Lighten up, Westlake!

The New York Times delivered, as always, the official verdict– “In this era of thrillers about serial killers and child molesters, Mr. Westlake’s psychology-free capers are balm for the nerves. “Don’t Ask” is one of his best.”  And let’s just forget all about the last book hardly anyone read about Armageddon and God and Demons and really bad things happening to really good people.

I mean, after you’d spent much of your life writing scores of brilliantly insightful books about the human quest for self-understanding, some comic, some decidedly not, how would you feel about being referred to as ‘psychology-free’?  No doubt there’s a compliment in there somewhere, and Westlake never did cotton much to psychiatrists as such, but motivating his characters, explaining the choices they made, was his primary goal as a storyteller.  Most people never got that.  Even those who were ostensibly paid to get it.

David Bratman, in his great groundbreaking collection of thumbnail Westlake reviews, had this to say about it, years later–

The eighth Dortmunder novel, a successful mixture of light comedy and something entirely new to the Dortmunder series. Once again, there’s a sacred object disputed between two countries, and as in The Hot Rock Dortmunder is hired by one country to steal it from the other. This time the two countries are Slavic, and the object (which again is in New York) is a saint’s relic, a holy bone. Once again, the object must be stolen several times, lost each time for reasons reminiscent of those in The Hot Rock. What saves this book from being a retread is the freshness of the writing, and the new tone of the second half of the book. Having been tricked and bamboozled by his antagonists, Dortmunder decides, in his last attempt on the bone, to wreak a thorough revenge and embarrassment on them — and he succeeds. At last, he is no longer purely a sad sack. It’s richly satisfying.

Except that’s a retread as well–a vengeful Dortmunder was featured in both The Hot Rock  and Why Me?–what’s different here is that he’s planning an elaborate caper with multiple confederates to exact retribution.  Far more ambitious, to be sure, but it’s the same pattern we’ve seen before, adapted from Parker–Dortmunder gets mad, Dortmunder gets even.  He won’t kill you.  He’ll just make you wish he had.

He was never purely a sad sack.  Westlake told a variety of stories in the early years of the series, and sometimes it suited the story to have Dortmunder lose from beginning to end (Jimmy the Kid comes to mind, and that of course was adapted from The Ransom of Red Chief), but more often his good and bad luck, his good and bad ideas, all balanced each other out–he’d win some and he’d lose some, and he’d live to steal another day.  Good Behavior was probably his most triumphant exploit to date, not this book.

In fact, he loses quite a bit here (including the loot).  But what he’s mainly losing, sad to say, is my attention.  I enjoyed this novel the first time I read it (it is, in many ways, the most generically representative of the Dortmunders, containing basically every key element from the series as a whole).  I was looking forward to reviewing it here, but on second reading, I found my opinion of it would shift radically from chapter to chapter–I’d get into it, then find my attention lagging. So many good moments, so many ingenious contrivances, but even admitting that there had always been some necessary and enjoyable repetition in the series, there’s far too much of it here, and what’s more, Westlake knows it.  The conviction isn’t there.

He’s going through the motions.  In a manner more clever and creative than most writers could ever aspire to, but as fertile as his imagination remains, his heart isn’t quite in it this time.  And I still think this one merits an electronic edition–other than the one after it, this seems to be the only Dortmunder not currently available on Kindle–except it is in Germany.  What’s that about?  Don’t ask.

Maybe Westlake wasn’t quite ready to get back to Dortmunder yet (it had been just about exactly three years since the last one), but he probably had no choice–he had to make bank, for himself and his loyal publisher, after several recently failed attempts to expand his options as a writer.  Hence Dortmunder, his only available fallback position with Parker out of the picture (so maybe time to start thinking about getting Parker back?).

Hence the next book in our queue as well, another sequel that fails to live up to what came before it–both books having quite a lot in the way of keen social observation in them, something Westlake was still vitally interested in, and that keeps either book from being a total loss.  But when it comes to the characters, I’m just not feeling it, which I of course interpret as him not feeling it either. Yes, you may roll your eyes now at Fred the Psychic Book Reviewer, Spirit Medium to dead mystery authors.

But ask yourself this, oh skeptics–if he felt he’d done this story full justice, why would he basically rehash the latter half of it in the very next Dortmunder, three years after this one came out?   Like a dog with a bone was Donald Westlake with an imperfectly executed idea.

Much as the 90’s marked a return to greatness for him, the first half of that decade was a discouraging process of trial & error.  And yeah, I think his attitude towards writing this book–and several subsequent Dortmunders (though not the next one)–fell very much along the lines of Quid lucrum istic mihi est?  What was in it for him was money, of course–and breathing space.

It’s a fairly long book, and I could stretch it out, but I’m not making any bank here, and I’m mainly going to focus on the things that do feel inspired, and therefore inspire me.  That’s my quid pro quo.   No synopsis, or a very incomplete one, anyway.  We’ve heard it all before.  What was good enough for Dancing Aztecs (a much better book about New York and its environs) will do fine for this one.   I think I’ll start out with–

A Dubious Dedication:

Westlake dedicates this novel, ‘in awe and admiration,’ to Robert Redford, George C. Scott, Paul LeMat, and Christopher Lambert,  ‘Dortmunders all, and who would have guessed.’   You really wouldn’t think it would be that hard a role to cast appropriately, would you?  Unless you read a lot of Dortmunder novels, in which case you’d realize that it’s entirely appropriate that the movie adaptations never, and I mean ever, work out.   Moving on to–

Kelp the Climatologist:

Stuck in traffic on the Williamsburg Bridge out of lower Manhattan in a stolen frozen fish truck full of stolen frozen fish at 1:30 on a bright June afternoon, with construction out ahead of them forever on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, with Stan Murch on Dortmunder’s left complaining about how there are no decent routes anymore from anywhere to anywhere in New York City–“If there ain’t snow on the road, there’s construction crews”–and with Andy Kelp on Dortmunder’s right prattling on happily about global warming and how much nicer it will be when there isn’t any winter, Dortmunder also had to contend with an air conditioner dripping on his ankles.  Cold drips.  “My ankles are freezing,” he announced.  As if anybody cared

“Nobody’s gonna freeze anymore,” Kelp assured him.  “Not with global warming.”

Dortmunder is all for it, and decides to hasten the process by turning off the air conditioning, only he actually turned off the refrigeration unit, and by the time they get the fish to the Long Island restaurateur illicitly buying them (ever notice how often Dortmunder does theft for hire?), the entire load is spoiled, and Dortmunder has screwed up his own heist.  Can’t even blame Kelp this time.  Though he really wants to.

And if it hadn’t been for the ferocious summer heat, combined with the now-unavoidable traffic jams, probably this wouldn’t have happened.  Dortmunder is once more confirmed in his deep philosophical divide with Kelp.  Change is not good.  But Kelp the climatologist still looks forward hopefully to the death of winter, and somehow never quite grasps what summer would be like by then.  Or else maybe he loves hellishly muggy days, who knows?  He can have all of mine.

So now Dortmunder could really use a good score, to make up for this humiliating failure, and then he and the rest of the gang get a call from Tiny Bulcher, who has a problem for them to solve, namely–

The Osteology of Votskojek (grrrrr–and apologies to E.B. White):

“Tsergovia,” Dortmunder said.  “I never heard of it.”  He glanced at Kelp, who shook his head, and at Stan, who said, “If it isn’t in the five boroughs, I never heard of it.”

Tiny said, “This poor little country, it really got screwed around with over the years.  It was independent for a long time in the Middle Ages, and then it got to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and one time it was almost a part of Albania, except over the mountains, and later on the Commies put it together with this other crap country, Votskojek–”

Grijk growled.

“–and called it something else, but now the Commies are out, that whole Eastern European thing is coming apart, and Tsergovia’s becoming its own country again.”

“Free at last,” Grijk said.

“So it’s gonna be a real different country,” Tiny said, “from when my grandparents decided to get the hell out of…”  He frowned and turned to his cousin.  “What was the name of that place again?”

“Styptia,” Grijk said.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Tiny agreed.  “My ancestral village home.”

Bosnia and Herzegovina were (was?) recognized as an independent nation by the U.S., the European Union, and the United Nations, about a year before this book made it to stores. The result was not peace and prosperity for that tiny nation, but one of the bloodiest civil wars in modern European history (and that’s saying something).

I don’t know when Westlake began work on Don’t Ask, but almost certainly before the shooting started, and I rather think he would have chosen another region if he’d known that was going to happen so soon (we’re told the two statelets are in the Carpathians, not the Balkans–given that all that separates the two ranges is a river, and both border Serbia, it’s kind of a moot point).  But he definitely saw the problems presented to parts of Central Europe by the break-up of the Soviet Union.   He knew there were a lot of ‘countries’ on the old maps that only existed on paper, and were only being held together by force.

So he imagines this scenario where two tiny nations in what was apparently a hybrid nation very much like Yugoslavia are each vying to be recognized by UN, and what will give one of them the edge is having the thigh bone of a saint revered by both.  Both claim to have it, but Votskojek (grrrrrr) actually does, and is in the process of proving it scientifically, in their embassy, an old freighter moored on the East River, alongside Manhattan.   Dortmunder & Co. are to steal the bone, so Tsergovia can say they had it all along.

This is a funny part of the book, particularly the part where the narrator gives us the unfortunate history of St. Ferghana, the far-from-virtuous daughter of a family of thieves and murderers, who saw the light and tried to reform them, and ended up dead for her pains–she whose preserved femur serves as the bone of contention here.

But it’s maybe a bit too Ruritanian in its approach (maybe?  there were goddam rape camps!).  Real life events overtook the fictional ones in this story (not the first time this had happened in Westlake’s career), and it’s not so funny to hear Tiny’s cousin Grijk (whose name only Dortmunder can pronounce correctly) say that the people in these two little countries would need only the slightest provocation to start slaughtering each other like sheep.

Votskojek (grrrrr…) is pretty clearly a slimmed-down Serbia, and yet what’s Tsergovia?  A cut-back Croatia?  Where do the Bosnian Muslims fit in?  I’m sure the satire was never intended to be that direct–and back when most Americans barely knew these countries existed, that was fine.  If it had been written a decade earlier, we’d call it prescient–now it just seems a bit–irrelevant.  And nobody cared when it came out, because the Dortmunder books were supposed to be irrelevant.  Westlake loved to sneak political messages into nonpolitical books, but his timing was off here.

The great tragedy of the Balkans conflict was that all the major players were guilty of horrendous war crimes (or of only selectively condemning them), and the people got crushed between them all.  And for once, the United States getting involved in a foreign civil war turned out to be a good thing.  So the fight between these two little nonexistent countries over which one gets recognized by the UN seems to me a bit too trite and beside the point.  Again, I think he was too far into the book to fix it by the time the outlines of the war became clear.

And yet so much funny dialogue–

Tiny continued: Also by that time you got two religions involved.  You got the regular Roman Catholic Church out of Rome that said the leg was a saint to begin with.  I mean, the girl was the saint, the whole girl.  And then there was a schism, the Eastern Unorthodox,”

Stan said, “Jewish, you mean.”

“No, no,” Tiny said, waving a big meaty hand.  “There’s no Jews around there.”

“Dere was vun,” Grijk siad, “bud he went to Belgrade.  Or Lvov, maybe.  Somevere.  Anyway, now we godda get our suits from Hong Kong.  It ain’d da same.”

Yeah, something tells me there’s more to that story, Grijk.   But to me, by far the most interesting (and neglected) story in this book by far is–

The Founding of The Great Nation of Maylohda:

Banks don’t give loans to people,” Stan said in the tones of outrage he usually reserved for traffic jams.  “My Mom knows some cabdrivers, can’t get any kind of loan.  Working stiffs, good credit.  Taxi loan, house mortgage, home improvement, refinancing, you name it, you can forget it.”

“Oh no, no, no,” Grijk said, “not if you’re a pipple.  Pipples don’t ged no money from a bank.  Bud if you’re a country, no problem.”

Tiny said, “I looked into this with Grijk, and it’s true.  There’s countries haven’t even paid the vigorish on their loans in nobody remembers how long, never mind the main money, and the banks go ahead and loan them some more, anyway.”

J.C., more interested in this conversation than she’d expected to be, said, “How do I get to be a country?”

Grijk took that as a serious question, having recently gone through the experience himself. “First,” he answered, “You have a var.”

Okay, confession time–one of my personal grudges against this novel is that it’s the first time we’ve seen the magnificent Josephine Carol Taylor since her debut in Good Behavior, and she has her own rather brilliant subplot–and it’s shamefully neglected.  Inspired by Grijk using Tsergovia’s credit to pay the gang members something in advance for their services, she tells Tiny she’s got something to do, vacates the apartment they share, and sets off to set herself up as a nation.  The nation of Maylohda (she explains later that her Noo Yawk accent makes her pronounce her usual post office based venue for chicanery that way).

This might have made a good book in its own right, or at least a much more substantial subplot, and do we get to see J.C. strut her stuff with the United Nations and the World Bank, and etc?  Do we even get to see her fabricate a ‘var’? Nope.  She just tells the gang all about it (over the course of three pages) when she gets back.  It makes a good final flourish to the book, but it could have been a lot more.

It does tie up one plot thread–Maylohda will happily buy Tsergovia’s rock, its only export, using borrowed money (with J.C. skimming off the top), and dump it somewhere in the Atlantic, thus providing much-needed hard currency for the struggling statelet, and many a good time for her and Tiny.  She figures maybe someday there’ll actually be some land there if they do that long enough.  It’s not enough of a pay-off for me.  She deserved better, and that mainly continued to be true for the rest of the series.  I read this passage, from inside Ms. Taylor’s febrile female brain, and I mourn what might have been.

A cacophony of countries, a mob, a milling throng, a legion of nations.  Who would have guessed there were so many mother and father lands?  You could hide in a crowd like that.

And do what?

Westlake’s longstanding interest in small nations, all those obscure flags that even your average Jeopardy! champion couldn’t pick out of a lineup, does get a vigorous workout here, and it’s fun to see.  Just not developed enough.  Too many irons in the fire to make it work.  And speaking of torture–

Dortmunder’s Not-So-Extraordinary Rendition:

Oh, is there no story to cover this?  Let’s see:

“I’m an undercover CIA agent, infiltrating the Tsergovian secret police, and…”

“I had amnesia!  Wait a minute, my past life is coming back to me!  The year is 1977, and I live in Roslyn, Long Island, with my dear wife, Andreotta, and our two charming children, uh…”

“FBI!  You’re all under arrest!”

“Thank God you understood those signals I was sending.  Those bloodthirsty fiends kidnapped my mother and forced me to help them in their evil…”

“My left leg is artificial and filled with dynamite.  If you don’t release me at the count…”

“Whu–Where am I?  Who are all you people?”

The first heist fails, as you’d expect, since it involves water, boats, and Dortmunder.  So much intricate use of Manhattan/Brooklyn geography here, and it’s enjoyable, as always. The embassy is in an old freighter, as mentioned, docked by an old abandoned ferry station. Dortmunder has to get off the tugboat they’re using to scope the place, because he’s seasick.

The ambassador, an oily customer named Hradec Kralowc, empathizes with Dortmunder’s mal de rio (he came to America on that very freighter).  He has no reason to suspect this queasy-looking person of any nefarious designs, and is proud of his cushy riverfront ambassadorial digs, so he shows him the whole place, shows him where they’ve got the bone, shows him exactly how to steal it, and man isn’t Dortmunder lucky?   And what always follows Dortmunder having some good luck?

Dortmunder pretends to be interested in visiting Votskojek (grrrrr) as a tourist, which has Hradec all agog–they’ve never had any foreign visitors on purpose before, unless they were invading (for the record, I would love to visit the Balkans, as long as they weren’t killing each other too much while I was there).   Dortmunder works out a scheme to distract the security guards (hired from the Continental Detective Agency, we’ll get to that), while he distracts the embassy staff, and Kelp sneaks in from the river and nabs the relic.

So what happens is, they get the bone, but they lose Dortmunder, and then they lose the bone to the DEA, which impounds the boat they ‘borrowed’ from a guy who used it to smuggle drugs–with the bone still in it.   Meanwhile, Dortmunder is now in the hands of some very unhappy Vostkojekians.  Vostkojites?   Never mind.  And grrrr.

(This whole episode marks the beginning of a running gag in the series that I for one could have lived quite well without–Dortmunder has to come up with a false name for himself when he first meets Hradec, and on the spur of the moment, he calls himself Diddums.  John Diddums.  It’s Welsh. No it bloody well is not. There is an old English name, Diddams, and there is also an expression of sympathy used with small children “Aw, diddums skin your widdle knee?”  That sort of thing.  Point is, Dortmunder went on using this alias throughout this book, and several subsequent books, and he always feels obliged to tell people the name is Welsh.  And I guess somebody must have enjoyed this, but it never got so much as a chuckle out of me.  Aw, diddums not like the widdle Diddums joke?)

And here begins Dortmunder’s less than extraordinary rendition, because Hradec needs that bone, and is prepared to go to any lengths to get it, other than actually killing or torturing anyone, which is one of the reasons I have a hard time believing Westlake wrote this thing after the Bosnian conflict was all over the papers.  Yes, I know, it’s a Dortmunder novel, but c’mon.

Dortmunder is introduced to a mad scientist who goes by the name of Dr. Zorn, who dabbles in trying to make inedible substances into food, but his main specialty seems to be the less polite forms of interrogation.  And there is a brief gem of character writing for Dortmunder here–

Thoughts of truth serum flashed through his mind.  How would his system react to truth serum?  Wouldn’t it be like an antibody inside him?  Would his vital parts survive such an invasion?

He never finds out, because Dr. Zorn doesn’t believe in the stuff, and just slips him the old Mickey Finn.  Dortmunder wakes up in a cell, which he is told is located inside Votskojek (grrrrr?). He is somewhat abused by the guards, but not really.  He is fed some unpalatable-looking green substance, but he is fed.  So that he should understand that his employer, whoever that is, has been filling his head with foul propaganda, he is given a tour of the rustic lovely countryside and charming (Potemkin) village life of Votskojek, but no ‘grrrrr’ this time, because guess what?  The crappy Soviet-era car they’re driving runs out of gas, he escapes his captors, and then he finds out he’s in Vermont.  Those fiends!  The Hague shall hear of this!  And maybe Ben & Jerry!

And here is where the trigger in Dortmunder’s head, no less implacable than Parker’s, is irretrievably set off.  No, they didn’t actually hurt him.  Yes, they had a right to try and get their bone back, that’s all within the rules of the game.  But they made a fool out of him.   Dortmunder already has to live with the fact that he is Fortune’s Favorite Fool. He has to put up with that, God being safely out of range.  He doesn’t have to take it from mere mortals.  He will be revenged on the whole pack of them.

An interesting side-note to this whole episode is that at no time does Dortmunder come close to telling what he knows–partly because he doesn’t think it’ll do him any good, partly because that would mean telling tales on Tiny Bulcher, but mainly because the entire scheme, borrowed variously from 36 Hours, Mission Impossible, and Westlake’s own Ex Officio, has a crucial defect.  They think he did this bonehead burglary out of misplaced belief in the just cause of Tsergovia, when in fact he was only in it for the money.   They’ve been wallowing in nationalist zealotry so long, they can’t understand a man who can scarcely be said to have any national loyalties at all.  Unless you count New York City as a nation.

The problem was, Hradec never did understand Diddums.  He neither knew nor understood that Diddums was a prisoner and knew exactly how to be a prisoner.  Hradec acted throughout as though he were dealing with an amateur, but Diddums was a pro, from his expressionless face to his barely moving feet, and would not be impressed.

All that talk, all those displays of cooling towers and happy peasants.  The man Hradec called Diddums cared nothing about any of that.  A prisoner does one of two things: (1) he goes along or (2) he escapes.  That’s all there is.  His keepers give orders, he obeys them.  He doesn’t think; he doesn’t argue; he doesn’t engage in philosophical discussion.  He does exactly what he’s told, and all of his concentration remains exclusively on watching for a chance to move onto (2).  Then he sees an opening, and he coldcocks the economist from Yale, and he’s gone.

Anyway, while all this is going on, Dortmunder’s comrades have not forgotten him (well, Tiny kind of has, but he does that, and J.C. isn’t around to shame him into a rescue mission).   Kelp has not forgotten, not least because his lousy timing in snatching the bone (it wasn’t his fault!) led to Dortmunder’s capture.  But of course he doesn’t know where Dortmunder is.  He does find out where the bone is, and the chapters dealing with that may be the best part of this book, as I shall now detail in–

Fox and Pig Are Friends:

Andy Kelp’s head appeared over the top edge of the ventilation tower.  Fox eyes in a fox face scanned the darkness.  It was two in the morning, and while the dishonest burglar in the ventilation tower conned the scene, the honest burghers of Governor’s Island lay peacefully asleep in their beds, dreaming of strikes and spares. (Some were having nightmares about splits).

This book sees the reintroduction of Kelp’s cynical cop confidante, Bernard Klematsky of the NYPD, last seen in Why Me?   He knows very well what Andy does for a living, and he’d happily jail him for it given half a chance, but he figures that it’s good to know people in that line of work for both professional and recreational reasons–Andy can provide information, and he can also pay for the sumptious meals the penurious policeman loves to eat but never wants to pay for.   Klematsky never picked up a check in his life, and no point starting now.

It was Italian food last time, long a favorite of Mr. Westlake’s, but there’s a new kid in town, namely Thai food, which Bernard says he loves because they put peanut butter on everything.  Andy is skeptical, but ends up finding it rather good (without the peanut butter), and cheaper than Italian, even with that pricey bottle of wine Bernard ordered thrown in.

No matter how good the chow is, however weighty the check, Bernard won’t knowingly aid and abet Andy in the commission of a felony, but with a great deal of dancing on ethical pinheads, Andy convinces him that all he wants is the location of an item that belongs to him anyway, that he won’t be able to claim through regular channels.  Well, let’s say Bernard, happily sated, agrees to be convinced, and with just one phone call he finds out where the DEA stashes impounded boats–which is Governor’s Island, site of a Coast Guard station, a self-enclosed community that lives its own bucolic surburban existence off the coast of Manhattan, bowling alley, golf course, and all.  A brief history lesson (one of what seems like a dozen or so in this book) follows apace–

Just five hundred yards south of the island of MANHATTAN (qv) and even closer to the onetime proud city of BROOKLYN (qv) across Buttermilk Channel, but nevertheless governmentally considered a part of the borough of MANHATTAN (qv), lies a darling button of an island that the Indians called Pagganck, which seems unkind, but there you are.

In 1637, some enterprising Dutchmen bought the island from the Manhatas Indians (so that’s why!) for two ax heads and a handful of nails and beads, and changed its name to Nutten, which wasn’t much of an improvement.  But they were still a lot sharper than those other Dutchmen who bought Manhattan itself from the Canarsie Indians, who didn’t own it, but were just passing through and knew a live one when they saw a live one.

The Dutch held on to Nutten only twenty-seven years before the British adopted it, not paying nobody for Nutten, and changed its name to Governor’s Island, because the governor of the colony of New York was going to live there.  And so he did.  The first one, Lord Cornbury, was asked to leave when he insisted on wandering around in lady’s clothing and instituted a bachelor’s tax, but some of the others kept a lower profile and would surely be proud to learn they are utterly forgotten.

(The parenthetical qv’s refer the reader to a brief footnote saying these are mere historical asides, and not for credit, so I shall not bother to find out if Westlake is making any of this up, and odds are he’s not, because when it comes to New York City history, the stranger it sounds, the more accurate it is likely to be).

So clearly not a good idea to invade the Coast Guard by sea–happily, the Brooklyn/Battery Tunnel goes directly beneath the island, and there is a ventilation tower from the tunnel below that pokes right up through to the surface.   And then Kelp’s foxy face pokes right up through that, while Stan Murch waits down below, and he finagles his foxy way around the totally unguarded island until he finds the sacred relic, sacrilegiously deposited in a garbage can near the impounded boat.  He wipes it off and kisses it hello, the late Saint being no doubt grateful for the smooch.  What’s left of her.  I think that’s worth a Papal dispensation, at least.

And since Dortmunder is now free, this would normally mean the story is over, the gang can claim the rest of their fee, and nobody is going to care that Dortmunder wants his revenge, but there’s something funny about the unenthused way Grijk accepts delivery of the bone, and Murch figures something’s rotten in the sovereign storefront of Tsergovia (their embassy is in a ‘taxpayer’, an unimpressive structure erected to host small stores until the owners of the land can think of something better).

He’s right.  Hradec had their phones bugged, learned of the impending delivery, and the entire embassy staff was being held at gunpoint until perfidious Votskojek (grrrrr!) once more had that blasted bone in their possession.  All that effort achieved precisely nothing–except to make John Dortmunder extremely angry.   And an angry Dortmunder is a curious Dortmunder.  How did they manage to find all those spots in Vermont to double as prisons and castles and villages in Central Europe, complete with guards and colorfully garbed locals?  How could such an elaborate ruse be possible for such a cash-strapped little country?  Answer–

Hilton, Helmsley–meet Hochman:

For a man like Harry Hochman, Eastern Europe in its current post-Soviet disarray was a kind of wonderful Christmas present, a model-train set all for him,; some assembly required.  And Votskojek was the centerpiece.  Once it was securely enconced in its proper traditional United  Nations seat, once its economic treaties with its neighbors were in place, that little landlocked barren boulder in the Carpathians would become Harry Hochman’s stepping stone to Europe.  All of Europe.

Harry Hochman was Hradec’s benefactor–his literally palatial home in Vermont was the castle Dortmunder saw, he owns all the various places Dortmunder had been kept in, and since he maintains a small summer theater there, getting actors to play menacing guards and such was simplicity itself.

I think he’s more Helmsley than Hilton–his wife Adele sounds a whole lot like the fabled Leona, only not so mean (maybe that came later?).   But basically, he’s a composite figure, and the first real tycoon-type Dortmunder has come up against–first of several.  But he’s not really developed well enough to be a suitable nemesis, coming along so late in the book–this is one of the problems Westlake would fix in later stories.

Dortmunder finds out about Hochman from the despondent Tservogians, who have files on him–and when Tiny asks what’s the point of revenge–what about his family motto, as seen up top?–Dortmunder points out that the Hochman estate in Vermont is the site of an art collection worth about six million dollars.   Dortmunder has his army.  Now he just needs a plan.

Fugue in D Major:

For the first but not last time, we see Dortmunder go into a sort of waking trance, a fugue state if you will, where he is piecing together a very elaborate plan–and he doesn’t like this, we’re told–great plans should be simple–but this one needs to be baroque.  Because it’s not just a heist, but a sting he’s working out here, and he’s stretching past his normal thought processes, inspired by his fury.

He says he thinks he’s got a corner of something.  But he spends a lot of time staring off into space.  Because, you see, he needs to solve a whole lot of problems here–how to get the bone, how to make sure Tsergovia can properly claim it, how to make sure both Hochman and Hradek suffer horribly for their insult to him, how to get all that art and then get paid off for it (two entirely different things, since fencing famous objets d’art isn’t something Dortmunder’s regular contacts can do).

Shall I explain how he does all that?  Nah.  Read the book.  If you already have, read it again (even a sub-par Dortmunder is still a Dortmunder).  Point is, he does it.  A brilliant heist, a brilliant scam, and everything works out perfectly.  Except, of course, they lose the art to the law.  Which all ties back to the beginning of the book.

They get some cash up front from a somewhat shady art dealer who was negotiating with the insurance company on their behest, so they did okay, but no big score like last time.  And Dortmunder doesn’t care, because this was about satisfying honor.  He got his own back, with interest.  He does his tormentors the dirty about a thousand times worse than they did him.

Dr. Zorn the torturer suffers the Chinese water torture (which it turns out is a thing) in his secret laboratory in the burned out Bronx, and by the time it’s done, he will never be the same again.  He can dish it out, but he can’t take it, nyah.

Hradec Kralowc, the proud womanizer, is publicly labeled a homosexual deviant (in the 1990’s?   We were a little more advanced by then, weren’t we?) Dortmunder makes everybody other than his long-suffering wife believe he’s having an affair with Dr. Zorn.  This joke fell a little flat with me, it’s not like the guy was any kind of homophobe, and we never see him do anything that dastardly.   But it’s a necessary part of getting the crusty old Archbishop in charge of awarding the UN seat to change sides.  Okay, he would definitely not be advanced on that subject.  Oh, and Hradec also gets framed for the art theft, and the bone-napping, and has to return to Votskojek (grrrrr) in disgrace.

And Harry Hochman will be answering questions for years to come about where he got all that stolen art from, and since many of his answers will never be fully satisfactory, he will have other things to ponder than the conquest of Europe.   Which technically I think Conrad Hilton had already conquered, but never mind that now.

It’s fun.  It’s clever.   It’s a great idea for a Dortmunder story.  And it’s too busy.  There are too many threads.   There are a few too many mean-spirited jokes (and this is not, in the main, a series that specializes in mean-spirited humor).  Like Zara Kotor the hulking homely Tsergovian diplomat–a female Tiny Bulcher, who falls for the male one, and keeps throwing herself at him, while he retreats in terror, until she finds out he’s living with the beautiful J.C. Taylor, and her hopes are dashed.  Was that really quite necessary?  I feel certain H.L. Mencken would not have approved.  And “Eastern Bloc Women Not in Spy Thrillers Are Ugly” was surely a meme well past its sell-by date, and was never remotely true.

An awful lot of this book isn’t really necessary, and the beautiful thing about a great Dortmunder novel is that every last bit of it is necessary.   Why are there so many false notes here?   Why did the piece as a whole not play sonorously for me on the second hearing?  Because, I believe, the frustrated composer was not in the mood to write this composition.  Sure, he enjoyed writing this or that part of it, as I’ve enjoyed writing this or that part of this review, but the process as a whole was more of a chore than anything else.  He wanted to be more than The Dortmunder Guy, and people were talking like that’s all he was.

Even the title–Don’t Ask?  Why not?   Because if you did, you might find there isn’t really much of a meaning behind that title, or much of one behind this book, either.  Where’s the identity puzzles?  Okay, Hradec not comprehending Dortmunder’s true nature, but that’s hardly enough.  J.C. playing with becoming a nation of one, but that’s barely touched upon in the book.

The previous book in the series had several characters created especially for it, each going through major crises/transitions in their lives, creating rich material for the novelist.  But here Westlake is concentrating pretty much entirely on already-established characters–because that’s what people want from him. That’s why he basically trots out nearly every regular character from the series to date here, which I don’t think he ever did again.

And the problem with established characters is that they’re–you know–established.  Identity puzzles are harder to craft from a fixed identity, characters that never change, because we don’t want them to.  So from that perspective, this is the least satisfying Dortmunder novel to date–for me, and perhaps Westlake as well.  I can only speak for me.  It’s not necessarily the worst–that’s probably still Nobody’s Perfect.  But I enjoyed writing that review more.   If only because my expectations were lower.

So apologies to those who like this one–I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m just saying I was, when I earlier referred to this as a great Dortmunder novel.  It’s merely the outer shell of one.  The ineffable essence of the series is not quite here, somehow.  Because Mr. Westlake’s heart was elsewhere when he was writing it.   Where might that be, you ask?  No, that’s okay, you can ask.

Not with our next book either, I think, but I’m rereading it now, and I may well write a slightly more positive appraisal than I thought I would–if only slightly. I’ve figured out which past book he reworked to make this one, and it’s not the one you think.  And I rather hope to finish that review in one go as well.  Because the Mid-to-Late 90’s beckon, with treasures beyond compare.  And we shall be there in only a few weeks time.  Mes enfants, would I dissemble?


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Drowned Hopes, 4th (& 5th?) Downs

Wally asked, “Well, when do we do it?  Do you want to wait for the rain to stop?”

“Yes,” Tiny said.

“Well, I don’t know,” Doug said.  “Depends on how long that is.  You know, the engineers in the dam put a little boat in the water every once in a while, run around the reservoir, take samples and so on, and if they run over our line they’d cut it.  Even if they didn’t foul their propeller, even if they didn’t find it, we’d lose the line.”

Tiny said, “They won’t do one of their jaunts in this weather, count on it.”

“That’s true,” Doug agreed.

May cleared her throat and said, “It seems to me, John would point out right here that the instance the rain stops the people in the dam might go out in their boat so they can get caught up with their schedule.”

“That’s also true,” Doug agreed.

Wally said, “Miss May, what else would John point out?”

“I don’t know,” May said.  “He isn’t here.”

Everybody thought about that.  Stan said, “What it is, when John’s around, you don’t mind coming up with ideas, because he’ll tell you if they’re any good or not.”

“Dortmunder,” Tiny said, ponderously thoughtful, “is what you call your focal point.”

With his patented bloodless lipless cackle, Tom said, “Pity he tossed in the hand just before the payout.”

All spring now we’ve been with her on a barge lent by a friend.
Three dives a day in hard hat suit and twice I’ve had the bends.
Thank God it’s only sixty feet and the currents here are slow
Or I’d never have the strength to go below.

But we’ve patched her rents and stopped her vents, dogged hatch and
porthole down.
Put cables to her ‘fore and aft and girded her around.
Tomorrow noon we hit the air and then take up the strain.
And make the Mary Ellen Carter Rise Again!

That her name not be lost to the knowledge of men!
All those who loved her best and were with her ’til the end,
Will make the Mary Ellen Carter Rise Again!

Stan Rogers

I don’t consider this one of the very best Dortmunder novels, you might be surprised to hear, given the amount of time I’ve spent on it.  I think it was well worth the time, but I look at The Hot Rock, Bank Shot, Jimmy the Kid, Good Behavior, and a few of the remaining books in the series, and I find them to be better-crafted narratives, with more coherent points to make, and while I like Wally Knurr as a character, he’s sure as hell no J.C. Taylor.

And I suppose I am a mite peeved at Westlake for dangling the magnificent Ms. Taylor in front of us in the last book, referring to her in passing in this one, but refusing to give her even a brief walk-on.  He only partly made up for this omission in the next book.

As I was telling someone in the comments section for the Third Down review, this novel is, for want of a better word, ungainly–loose-jointed, as ponderous as Tiny Bulcher making a point.   It operates in fits and starts, breaking down, then starting up again, going off in all directions.   But as I said, you could make the same statement about The Pickwick Papers.  People still like that, and I still like this.  A pity, in fact, it wasn’t published as a serial–it has that kind of feel to it.   It holds together quite well enough as a single volume.   But I’ve rather enjoyed taking it apart section by section, to analyze what I suspect is just a small sampling of its moving parts.

And if it has many disparate points to make, instead of just one, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make them well, or that its variant themes don’t ultimately blend harmoniously together.   Uniformity of execution was never something Westlake strived for in his series.  He aspired to make each book different from the one before it.

The central theme, as always, is identity.   But with such a large cast of characters, and so much room to run, Westlake is free to come at it from many different angles.   The dark mystery of Tom Jimson.  The amateur turning pro saga of Doug Berry.  The coming of age of Myrtle Street (and the belated realizations of her mother, Edna, that she’s made serious mistakes as a parent). The social awakening of Wally Knurr.   The psychic unraveling of poor befuddled Bob.

And our beloved gang faced with a terrible new foe–the small rural town environment, in all its bucolic splendor.  Eating away at their sense of self, trying to reshape them into compatible components of a radically different social order. Trying, in fact, to make them into solid citizens.  If they didn’t have the reservoir job to anchor them, and they couldn’t get back where they belong, it might eventually succeed.

And Dortmunder–the focal point–turning his back on what he was born to do. Sure, he’s not going straight, but he took on this job, and twice he’s walked away from it, only to be sucked back in.  Three times he’s nearly drowned in that accursed lake, and as the Fourth Down begins, he says he’s really out this time. “Game called on account of wet” is his final word.  Or so he thinks.

The gang accepts his decision graciously, and Kelp, agreeing with Dortmunder that the Vilburgtown Reservoir is out to get him, steals him a car–a Buick Pompous 88.  No mention of whether it has MD plates.  Dortmunder drives back to New York, and he should be relieved it’s all over.  He doesn’t have to ever see that reservoir again.  The money has been located, they can get it without him, right?  Tom will try to take it all, but Tiny’s there, Kelp is there, Murch is there, Murch’s Mom is there–not even Tom Jimson is that tough, right?  May will be fine.  But most importantly, he doesn’t ever have to see that reservoir again.  And of course he’s violating his nature by giving up this way.  And people who violate their natures have bad dreams.  That sometimes turn out not to be dreams at all.

It was during a somewhat shallower stretch that Dortmunder was slightly disturbed by the scratchings and plinkings of someone picking the lock on the apartment door, opening it, creeping in (those old floors creak, no matter what you do) and closing the door with that telltale little snick.  Dortmunder almost came all the way to the surface of consciousness at that instant, but instead, his brain decided the noises were just Tom returning from one of his late-night filling-the-pockets forays, and so the tiny sounds from the hallway were converted in his dream factory into the shushings and plunkings of wavelets, and in that dream Tom was a giant fish with teeth, from whom Dortmunder swam and swam and swam, never quite escaping.

The intruder, of course, is Guffey, from the ghost town of Cronley, Oklahoma, who we last saw when Tom broke a very smelly wine bottle full of money over his head in that godforsaken little burg, and just left him there.   And he shouldn’t have done that.   Left him there.  Alive.   Easy man to underestimate, Mr. Guffey.

We get a short chapter detailing rather plausibly how Guffey tracked Dortmunder down and made his way east, and now he’s got a rifle pointed at Dortmunder’s head, and he’s making it very clear–he wants Tim Jepson (as he insists on calling Tom Jimson).  Dortmunder helps him, or Dortmunder dies.

And meanwhile back at the bungalow in Dudson Center, Myrtle Street, no longer content to peep at the gang through binoculars while speculating on what they’re up to and who the boss is (there isn’t one, Myrtle), comes creeping up to the house, and is immediately apprehended by Tiny Bulcher, which would be enough to scare anyone, but then she sees Doug looking out through the window, and he looks scared, and now she’s bloody terrified.

So this is where Doug’s young Lochnivar side comes out, right?  He’s the Nephew in this story, and the Nephew will do anything for The Girl.  Except here’s the thing.  He’s not a Nephew.  And Myrtle isn’t The Girl.  Not for him, anyway.  All he cares about, seeing a woman he was professing tender feelings for just recently being on the edge of getting killed, is not getting mixed up in a murder.  Fortunately, the only one advocating that Myrtle be disposed of is (you guessed!) Tom Jimson–Myrtle’s father–not that Myrtle is dumb enough to bring this up with him.  If anything, that might make matters worse.   Leave him in the dark about her being the fruit of his loins and all.  You just do not want to know how he’d react to that.

And the true Nephew of the piece springs to the fore-Wally Knurr.  He, the Hero, has waited his moment, as his computer instructed, and here it is–he says they can just lock her in the attic until they’re ready to escape–she doesn’t know enough about any of them to help the authorities–she doesn’t even know what they’re doing there.   Tom objects that she can yell out the window.  Wally shrugs and points out that in this rain, nobody will hear her, or care if they do.  At this point, Myrtle concludes Wally must be the ringleader.  Nancy Drew she ain’t.

And back at the apartment, Dortmunder and Guffey are waiting for Tom to come back.  Dortmunder showed Guffey some handcuffs he’s got (trying to remember if they figured in an earlier book) that would guarantee his good behavior, and Guffey’s not really a killer, just because he wants to kill Tom Jimson (I mean, who wouldn’t?).

Guffey had mentioned something about shooting parts of Dortmunder off until he told him where Tim Jepson was, but he’s decided he just has to sit tight and wait.  And as he waits there, and they watch TV (Fantastic Voyage), and they drink beer, and eat pizza, and try to figure out what Guffey’s first name used to be, they kindasorta become friends.  Well, friendly acquaintances.  Dortmunder has this effect on people.

Guffey even takes the handcuffs off him, so he can go to the bathroom.   Then Guffey goes to the bathroom.  Without the rifle. By the time he comes back, the hostage situation has just sort of petered out, and Dortmunder is telling him any enemy of Tom’s is a friend of his, and they finish watching microscopic Raquel Welch save the President’s life or whatever that movie was about, and head back to Dudson Center, because what the hell.

Guffey rested a scrawny fist on the kitchen table.  “That man ruint my life,” he said. “And I mean that, Dortmunder.  I was just a young fella when he got his hooks into me, and he ruint my entire life.  My destiny is to catch up with that son of a bitch, or why would you and him come all the way out to Cronley, Oklahoma?  What happens after I catch up is between him and me, but I got to have him in my sights one time before I die.”

“I guess I can understand that,” Dortmunder said.  “So this is what I offer.  You give me your solemn word you won’t make a move on Tom  until this other business is over with, and you can come along with me upstate.”

“Where to?”

“But you have to swear you won’t do anything till I say it’s okay.”

Guffey thought about that.  “What if I won’t swear?”

“Then I go out to the living room and I get our rifle,” Dortmunder told him, “and bring it back in here, and wrap it around your neck, and go upstate by myself.”

Guffey thought about that.  “What if I swear, only I’m lying?”

“I got a lot of friends up there where I’m going, Guffey,” Dortmunder said. “And all you got up there’s one enemy.”

While all this was going on, Doug has persuaded the gang that they need a real boat this time–something that won’t sink in the rain, and that they can use to winch up the coffin with the money in it.  Tom refuses to even consider going after any more stashes to pay for it (in this one instance, I’m on his side), and so very reluctantly, Doug becomes party to a felony crime–he happens to know this guy with a boat dealership on Long Island who screwed him in a deal once.  They get a real nice boat, a 20 foot Benjamin inboard cabin cruiser.  There does not seem to be any such boat maker as Benjamin.  There’s a Gannon & Benjamin, but they make wooden sailing vessels.  No, I don’t know why Westlake made that name up.  If it’s a joke, I don’t get it.

Doug’s not comfortable with crime, doesn’t consider himself a criminal, though he’s always been on the shady site.  But he’s committing serious crimes.   He’s also been seducing a nice young girl, making her fall in love with him, then he turns around and acts like she doesn’t matter a damn to him, which she doesn’t. He doesn’t seem to know who he is, where he belongs.  He’s changing his identity without really stopping to consider the implications.  You have to figure something bad’s gonna happen to him.  That’s how it always plays out in a Westlake novel, right?

So the reservoir gang goes out one last time to get that money, and everybody, even Wally’s computer, knows Tom is going to pull a cross once they have the money.  Wally talks this over with May and Murch’s Mom, back at the house.  He says if Tom manages to kill the other string members and take the money for himself, his first move will be to come right back to the house and tie up loose ends.   Meaning them.  And most importantly to Wally, meaning Myrtle.

He suggests they all move over to Myrtle’s house, where they can keep watch on the bungalow from a safe distance.  Now that’s a guy who knows who he is–I’m sure his virtue shall be rewarded in the end, and the princess will fall swooning into his arms.  Yeah, that’s what Luke Skywalker thought too, before Lucas sib-zoned him.  Storytellers can be real bastards sometimes.

So of course when Dortmunder and Guffey arrive at the bungalow, they find it empty.  Dortmunder can’t believe he’s doing this, but he decides there’s nothing for it but to go back to that damn reservoir, and give it one last chance to drown him.

So they find the gang just before they push off in the cabin cruiser (fittingly named the Over My Head), and Tiny knocks Guffey out with a sap before recognizing Dortmunder.  Dortmunder says Guffey is a hitchhiker he picked up in the rain.  It says something for the gang’s assessment of Dortmunder’s judgment in matters other than heist planning that they accept this.

They lock Guffey in the cabin, and set off.   Tom, of course, doesn’t recognize Guffey.  See, the problem with seeing humanity as one indistinguishible unimportant mass, Mr. Jimson, is that sometimes it pays to notice things like this one guy who’s spent his whole life waiting to kill you.   But Tom is, in all fairness, distracted by more important matters.  He’s got to kill five guys, none of them pushovers, though Doug won’t be too hard.   One of them is Tiny Bulcher. He needs a little something extra in the arsenal.  And he’s got it.


The Ingram Model 10.   More popularly known today in both white militia and gangsta rap circles (how guns bring us all together!) as the Mac 10.  Thirty 45 caliber rounds.  Easily concealed, quiet, accurate.  So ten rounds for Tiny, and five each for the other four.  That’s what Tom is probably figuring.  I’m figuring more like twenty rounds for Tiny, but that’s still plenty left for the others.  He can just smother that hitchhiker with a pillow or something.   See, this may be a Dortmunder novel to us, but as far as he’s concerned, it’s a Tom Jimson novel, and they all end the same way.

The thing was, Dortmunder and his pals would expect Tom to make a move.  Everybody always did, that was wirtten into the equation.  Tom’s job was to figure out the earliest point at which they’d expect something from him, and the earliest point before that when he could usefully make his move, and then pick the spot between the two.

This time, it seemed to him, they wouldn’t really expect much trouble before they got the loot ashore, but they would probably start being tense and wary once the casket was actually inside the boat.  Butnow that they had a boat with its own winch attached to its own motor, so that Tiny was no longer needed to drag the casket out of the reservoir, Tom’s actual first potential moment was much earlier than that.

Not when Doug found the marker rope.

Not when he tied the boat to it.

Not when he untied the marker rope from the monofilament and handed it to someone in the boat.

When the marker rope was attached to the winch: then.

So Doug finds the marker rope.  He ties the boat to it.  He unties the marker rope from the monofilament and hands it to someone on the boat.  Tom, down in the cabin, reaches under the mattress Guffey is unconscious upon, where he’s concealed his Mac–it isn’t there.  And all of a sudden, he find himself handcuffed to a wild-eyed maniac, holding his gun.  “Now, Tim Jepson!  Now!”   Followed by the sound of gunfire.

So I guess really it was a Guffey novel all along.  Short-lived franchise.   Tom wins, of course–even with that gun, Guffey’s no match for him, never was.  But they’re still handcuffed together, and Tom, figuring Dortmunder had this planned all along, comes up saying he’ll give Dortmunder the gun in exchange for the key (which Guffey actually has, and Dortmunder isn’t dumb enough to tell Tom that).

Tom’s clearly still hoping to pull the cross somehow, but the main thing is, he’s chained to another human being, and for such a singular soul as himself, that’s a terrifying situation to be in.  It’s skewing his judgment, dulling his instincts.  So he’s not ready when Guffey comes to, and grapples with him–and they both go over the side.

You ever wonder why sailors all stick together in a pinch?   It’s because sailors spend their lives out on large bodies of water that are constantly trying to kill them.  They may not always love each other, but they need each other.  A boat full of Tom Jimsons is a boat full of dead men.  Even Jack London’s superlative Sea Wolf didn’t survive longterm.  No atheists in foxholes, no solo players at sea. Or at reservoir, same difference.

So as Guffey, his life’s work achieved, lapses back into unconsciousness, sinking down under the waves, taking his enemy with him, Tom Jimson’s last words turn out to be “Al!  The key! For Christ’s sake, the key!”  A bit late to bring Him up, wouldn’t you say?  And Tom, for literally the last time, Dortmunder’s first name is John.

Unfortunately, it’s not just Tom’s best-laid schemes that have gone agley.   Doug lost the rope.  Guffey filled the hull of the boat with holes when he was grappling with Tom.  They’re going to sink.  It’s getting to be a habit.

Doug has gone back under, looking for the rope.   While the gang, faced with the very real possibility of both drowning and being caught by the law, makes its way back to terra firm by way of Tiny hauling them in with the monofilment line anchored to the shore.  They can’t wait for Doug.  And Doug can’t seem to wait to die.

For the first time in his diving life, Doug was being stupid underwater.  Greed and panic had combined to make him forget everything he knew.  He was down here alone, an incredibly dangerous thing to begin with.  He was improperly equipped for the kind of search he’d suddenly started to undertake.  And, most stupid of all, he was paying no attention to the passage of time.

He’d had an hour of air when he started.

Reading this the first time, I knew this was where Doug Berry met his final end. And (spoiler alert)–he doesn’t.   He just keeps looking for the money, for those train tracks leading to the casket of cash, thinking that it just wouldn’t be fair for him to get so close and not get it.  He refuses to give up.  He’s a salvage diver, and he’s getting his salvage.  He finds the tracks, but by that time he’s about to black out from oxygen deprivation–only instinct gets him back to the surface alive.  And then pure dumb luck takes a hand.

As he tries to hitchhike his way back into town, still wearing his wetsuit, who should pick him up (in a Chevy Chamois) but the pregnant wife of Bob–poor confused Bob, who spent the whole book questioning his lot in life, his place in the universe, his decision to marry a girl he barely knew, growing more and more confused, until his sanity just gave way entirely.  Leaving his wife still pregnant and apparently that condition agrees with her, because Doug, very much in the mood for a nice comforting lay, is instantly very attracted to her (more than he ever was to Myrtle)–and she to him.  Oh God damn.  He’s getting a happy ending, isn’t he?

There is no greater certitude in the world of Dortmunder than this–Life Is Not Fair.  And in this specific sense, these books are an exercise in realism.   There may be moments of justice in this world, but they are far and few between (looking at you, Roger Ailes).  Doug broke nearly all the rules for suvival in the world of a Westlake novel, and he would just be stone cold dead in a Richard Stark novel, but somehow Westlake decided to let him off the hook.

And you could argue he’s earned it–Dortmunder gives up, and this time, so does the rest of the gang–they’re just not meant to get that money, and they don’t have to worry about Tom anymore, and it’s just time they all went back where they belong.  Wally never really belonged there, so he’s going to stay in Dudson Center, at Edna and Myrtle’s house, and he’s hoping it somehow leads to more than friendship with Myrtle, and best as I can recall (we see Wally later in the series) it never actually does.  Because Life Is Not Fair.  But he’s better off than he was before.  Life is not totally unfair, either.

So in the final two-page section of the book, entitled Fifth Down?, Dortmunder and May are watching television at home, and it’s this travel show, and they suddenly see Doug Berry, who is the proud new owner of a Caribbean resort hotel, his beautiful wife on his arm, holding ‘little Tiffany,’ Bob’s baby, and Doug just could not possibly be any happier.

Then there was a shot of Doug wind-surfing, grinning like a baboon, huge ocean, huge blue sky, fantastic yellow-white sun.  The off-screen announcer said, “Berry himself, a qualified professional dive instructor, leads the snorkel and scuba-diving classes. His emphasis is on active vacation life.”

And now a shot of Doug bursting out of the ocean into close-up, in full scuba gear, pulling off the face mask and mouthpiece, giving that shit-eating grin right at the camera.  “Come on down!”

“You’re goddamn right I will!” Dortmunder raged, on his feet, about to jump headfirst into the TV.

And of course he won’t.  They don’t even know what island he’s on, nor could they do anything about it if they did.   He won.  They lost.  It’s over.   Dortmunder might as well go to Hollywood and tell little Jimmy Harrington, boy director, to cough up Dortmunder’s ransom money or die.  It’s just not who he is. Born to lose.  Like most of us.  Which is why we love him.  And why we pray for Doug Berry’s island to be hit by a tsunami.   Soon.  Please, God, soon.  Or if that’s too hard on all the other people there, how about a shark?   Huh?   Just one little fifteen foot Great White Shark mistaking Doug Berry for a seal.  Is that too much to ask?   Okay, then how about a Bull Shark?   Since Doug is full of–oh never mind.

So that’s Drowned Hopes, and I honestly think this was a transitional work for Westlake (he had a lot of those).  If he could write a comic novel this dark, a Dortmunder story where people actually die violently, something’s happening with him.   His early books are very dark indeed, but as the 60’s waned, and the 70’s took hold, he tended more towards the lighter side of things–not light-weight, by any means.  But more optimistic, more upbeat, more inclined to look for the good in people, without ignoring the evil.

But thing is, evil is an interesting subject.  Tom Jimson was an interesting character.  And as I said last time, partly derived from Westlake himself.  From the misanthrope that lurked inside of him, casting a caustic eye on the fatuity of humankind–there’s a moment where he calls Doug ‘Popeye,’ and Doug doesn’t get the joke, is just confused by it.  We’re told by the narrator that “Tom had found, in his long life, that an astonishing number of people had just about no sense of humor at all”   The narrator and Tom are totally in synch at that moment.

But where they go out of synch is that the narrator, Westlake himself, knows that Tom was wrong–no matter how tough you are, you’re going to need somebody sometime.   Like when you’re going down under the water for the last time.  It’s tempting, to live your life like you’re the only person in the world who is really real, but it’s not smart.  And it’s not really living.  Solipsism isn’t a philosophy. It’s a delusion.

Still, there’s something there–something he might do more with, in a different context.  Our next book isn’t really his–it’s a sort of Mad Libs for Mystery Authors, conceived by a guy who clearly had too much spare time on his hands, and it’s a lot of fun–Westlake’s contributions most of all.  And you ask me, it’s the Tim Jimson in him that wrote those.  And then comes a book where Westlake takes his misanthropy to cosmic levels.  He wants to see how far he can go with it–and you ask me, he went too far that time.  But sometimes you need to find where your limits are, before you can do your best work.

And all of this is leading, inexorably, to what may well be his best book.  But perhaps even more importantly, this rediscovery of his darker self is sending out signals, to a long-buried alter ego.  You’re needed.   Come back.

And what rough beast, his hour approaching fast,
Slouches towards Monequois to be reborn?

PS: I did enjoy finding nautically themed poems and song lyrics to introduce each segment.  For the last one, I considered several alternatives, including the Popeye Song, one of the racier versions of Barnacle Bill the Sailor, or maybe something from H.M.S. Pinafore.  But nothing seemed quite as right as Stan Rogers’ great salvage chanty, and I’ll end with that–but not Stan Rogers’ version (which you can find yourselves easily enough). No, I think I’ll go with Liam.  Still missing him.  Three times I saw him and Mr. Makem perform live.  And I’ll never see them again.  No, Nay, Never.  No Never, No More.


Filed under John Dortmunder novels

Review: Drowned Hopes, Third Down

We need another plan,” May told them.  “We need some other way to get to that money that isn’t dynamite and that Tom Jimson will go along with.  But John won’t even talk about it, and he absolutely won’t think about it.  So what I was hoping from this meeting, I was hoping one of us would come up with something I could tell Tom, something that would at least slow him down, some kind of plan, or even an idea for a plan.  Something.”

There was a little uncomfortable silence in the cab, punctuated by Mom’s maledictions against the world of drivers and pedestrians and New York City traffic conditions generally.  At last Tiny spread his catcher’s-mitt hands and said, “May that ain’t my field.  I pick up heavy things, I move them, I put them down, that’s what I do.  Sometimes I persuade people to change their minds about certain things.  I’m a specialist, May, and that’s my specialty.”

Stan said “I’m a driver.  I’m the best in the business–”

“He is,” his Mom said, as she swerved around a wallowing stretch limo driven by a Middle Eastern refugee who’d cleared Customs & Immigration earlier that morning.  “I’m his mother, but I’ve got to admit it, my boy Stan is a good driver.”

“The best,” Stan corrected.  “But, May, I don’t do plans.  Getaways I can do.  Vehicles I can drive; there isn’t a thing in the world with wheels and a motor I can’t drive.  I could give Tom Jimson very professional advice on how he’ll never get away from that county if he blows the dam, but that’s about it from me.

May said, “Andy?  What about you?  You have millions of ideas.”

“I sure do,” Andy agreed.  “But one at a time.  And not connected with each other.  A plan, now, a plan is a bunch of ideas in a row, and, May, I’m sorry, I’ve never been good at that.”

“God damn the State of New York!” Mom cried, sideslipping past a pipe-smoking psychiatrist in a Mercury Macabre.  “They give anybody a license to drive a car!

“They also released Tom Jimson,” May pointed out.

Ken had his Cadillac, but as he drove away, he just didn’t feel very happy about it.  Much of the fun had gone out of the transaction.  There were right ways and wrong ways to do things.  A repo-man took a car, the people driving it resisted.  That was the way it had always been, that was the way it would always be.

But not with these cheesecakes.

Halfway back to the city, however, the Toyota behind him on the towbar, Ken brightened.  First Gyppo blood for him, right?  He turned on the radio and started to drum his fingers on the steering wheel in time with the music.  He’d finally figured out what was wrong with those screwy people who’d just given him the Caddy without any argument.

They were crooks; and you just couldn’t trust crooks.  Crooks never did what was right and proper.  Only the old guy who’d wanted to kill him had it right.

From 32 Cadillacs, by Joe Gores.

When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin’
“Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya”
At seven pm a main hatchway caved in, he said
“Fellas, it’s been good t’know ya”
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went outta sight
Came the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Gordon Lightfoot

This is the second and final Westlake novel to cross-over with a Joe Gores novel about the San Francisco based detective agency, Dan Kearny and Associates (DKA for short).   The first had actually been a Stark novel, Plunder Squad, and the crossing of paths took place relatively early in both books.  Dan Kearny is looking for a guy Parker is tangentially connected to–they met briefly just before the events of The Hunter, and it’s just enough of a connection for Kearny to persuade Parker to help him–more or less just to make Kearny go away.  It’s understood (not least by Kearny himself) that if Kearny was enough of a problem, he’d be going away for keeps.  But Parker doesn’t make murder the answer to every problem in life.

32 Cadillacs isn’t as long as Drowned Hopes, but it’s much longer than Dead Skip, the book that crossed over with Plunder Squad.  It’s also very different in subject matter and tone and even style.  Whereas Dead Skip was a grim hardboiled detective drama, full of life and death choices, 32 Cadillacs is a light comedy, where nobody gets killed at all.  DKA goes after a band of gypsies (the Romany kind, nothing to do with Jimi) who have used false identities to swindle (not heist) their way to thirty one brand new fully loaded Cadillacs  on the same day (and there’s one more, but I don’t need to explain that here).  The bank responsible for all those never-to-be-paid loans wants the cars back.

What you see up top is a passage where a new employee of the firm, tough savvy Vietnam vet and repo zen master Ken Warren (introduced in this book, and I enjoyed the sections dealing with him most of all) proves his superior mettle once again by finding one of the Caddies,  which Kelp had unknowingly stolen from one of the Roma who had stolen it via subtler methods (it had MD plates, how was he to know?).

Contrariwise to the previous collaboration, this crosstextual encounter happens quite late in both books.  Ken’s interaction with the gang (and all other aspects of his life) is complicated by his very serious speech defect, which Westlake refers to as a ‘glottal stop.’  I have no idea if this is technically accurate in speech therapist terms, but it gets the point across.   Ken drives up in his rented Toyota Chemistra (Gores just calls it a red Toyota, since his readers won’t get the joke), and takes possession of the pilfered Caddie, only to be caught in the act.

There’s this moment of disorientation, Ken and the gang misunderstanding each other’s motives, and then Kelp figures out the mistake, and there was never a more affable guy than Kelp.  Sure, take the car, what do we care, have a great day.   Tom Jimson, who absolutely does want to make murder the answer to everything, briefly argues for killing Ken.  Well, it’s not an argument so much as a dictate, but he’s not in charge, so it’s ignored.  The Dortmunder Gang doesn’t make murder the answer to anything.  Ken, perversely enough, seems more sympathetic to Tom’s outlook.  The most hard-boiled character in Gores’ book, even though he’s got a heart as big as all outdoors.

32 Cadillacs is a light-hearted romp, as I said–a good part of it involves two members of DKA who are secretly sweet on each other going to bed with two dangerously attractive gypsies they’re pumping for intel (and I use the word ‘pumping’ advisedly), and there’s also something about a gypsy king who is said to be dying, which triggers a lot of the machinations of the book.  Ken Warren aside, it’s about as hard-boiled as a one minute egg.  I assume it was always meant to be such, since Gores says in the introduction that he was already well into writing it when Westlake, having read some early chapters, suggested another cross-over, which turned out to be in this book we’re looking at now.

But Gores, who quite possibly might have retooled aspects of his book to link up better with Westlake’s, certainly is trying for his own version of Westlake’s comic stylings here, and I will state my opinion that while Dead Skip was a fair match for Plunder Squad, this one doesn’t come close to the level of Drowned Hopes–which is a comedy, of course, but a very black one indeed.  The darkest of the Dortmunders.  The starkest, even.  So it’s both funnier and harder than Gores’ book.  Which is still well worth reading, for fans of that series.  But for fans of this series, the most interesting stuff is probably Ken’s (and therefore Gores’) impressions of the gang.

Kelp: A wiry little guy with a sharp nose.

Dortmunder: Tall and bony and middle-aged.   (Ken isn’t impressed).

Tiny: An elephant in clothes.  Not a fat elephant either.  (Ken is rightly confident in his ability to handle the toughest customers, but he gives himself no chance of taking this guy).

May: A not-bad-looking woman making unconscious motions like a person lighting a cigarette.  (Drowned Hopes is the book where chain smoker May finally kicks the habit, and it’s been hell on her, as it is on everyone).

Murch’s Mom: A feisty little woman in a man’s cloth cap.

Now of course, if we wish to, we may say that this proves that Dortmunder and Parker inhabit the same universe, since both have had dealings with DKA (even though Parker is indirectly cited as a fictional character in Drowned Hopes, when Dortmunder brings up the events of Jimmy the Kid).

But to me, 32 Cadillacs is so different from Dead Skip as to make it an alternate universe take on the DKA characters, even if it’s part of the same series overall (and the timelines don’t match up very well either).  I’ve never been a huge fan of literalism, anyway, and least of all when it gets in the way of a good story. Worth mentioning that this was the first DKA novel since the late 1970’s.  A lot has changed in the genre during the interim.  Gores is updating his technique.   To some extent so is Westlake, but he’s on much surer footing in comic terrain.  Anyway, it was a good excuse to read Gores’ book.  Back to the book at hand.

May convenes an impromptu meet of the string members in Murch’s Mom’s taxi cab.  This meeting pointedly excludes Dortmunder (who won’t even discuss going back to the reservoir) and Tom Jimson (who is in the process of recruiting people to help him blow up the dam and drown all the townspeople, something you suspect he’d cheerfully do for beer money, let alone the $700,000 buried there).

Nobody has any useful ideas as to how to persuade Dortmunder to help, nor can any of them come up with a viable plan for getting at the money without the use of dynamite.  Because none of them are heist planners–not their area of expertise.  Dortmunder is the planner, and two consecutive incidents of nearly being swallowed alive by that malevolent body of water  has left him with a serious case of PTSD (Positive Terror of Stupidly Drowning).

So Murch’s Mom (her first name still unknown to anyone other than her son–I would hope), who is, like so many loyal residents of Gotham, experiencing that periodic burnout that comes from living in the most stressful place on earth that isn’t in a state of all out civil war (not formally, anyhow), comes up with her own plan–she and May go to Dudson Center.  They rent a house (a bungalow yet!).  They live there.  Directly in the path of the impending deluge.   May keeps house.  Murch’s Mom gets a job driving for the local cab company–she drives a Plymouth Frenzy.   She gloats over the fact that the drivers there “don’t fight back.” This is what she calls a ‘vacation,’ and that’s what any real New Yorker would call it.

Dortmunder hears about this from Stan, who is peeved at his mom for abandoning New York City (and endangering her life, that too).   Dortmunder is appalled, horrified, but at the same time, he must admit to himself that the woman he’s sharing his life with is no one to be trifled with when her moral dudgeon is up.

And much as May, consort to a thief, serial shoplifter of her own employer, may practice situational ethics with the best of them, nothing arouses her moral dudgeon like the death of innocent people.  To the best of her knowledge, at least some of the people in Dudson Center and the adjacent lesser Dudsons are innocent.   And after all, God said he’d spare even Sodom and Gomorrah if there were just ten righteous men living there.   And now there are two (selectively) righteous women living in Dudson Center (possibly two more, and we’ll get to them).

Dortmunder isn’t God, but since whatever else you may say about him, he loves May with all his scruffy downtrodden Wile E. Coyote heart, it is now his sad Lot in life to try and spare this picayune Gomorrah from destruction.  (That pun was old school.  Not to mention Old Testament).

In the meantime, Doug Berry, diving instructor/playboy of the southeastern coast of Long Island, is fishing–for clues.  He knows these criminal types who had him train and equip them for freshwater diving are after something good at the bottom of a reservoir, and he wants a piece of it.  There are a lot of reservoirs in New York, but he assiduously eliminates them until he comes to do research at the North Dudson library, which is staffed by none other than the delightful Myrtle Street, illegitimate daughter of Tom Jimson, daughter to Edna, newfound friend to Wally Knurr, and now potential love interest for Doug Berry, though his primary interests lie elsewhere (namely the mirror).

The girl at the counter was pretty enough, though not as pretty as he, which he knew without gloating about it; his good looks were simply a fact of nature, a part of who he was.  (Pretty men feel differently about their beauty from pretty women, are less proud of it and protective toward it and prepared to display it.  Their attitude toward their looks is rather like the attitude of the old rich toward their money: they’re pleased to have it but consider mentioning it vulgar, even in their thoughts).

Doug approached the pretty-enough girl, smiling a winning smile, and said “Hi.”

“Hi,” she answered.  As women tended to do, she perked up in his presence.  “What can I do for you?”

“I’m interested in two things,” he told her, then grinned at himself and shook his head and said “Let me rephrase that.  Right now, there’s two things I’m interested in.”

“Two library things,” she amplified, flirting with him just slightly

Very reminiscent of Grofield’s exchange in Butcher’s Moon with Doreen, the perky young blonde librarian he charms into helping him do research, then later genially fucks in a Chevy Impala.  Is Doug a variation on Grofield?  Leaving aside the fact he’s blonde, and Grofield most definitely isn’t, Grofield is very serious and committed about both of his professions by the time we meet him. The blondes are just a sideline.  He’s already found his life’s work, and his life’s companion.   Grofield has everything he ever wanted in life other than enough cash to put on his plays.

Doug seems more like he’s shopping around for a new modus vivendi.  He’s athletic, friendly, flirtatious, generally lacking in malice but determined to get the better things in life for himself without doing the 9 to 5 crap, and while he feels the odd bit of guilt here and there, he’s mainly looking out for #1–doesn’t form strong personal attachments, at least in this stage of his life.  He figures there must be somebody who can point him to a better way of getting what he wants, give him a few pointers, get him on the road to real freedom at last.  Doesn’t think of himself as a crook, but not the least bit averse to breaking the law as long as he figures he can get away with it.  An amateur on the way to becoming a pro.

Oh right.  Stan Devers.  That’s where Doug comes from.  But this time with a very specific skill (diving) and without the military background.  Not nearly as tough and ruthless as the guy from the Parker novels (Doug wouldn’t have been able to cut it there), and with the exception of Tom (who he hasn’t met yet), neither are the guys he’s been working with here, who have tried to shut him out of this sweet score, working for a mere pittance.  He’s a bit intimidated by them, but not really scared (yet). And right now, courtesy of some old newspapers, he’s figured out that he has found both the site of the buried cash and a good looking girl to seduce and abandon.  He can multi-task.

So while Doug begins a relentless campaign for Myrtle’s maidenhead (her mother, who was getting knocked up by a felon when she was Myrtle’s age, is a bit disgusted that her girl’s still a virgin in her 20’s–each generation inverting the mistakes of the one before it), Dortmunder must embark upon the far less pleasurable and considerably more dangerous campaign of persuading Tom Jimson to give him another crack at solving the reservoir puzzle without resort to high explosives.

He’s in luck–well, you know–Dortmunder luck.   Tom is holed up in a rundown apartment building in Alphabet City, the intersection of 13th St. and Avenue C, which is a crime and drug invested hell hole in 1990 (if you want to know what it costs to live there now, you couldn’t afford it).  He recruited a few addled addicts to pull the job, figuring he didn’t need real pros to just blow the dam–two of them get blown up along with the dam, and as Dortmunder quickly deduces, the other, tasked with pulling the money coffin out of the mud would meet with some unfortunate accident afterwards (“You know me so well, Al,” Tom chuckles without actually smiling).

Well, just before Dortmunder got there, these guys decided that since they knew where the reservoir was, they didn’t need Tom.  A mistake only slightly less serious than agreeing to work with him in the first place.  The police will find their bodies eventually.

Tom was not at all pleased that Dortmunder is only interested once more in pulling the job because of a woman.  Had his existing string not unraveled so abruptly, he was probably going to give Dortmunder the same treatment.  But he must admit, finding solid professionals with absolutely no scruples or knowledge of Tom’s reputation for whacking his accomplices is harder than one might think (outside the financial sector, of course, but this isn’t their kind of job).

As they descended, Tom said, “The quality of help these days, Al, it’s a real scandal.”

“I guess it is,” Dortmunder agreed.

“You and your pals, Tom went on, “seem to have a little trouble closing with the problem, but at least you’re steady and reliable.”

“That’s right,” Dortmunder said.

“And nothing at all up your veins.”

“My blood and me,” Dortmunder said as they reached the ground floor and headed toward the smashed defense of the front door, “have an agreement.  It does its job and I don’t pester it.”

So it’s agreed.  Tom will once again put off the drowning of the Dudsons, to see if Dortmunder can find an alternate path to the coffin full of cash.  They will all move out to the bungalow in Dudson Center.   Yes, that means Tom too.  Tom himself says, the only way they can be sure he’s not blowing up the dam is if he’s directly in the path of where the water would go afterwards.  So once again May’s firm moral stance comes not without a personal price for her (and everybody else in the gang).   Well hey, if doing right didn’t have any drawbacks, we’d all be saints, right?

We see Tom take the Amtrak train from Penn, robbing a naive kid along the way, and enjoying  what the narrator describes as ‘interior monologue’, informing us parenthetically that “A man no one can trust is a man who can trust no one, and therefore is a man liable to take to the diversion of internal monologue.”

But internal monologue can only divert one so long.  And in this transit-based chapter, there’s a reference I’m still trying to comprehend.  We’re told Tom is reading a paperback book.  Fiction.  Something we know Parker would never ever do, and probably not Dortmunder either, unless Kelp made him.

The book is Dark Hazard, by W.R. Burnett, and I’m belatedly pleased to confirm my earlier suspicions that Westlake was well familiar with that pioneering crime author, not that there was ever much doubt in my mind.  I’ve read Drowned Hopes before, but didn’t pick up on this last time out.  Having recently read The Asphalt Jungle to prepare for my article about potential influences on the Parker novels, my curiosity was piqued.  I got a copy of Dark Hazard.  First edition.  Not expensive.  Wish I’d gotten the paperback.

Tom has almost finished the book after two hours on the train (it’s over 300 pages in hardcover, so Tom’s a fast reader).  We’re told that he can see by that time that it’s not going to have a happy ending.  We’re not told what that means, though.  We’re not told a blessed thing about the book except its title and that Tom Jimson is reading it intently.

So when I reached that passage a few weeks back, I figured maybe Tom just likes to see a lot of mayhem and murder in his stories (and who doesn’t?)–we’ve been told about his unnerving habit of cackling gleefully when he’s watching television and bad things happen to good people, so for him maybe the only happy ending is a tragic one.  Or maybe it’s a heist story, and for him a happy ending means the crooks get away with it.  But see, neither of those could be the answer to the question of why he thinks it’s not a happy ending, because this isn’t really a crime novel at all, per se, and there’s absolutely no killing and damned little violence in it.  Two brief fistfights is about all.

Dark Hazard is about Jim, a big shambling good-hearted guy who used to keep a string of thoroughbreds.  Gambled on the races and any other action he came across.  He was good with the horses, but he had to give them up, because they eat a lot, and his finances were erratic, as is the case with most gamblers.  Then he met this classy dame whose once-genteel family had come on hard times due to irresponsible men, and somehow the two of them clicked, and got married, and he reformed for her, because she despises all aspects of the Sporting Life, considers it low-class (she’s from Ohio–as was Burnett himself).  It’s all very O. Henry, up to this point.  You could imagine him selling his watch, only to find she’d sold her hair.

Then through an odd series of events, he becomes enamored of greyhound racing, and in particular of this one dog named Dark Hazard (you can just call him Pat), a shy mild-mannered coal black pooch who just happens to be a demon on the track, and who returns the hero’s affections in full measure.

Clearly Burnett knew his onions about these dogs, as he ought to have done, since he owned War Cry, a champion racer, who appears in the movie version of this book with Edward G. Robinson, because nearly every book Burnett ever wrote had a movie version, only they should have waited until Sterling Hayden was available (but how could they know that in 1934?).

Anyway, Jim’s wife feels like he’s backsliding, she’s pregnant, she’s terrified of economic ruin, of coming down in the world, after what she’s been through already, so she leaves him, taking most of his winnings with her, leaving Jim destitute and broken.  He eventually rejoins  her in Ohio, but then he finds out Dark Hazard has fallen on hard times, and will be destroyed if he doesn’t buy him, so he does.  Having such a dog, he wants to race him.  That’s the final straw for the marriage (the wife had already cheated on him with her old Ohio boyfriend, who she will now marry, and whose physical description sounds oddly like Burnett’s, based on the photos I’ve seen–Jim knocks him down before he leaves).

So as the book ends, our hero is heading towards the dog track, homeless and broke, and he’s sad over what happened, but he never belonged in that life, you see.  It was never right for him–he was just pretending, working boring dead end jobs in the Depression, never having any real fun, never being who he was, just so he could stay married to a woman who didn’t even want to understand him.

And then he cheers up at the very end, forgets his sadness, faces life bravely once more, because now he can have the life he originally wanted, the one he had before with the ponies, except anybody who isn’t a total bum (which Jim isn’t) can afford to keep a dog (hell, I’ve seen actual bums with dogs who looked happier than many a pampered poodle).  And the dog, unlike the woman, loves him for exactly who and what he is.  When this dog dies, there’ll be others, perhaps sired by Dark Hazard.  Jim’s living the life he was meant for, and it’s not perfect, it’s not without risks, but neither is any other.  So to me, that actually is a happy ending.  Bittersweet, let’s say.

But not to Tom.  Why?   He doesn’t care about women–when Dortmunder braces him about May, he says Dortmunder needs to realize there’s a lot of women in the world and just one you.  From Tom’s POV, Jim wasn’t living the good life when we met him, he was working as a hotel clerk, with basically zero chance of advancement.  All he’s done is change a life he didn’t want with a woman he loved for the life he does want, with a dog he loves basically just as much, only the dog doesn’t nag.  Jim’s attractive to the bolder brassier women who frequent the racing world, so there’ll be female companionship as well as canine.

Tom probably doesn’t give a damn about dogs either (maybe he’s even a bit scared of them, as Dortmunder is, and as I’ve sometimes thought Westlake was), but what would have been a happy ending for him?  Westlake knows, because he always knows more about his characters than he tells us in the books.  But I can’t figure the angle here.  And that bugs me.  The book is referenced three times in this chapter.   Why mention it at all?   There was never a more thoughtful writer than Donald E. Westlake.  He had his own interior monologue going on at all times.

Hmmm.   Maybe that’s it.  Tom Jimson is Donald E. Westlake.   An aspect of him he doesn’t often give voice to in his books, except maybe here and there in his villains.  A darker version of his own self, with that patented sardonic sense of humor, and a jaundiced view of human nature–without the compensating empathy and friendliness, not to mention a means of self-expression that doesn’t require actual violence.  Somebody who has entirely tuned out the needs and wants of others, to concentrate exclusively on what he wants and how to get it.

And here’s the clincher (and it took me too damn long to notice it).  Burnett’s novel first saw the light of day in 1933–same year Westlake was born (prematurely) in New York.  Coincidence my Aunt Fanny. Tom is Westlake.  Westlake isn’t Tom, but he doesn’t have any problem imagining how he could have become some version of Tom, if a few things had gone differently (like for example if his father hadn’t gotten him out of trouble when he was caught stealing that microscope in college).

Same way he created Parker–imagine a different path, focus in on an isolated part of his identity, magnify and extrapolate it–but Parker was given life by the romantic in him–Tom by the cynic.  What all romantics become someday.  And as he told us in an earlier book, cynicism is a spectrum–there’s always somebody more cynical and selfish than you.  But suppose you turned the dial all the way up to eleven?  Then you’d have Tom Jimson.

So for Tom, a happy ending would be Jim realizing that caring about anyone else, even a dog, is the bunk.  He should have gone back to the life he enjoyed, sure, ditch the ball & chain–but just live for himself, nobody else.  Take what he wants, who he wants, when he wants.   But the big dumb ox is a natural born simp–he’s got to have somebody in his life to care about, to look after, to come home to, even if it’s just a dumb animal.  That’s why it’s not a happy ending to Tom Jimson.

And how many people reading this book would get any of that?   This isn’t Little Caesar.  Dark Hazard is barely even remembered as a movie these days.  That’s not the point.  The point is that Westlake knows his man.  Because part of him is that man.  And the best way to exorcise a devil in yourself, or at least hold him in check, is to see him, clearly, for what he is.

Okay, now I feel better.  By the way, ending aside, I personally didn’t think Burnett’s book was that good (you can ask me why in the comments section if you give a damn), but that isn’t the point either.  Synopsis resumes.

Dortmunder knows Tom isn’t going to wait very long for him to solve the problem.  He goes back to see Wally Knurr, who serves John cheese and crackers (he does this anytime somebody comes calling), and Dortmunder levels with him about what Tom is going to do if they can’t find an alternate plan.  Realizing that people he’s come to like–Myrtle Street and ‘Miss May’ (this is what he calls her, nerds can be courtly)–Wally runs through a bunch of simulations on his computer, and the ones that involve Spaceships from Zog go fine, but the ones that involve dynamite invariably mean drowning a lot of people.

Dortmunder expresses his discontent that he came to talk to a person about his problems, and now he’s talking to a machine that thinks there’s a planet named Zog–Wally realizes he’s been using the computer as a crutch to avoid dealing with people.  He turns it off, and they talk–and he asks a simple question–why not just get that diving instructor guy in on the job?  This is his area of expertise, just like heist planning is Dortmunder’s, and computers are Wally’s.

Dortmunder is dumbfounded as to why he didn’t think of this before–he realizes he likes to be the one who makes the plans, and was resisting bringing in another specialist.  He tells Wally to sell the computer, he doesn’t need it.  And of course Wally won’t do that, but that’s Dortmunder’s way of telling him he’s smart.  If the computer is any good for anything, it’s because Wally made it that way.

They can’t find Doug, because Doug is too busy trying to find his way into Myrtle’s vagina, and he’s almost fucking there (I know what I said), when Dortmunder catches the two of them on the porch of Myrtle’s house, about to adjourn to the bedroom.  Doug gets dragged away, and Myrtle is very confused, and somewhat relieved, and very disappointed, and still a virgin.  And I’m somewhat reminded of a similar and yet very different coitus interruptus scene in Memory, involving an amnesiac actor and a plain girl named Edna (which I’ll remind you again is Myrtle’s mother’s name).

After listening to Tom Jimson calmly discuss how they should dispose of his body, then having Stan Murch do an abrupt 180 turn on the highway as they head back to New York (just to show off his own skill set, Doug is feeling very very cooperative, as people in a state of mild shock generally tend to feel.  He’ll take whatever cut they’re offering.

Studying the layout on Wally’s computer, he says the way to do it is to get a boat and dive for the treasure–there are ways to triangulate in on it, and to get it up to the surface, without resort to walking along the surface, or following the train tracks in a converted AMC Hornet.  Dortmunder was thinking like a landlubber, because he is a landlubber (he’s lubbing that land more and more, all the time).

So Dortmunder and Tom retrieve one last old stash of Tom’s to get the needed materials, and if you’ve somehow gotten this far without having read the book, and I told you where it was, you wouldn’t believe it.  Honestly, I don’t believe it either.  Call it an homage to The Master of Suspense.  Or The Great Emancipator. You’ll know what I mean when you get there.

So they’re all set–and the weather is wrong.  Clear skies, day and night.  Big bright moon in the sky.  Like all thieves, they need the cover of darkness.  So they wait for the clouds to set in, and as they wait–they change.  They’re just living there in Dudson Center, in this little bungalow, and it’s not their natural habitat, and it’s changing them.  Travel, a change in setting, changes people, alters their identities in ways subtle and otherwise.  Westlake wrote an entire book about that, you may recall.

Stan buys an old wreck of a Lincoln Atlantis (I’m pretty sure that’s another made up car name, but I won’t check, because I kind of wish it wasn’t), and starts fixing it up in the driveway.  His mother starts playing canasta with Myrtle’s mother Edna (neither of them knowing they’re connected to each other through Myrtle and Doug), and I know there is such a game as canasta but I have no idea how it works, and I’d rather no one told me.

Murch’s Mom was enjoying the country at first–the way nobody fights back on the road, the way they let you make a turn, the way everybody is polite–as Stan warned her, it’s starting to wear on her now–she’s afraid she’s getting soft. They’re all getting a bit soft (except for Tom, obviously–he’s happy to watch the rest of them getting soft, makes his part of the job at the very end easier). They’re all starting to lose that city edge.   They’re on vacation.  Until the clouds roll in.   And they always do.

Andy’s going to have to dive with Doug, and Dortmunder feels a bit guilty watching him get ready, but not guilty enough to volunteer to go into that water again.  Andy ends up enjoying the dive, once he adjusts–this is fun!  He’s flying like Superman!   Dortmunder’s plodding along the bottom was never the way. He and Doug find the coffin with the money in it.  They grin at each other down under the water–a meeting of minds.  Two rogues with a shared purpose.

In the meantime, Myrtle has been spying on the bungalow, just a stone’s throw from her house.  Who are all these people?   So much intrigue–the father she’s never known, the seemingly nice little fat guy who showed her how to use a computer, and the big handsome guy who almost showed her how to–you know. Somehow they’re all connected.   There’s some kind of master plan.  But who could be behind it?   Who’s the boss?   She’s a librarian who has led a sheltered life in a small town.  All she really knows is books.   And since it’s a small town library, mainly not very good books.

Conspiracy.   Was Wally the mastermind?  Or was he even now in contact with the mastermind, either in an experimental laboratory concealed within Mount Shasta (Bond) or in an unknown cavern deep beneath the Pentagon (Ludlum)?  Absorbed by Wally’s absorption, feeling that secret pleasure known to peeping Toms everywhere, Myrtle rested the front edge of the binoculars against the window and watched that round, gleaming, wet-eyed, passionate face.  Aliens?  SPECTRE?  A conspiracy at the very highest levels of government?

Or could it, could it somehow be…the Mafia?  Good God!  Was she going to have to read Jackie Collins?

Now that’s what I call a fate worse than death.  Myrtle wonders what nefarious schemes Wally is concocting through his diabolical device.

Wally, of course, is communicating not with a mastermind in an experimental laboratory, but with his computer, which isn’t hooked up to the nascent internet, but still has all the protocols Wally has programmed into it, so he can use it to puzzle out the varied dilemmas of his life.  He sees Myrtle as The Princess, and wishes to rescue her–but he’s not sure she needs rescuing from anything.  The computer, only knowing the games they play, assures him that the hero need only wait for his moment.  But the computer has been given to understand that this particular game is being played in the Real World, which it only knows through Wally.

Remember the specific rule of the game of Real Life.

Of course I remember it.  I entered it into you myself.

Nevertheless.  It is:

  • The tape of Real Life plays only once.
  • There are no corrections or adjustments.
  • Defeat is irreversible.

I know.   I know.  I know.

Why any hero would wish to play such a game is incomprehensible.

(And why I even try to replicate these typographically complex exchanges here in the digital world is also a bit of a puzzle.  As I’ve mentioned, even the Kindle edition doesn’t really manage to get it right.)

So out on the reservoir, that specific rule is asserting itself–it’s raining.  Well, they wanted clouds, didn’t they?   Dortmunder first writes it off as just another jest of the Almighty at his expense, but quickly realizes the inflatable dinghy with the outboard motor Doug said would be adequate for the job is filling with water. It’s going to sink.  He tries to stop it from sinking.  He ends up making it sink faster.

So when Doug and Andy see Dortmunder’s shoe sinking down towards them, they get the idea something’s not right.  They go up, and they can’t find the boat. Or Dortmunder.  A search is made.  No Dortmunder.  They go home sadly.   May, just beginning to despair, goes into the bedroom she and John share. Dortmunder.  She screams.  Women, right?

He saw a light off in the distance and swam for it.  It was the reservoir office in the dam itself, where Bob works.  Remember Bob?   Oh I won’t do that to you again.   But Dortmunder does it to Bob one last time.  He crawls into Bob’s car. In his underwear.  Just to get out of the rain.  He falls asleep.  Then Bob and two co-workers get into the car, to drive home.

Bob has just gotten out of the hospital recently.  Many strange things have happened to him.  His grasp on sanity has become tenuous.  The drugs are not entirely helping.  Apparently he’s now seeing an irritated looking man clad only in wet underpants, crouched below the front seat of his car, frowning at him, and warning him with various threatening gestures not to tell his co-workers (both of whom think Bob is nutso anyway) he’s there.

Dortmunder made his escape without Bob’s coworkers noticing.  Bob quietly asked to go back to the hospital.   No more is seen of Bob.

And no more remains of the Third Down.  Just one more to go (well, there’s a small fraction of a down after that, but we’ll just roll that into the fourth one, because seriously).

I think I myself need a vacation, and in fact I shall soon be departing my fair city, currently in the grips of a heat wave, and make my way to a fine hostelry in Upstate New York for a few days of west and wewaxation at wast.  The Overlook Lodge.  I don’t know why you’re reacting that way, it’s a real place, I can assure you.  We have reservations and everything.   It’s dog friendly (I believe we have the Cujo Room).  I do hope they have red rum there, I’ve always wanted to try it.

So I will try to get this one finished before the end of the month–there’s wifi there, and like Murch’s Mom, I sometimes do a little work while I’m vacationing.  All play and no work makes Fred a dull boy.  All play and no work makes Fred a dull boy.  All play and no work makes Fred…….

PS: If anyone’s wondering, no, I am not getting any payola from the Great Lakes Brewing Company, located in beautiful Cleveland (I’m not even getting free beer!), but I finally managed to get some of their superlative brews, bizarrely unavailable here in New York City–ordered them from a company there that specializes in Trappist Ales and other quality items made in monasteries, and Great Lakes decidedly isn’t a monastery, but Clevelanders stick together, which I trust shall stand them in good stead tonight.  You survived burning rivers, guys.  You’ll survive this.  We all will.  And I love my new t-shirt I bought on ebay.

At times in this world, we all are.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Drowned Hopes, Second Down

“The thirty-thousand dollar driver,” Tom said, and did his chuckle noise.

Stan looked pleasantly at Dortmunder.  “Am I supposed to get that?”



Kelp and Stan took chairs at the table, Kelp sitting next to Dortmunder who had in front of him two glasses–one of them sparkly clean–and a muddy bottle with a label reading AMSTERDAM LIQUOR STORE BOURBON–“Our Own Brand.”  Kelp took the bottle and the clean glass and poured himself a restorative.

Meantime, Stan was saying, “So you’ve got something, huh, John?  And you need a driver.

“This time,” Dortmunder said, “we’re gonna do it right.”

Stan looked alert.  “This time?”

“It’s kind of an ongoing story we’ve got here,” Dortmunder told him.

Kelp put his glass down, smacked his lips, and said to Stan, “It’s trains again.”

“Let’s do it from the beginning, okay, Andy?” Dortmunder said.

“Sure,” Kelp said.

Stan sprinkled a little salt into his beer and looked around, expectantly.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

The very deep did rot – Oh Christ!
That ever this should be.
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs,
Upon the slimy sea.

By Some Guy Named Sam.  I hear he did drugs.  

At some point in this novel that I am reviewing as four separate novels, Donald Westlake got tired of remembering names for current automobile makes (so many cars in this story), and started making them up.  Early in the book, Kelp steals a doctor’s Cadillac Sedan de Ville to provide transportation for the gang–and then later on, there’s a “Cadillac Sedan da Fe” with MD plates.  And that’s not all.  The Mercury Macabre. The Buick Pompous 88.  The Pontiac Prix Fixe.  The Chrysler Country Square.  The Chevy Chamois.  The Acura Silly.  The Datsun S.E.X. 69.  I’m not sure how many such made-up car names appear in this book.   Hell, I’m not even sure all of these are made up.

And this fecundity of fictive flivvers is appropriate, because of all the Dortmunder books, I believe this one gets the most Murch for the mile.  Stan Murch, that is.  And his mother, Mrs. Murch, normally referred to as Murch’s Mom (and this is the book we find out her first name, but out of a mixture of respect for her and fear of her, I’m not going to mention it, because she hates that name.  You can look it up on Wikipedia, which is less easily intimidated).

Stan and his mom were part of the franchise from the first book, but there wasn’t always much for them to do, and they often made only token cameo appearances.   Frankly, for a guy who probably created more (and more interesting) getaway drivers than any three other writers combined,  Westlake had a tendency not to actually show them strutting their stuff–he didn’t write a lot of high speed chases.  I guess his feeling was that if you’re actually being chased by the cops, and they’re close enough on your tail for you to need a first-rate getaway driver to give them the slip, you’re already as good as caught, somewhere on down the line.  An actual car chase would be too Bonnie and Clyde.  There’d have to be banjo music or something.  But he liked writing about drivers, so he found things for them to do.

Thing is, he really created most of his drivers as Richard Stark.  As Westlake, writing Dortmunder heists, he’d found the perfect driver right off the bat in Stan, with just the right set of skills and quirks–his obsession with the fine points of urban navigation.  His admirable refusal to ever drink more than one beer if he was going to be driving, just nurse it along endlessly, restoring the head with a bit of salt (I’m not sure this method works as well as Stan insists, but maybe I’m using the wrong beer–or the wrong salt?).  And his deeply devoted and even more deeply competitive relationship with his cabdriver mom, who taught him everything he knows (but probably not everything she knows).

His services were not required in the First Down, but from the Second Down onwards, Stan and his maniac mater are full-fledged members of the string, Westlake using the extra space to give them their proper due, and flesh them out a bit more (this may be the first book to mention Stan is a redhead).  As I’m using the fact that this part of the book that I’m reviewing as four separate books is less than eighty pages long to do a Stan-centric review.  But keeping up with the Murches isn’t all we’ve got on the agenda here.  Drivers, start your engines.

The Second Down begins with May taking one of her famous tuna casseroles out of the oven–the opening salvo in a campaign to persuade Dortmunder to reconsider his vow to never return to the reservoir that nearly killed him last time, and Tom Jimson can just go ahead and blow up the dam and drown all those people if he likes.   Andy Kelp is there, and Tiny Bulcher, and their newly recruited computer expert Wally Knurr, and unfortunately so is Tom Jimson, still quite determined to go ahead and blow up that dam (and, there can be no doubt, to murder all his confederates in that or any other criminal enterprise, so he can keep all the loot for himself).

Dortmunder isn’t budging–you can’t see your hand in front of your face at the bottom of that reservoir, because of the turbidity–all the muck that gets stirred up.   There’s no way to find the spot where the coffin full of money Tom cached there is buried.  He and Kelp were lucky to get out of there alive.  Kelp isn’t so sure–he’s been reading again.

“What it kind of reminds me of,” Andy said, “is a book I read once.”

John gave him a dubious look.  “Are we gonna hear about Child Heist again?”

“That isn’t the only book I ever read,” Andy told him.  “I’m a pretty big reader, you know.  It’s a habit I picked up on the inside, when I had a lotta leisure time to myself.

Tom said, “I spent my time on the inside thinking about money.”

“Anyway,” Andy insisted, “about this book.  It was a story about the Normandie, the ship that sank at the pier in New York in–”

“I got pictures of that,” John said, “in that Marine Salvage book.”

“Well, this is a different book,” Andy told him.  “It isn’t a fact book, it’s the other kind.  A story.”

“The Normandie‘s a fact,” John maintained.  “I’ve got pictures of it.”

“Still and all,” Andy said, “this is a story about the fact of the Normandie.  Okay?”

“Okay,” John said, “I just wanted to be sure we understood each other.”  and he filled his mouth with more pound cake, stuffing a little mocha butterscotch ice cream in around the edges.

“Well, the story, Andy said, with a little more edge than necessary, “is about the divers who went down inside the Normandie and tried to fix it up so they could float it again.  And I was thinking when I was down in that lake, what we had there was exactly the same as what this guy described in the book.”

John looked at him with flat disbelief.  “Down in that lake?  You were down in that lake and you were thinking about books?”

“Among other things.”

“I was concentrating on the other things,” John said.

May wants Dortmunder to do the right thing, save those people, get his share of the money, and not drown himself, which is  a lot to pull off, even in exchange for her tuna casserole, pound cake and mocha butterscotch ice cream (which sounds horrible, but hey, more chocolate chip mint for me).  So she asks Andy to find that book, and get the name of the author, so they can call him and try to learn the secrets of defeating turbidity.

The author’s name turns out to be Justin Scott.  He wrote a lot of books about boats and salvaging and stuff, and he wrote mysteries, and he often liked to combine the two, and he still does, sometimes under pseudonyms.  Westlake mentions him in the dedication to this book.  Apparently Westlake called upon the fraternal bond of the Mystery Writers of America to get some technical data from Mr. Scott, who also agreed to be featured in an offstage cameo in Drowned Hopes.  Talking to Kelp on the phone.  Well really, who wouldn’t agree to that?

So Andy bends his ear, telling a story about how he’s a huge fan, and this friend of his upstate dropped a very expensive camera in this pond, and there’s all this turbidity, and isn’t there some way to find that camera that world-renowned author Justin Scott would know about?   Mr. Scott says he’s had calls of this general nature before, though with a slightly different objective.

“Reason I know is, my novel The Shipkiller is always falling overboard. It’s about boats, and sailors drop it in the water accidentally.  I know it’s accidental because they call me up for another copy.  They can’t find it in the stores.  Well, I can’t find it in the stores either, and—”

“A truly excellent novel,” Kelp silenced the writer.  “My friend on Parmalee Pond admired it greatly, my friend who dropped his camera.  Overboard.”

Dortmunder watched Kelp with grudging admiration; this crock of horse elbows just flowed out of the guy with no effort at all.

Mr. Scott probably doesn’t get calls like this so often, now that you can just find used books online.  Calls about salvaging sunken valuables maybe he still gets.

(Since 2009, Justin Scott has been collaborating on a series of novels with best-selling author Clive Cussler!  Translation: Justin Scott has been writing nautically themed novels by himself, trying not to make them so good that people get suspicious, then Cussler puts his name on them next to his, and Scott gets a split of the greatly increased take.  It’s called ‘expanding the brand.’  I’m tempted to call it The Dirk Pitts, but nobody ever said making a living as a novelist was easy.  Well, Cussler might say that, privately.  And doesn’t this sound a bit like the premise of a Westlake novel published in 2000?  Which sounded in turn a bit like the premise of a Patricia Highsmith novel published in 1950.  Mr. Scott, I trust no services other than writing were required of you?)

Sadly, Mr. Scott can offer no useful input, other than to say that 80% of salvage divers working in these sightless underwater conditions went insane from claustrophobia.  20% were able to work by feel alone to get the job done.  Dortmunder is in no doubt regarding which percentile he’d be in.  (Me neither–I pushed the panic button on my MRI after ten seconds in that lined coffin.  Ultrasound scan worked just fine.)

Dortmunder wakes up that night, cussing a blue streak–he’s thought of another way to get at the money.  So he’s got to go back down there again.  Why was he cursed with this criminal genius?

It’s trains again.   Like the Tom Thumb, from The Hot Rock, which Kelp cheerfully informs a mystified Wally about as they find the spot where the tracks of the now (obviously defunct) Dudson, Endicott & Western disappear into the water–the good old DE&W (heh).

The train tracks go right through the center of Putkin’s Corners, right by the site of the buried treasure.  So the plan is to figure out some way to roll right down those tracks in a vehicle of some type, avoiding excessive turbidity, then float the coffin to the surface.  The town is in a valley.  Gravity will provide most of the needed propulsion.   Poling will provide the rest.

But now they need money again for the necessaries.   Tom has a bunch of little stashes all over the place, but none nearby.  He grudgingly agrees to take Dortmunder out west, to his old stomping grounds of Oklahoma (and in Tom’s case, we may assume the stomping was not metaphorical).  To a little town name of Cronley.   And this, believe it or not, constitutes yet another friendly shout-out to a fellow mystery writer.  Who certainly seems to have been a kindred comic capering spirit (and he’s also still around, and still working out of Oklahoma).

If you’ve never heard of him, you still might have heard of this–

Damn, this guy gets good artwork.  None of his stuff is evailable, and some of his first editions are really pricey, but I loved the Bill Murray movie (on cable, I missed it in the theater like nearly everybody else), and I expect I’ll get around to him in due course.

So as they head for the now-deserted (or very nearly) town of Cronley, Tom gives Dortmunder, who is rather disturbed by the sheer flatness of the place, a little impromptu history lesson.  Why is the Oklahoma town he stashed this money in just as dead as the upstate NY town that got turned into a lake?

“See, Oklahoma stayed dry after Prohibition. What it is, you take people, you give them a lot of trouble and misery, what they always do, every single time, Al, you can set your watch by this, what they do is, they decide God gave them all this trouble and misery because they done something wrong, so if they give themselves even more trouble and misery maybe God’ll let up on them.  You see it everywhere.  In the Middle Ages–a guy inside told me this–back then, the big way to keep from getting the plague was to beat yourself with whips.  So Oklahoma, poor and miserable and dry as dust, decided to make itself even drier so then maybe God would leave them alone.  So, no booze.”

“That was the mistake?” Dortmunder asked.  “That’s what killed Cronley?  No booze?”

“It set the situation up,” Tom answered.  “See, what happens is, you put a law on the books, no matter how dumb it is, sooner or later somebody’s gonna come along dumb enough to enforce it.  That’s what happened back in the fifties.  Oklahoma cops boarded a through passenger train and arrested the bartender in the bar car for serving drinks in a dry state.”

“Wait a minute,” Dortmunder said.  “On the train?”

“The through train, comin in this side of the state, going out that side.  Took the barman off, put him in jail overnight, the railroad people come around the next day and got him out.”  Tom did that thing of grinning without moving his lips.  “Fun night for the barman, huh?  Al, you’re gonna take that county road up there.”

And according to Tom Jimson, this is what led the railroad (or Amtrak as we now call it) to eventually shut down all railway lines in the entire state of Oklahoma, and that’s why no trains go through that state to this very day.   Now I probably would have remembered to fact-check this, but Greg Tulonen (and Cecil Adams) saved me the trouble.  And as was sometimes the case with Mr. Westlake’s little history lessons, some creative liberties were taken with what was undoubtedly a bizarre episode in the annals of American mass transit.

Dortmunder takes that county road, and turns out Tom hid the dough in the sewage system of the town’s tallest structure (all of five stories), the Cronley Hotel.  Figured nobody would ever look for it there.   Figured right.  What nobody figured was that one of his screwed ex-partners (one he didn’t get around to murdering) would have gotten out of a really bad stretch in prison that happened due to Tom being a treacherous bastard on general principle, and he’s been haunting the ghost town of Cronley ever since, hoping Tom would come back for the loot, and he’d get them both–the loot and Tom’s head.

He’s seen them all come and go, the hippies, the scavengers looking for odds and ends, the urban archeologists and other such folks, and he’s outlasted them all, just waiting for that one supreme moment of his life when he gets his own back.  He got some sex from a good-hearted hippie chick once (The Great God Westlake taking pity on a fool), but other than that, he’s had the typical life of a batty old hermit living for revenge.

So this fella, name of Guffey (he can’t remember his first name anymore), who thinks Tom Jimson is named Tim Jepson (close enough, and maybe he was for a while), gets the drop on Dortmunder, and then Tom/Tim/Whoever comes up behind him and knocks him out with a smelly wine bottle stuffed with cash.  Now here’s where you’d think Tom would tie up a loose end and kill the guy (as Parker would have done in a New York minute), but Dortmunder doesn’t want to be party to any killings, and the beat-down wreck of a human being that is Guffey just doesn’t seem worth the effort.   Thing is, Tom, people can fool you sometimes.

We then get a nice little meet-up at the OJ Bar and Grill, where Kelp gets to listen in on an argument about where these damn yuppies came from–there’s a dispute among the regulars as to whether they are aliens from outer space, or the new buildings they’re moving into are sort of roach motels put up by aliens from outer space in order to lure them in and then take them to outer space, where they’ll be kept in zoos for the amusement of said aliens.  I’m taking no position on this, as both opinions seem reasonable.   This is where Stan Murch is introduced to Tom, and briefed on the situation at hand, as you see up top.

So Stan is tasked with obtaining a car specially modified to run on the train tracks down into the reservoir.  As cheaply as possible.   To this end, he and his mom go searching for an extra-special car to steal,  which turns out to be a dove-gray Aston-Martin with diplomat plates–perfect!   The New York cops will barely even pretend to look for it, hating diplomats and their immunity as they traditionally do.

The car is intended as a gift for Max, proprietor of Maximilian’s Used Cars, somewhere around the border of the far fringes of Brooklyn and Queens, out near the Nassau county line.  Outlaw country.  Max and his fabled automotive emporium were introduced in Jimmy the Kid, I believe, and this is his first appearance in the series since then.   His first appearance here at The Westlake Review as well.   Not his last, I trust.

The relationship is simple–Stan lifts cars, Max pays him as little as he can get away with, then sells the merchandise for as much as he can.  It seems that without Stan, Max would never have anything but junkers and lemons on his lot–he can sell junkers and lemons, but you like that extra touch of class to give the suckers, I mean customers, a bit of hope.

(Sidebar: Stan never hotwires the cars he steals–he’s got a ring of keys, and sooner or later he finds one that will unlock the car and start the ignition.  Was this really a thing?  Even if it was, given all the security tech now embedded in modern autos, I’d assume it wouldn’t work anymore.  So what would Stan have nowadays?  Some little gizmo that keeps sending electronic pulses to the car’s sensors until it hits the right one?   Is that a thing now?

You can always just put the car on a flatbed truck and drive away with it.  That’s what happened to my friend’s old reliable Toyota Camry.  Heisted over near the George Washington Bridge, taken off to New Jersey, probably meant for the used car market in Latin America, or else they were going to chop it.  The cops found the car theft ring in Paramus, if memory serves, but by that time my friend had the insurance money and a new Ford Escape, which he still has.

But I was there when he discovered the theft, his jaw kind of hanging down to the sidewalk as he gaped at the space his car had occupied only an hour or so before (and do I need to mention that many many people drove right by on that busy bridge-access road, as the theft was occurring in broad daylight?   I guess it’s kind of humorous in retrospect.  I wouldn’t have given him any Dortmunder novels to read around that time.  It’s funnier to read about than experience.  I’ve never owned a car, so I’m Murch-proof.  End-sidebar.)

So anyway, Stan and Max have their usual lively discourse, and as they’re out there on the lot, there’s these swarthy gentlemen eagerly perusing an ancient ugly Chevy Impala, which no reasonable person would want, but they do, and Stan suddenly starts talking about how perfect this car would be for a suicide bomber, and the guys make their excuses and leave in something of a hurry.

Max is livid–why would Stan do such a thing?  Sure, probably that’s what they wanted it for, but so what?  All that means is that they’ll never come back complaining about how the car broke down on them, as most of the cars he sells invariably do.  Good hard cash, no returns.  The Perfect Customer.   Stan points out that he would shortly afterwards receive a visit from the FBI, who could not arrest him for the legal sale of the Impala, but would surely notice all the many other illegal activities going down there at the lot.

Max realizes Stan did him a huge favor–and we realize that these guys will eventually just rent a van,  try to blow up the World Trade Center with it, then claim it was stolen in order to try and get the four hundred dollar deposit back, and if there was one problem Westlake had about writing realistic crime stories it’s that he hated writing about stupid criminals.

So for doing Max a solid, Stan gets in return, absolutely free, an AMC Hornet, with the necessary alterations (engine removed, top taken off) made by Max’s mighty mechanics.  Stan had intended to give Max the nearly-new Aston-Martin in order to get this favor, but now he will simply sell Max that creampuff for a price so low he’s practically giving it away.

(And hey–it’s not spelled out–but wouldn’t Tom’s Cronley stash have mainly been for the purposes of getting this car and the alterations needed to turn it into a sort of gravity-powered locomotive/submarine?  So did Stan just pocket the cash they gave him, produce the vehicle without a lot of unnecessary details regarding its procurement, and get paid again by Max into the bargain?   Not a man to underestimate, Mr. Murch.)

So it’s time to pull the heist.  Again.   Off to the reservoir.  Again.  This time with Stan Murch, in addition to Dortmunder, Kelp, Tiny Bulcher, and Tom Jimson.  The string keeps getting longer.   Tom is supposed to get half of the 700k, and the remaining funds get split up between whoever Dortmunder needs to do this thing without dynamite.  Tom keeps going “Hee Hee” every time somebody mentions the split.  A whimsical fellow.

And here comes what may well be the only Buster Keaton reference in a series of books I have good reason to believe was at least partly inspired by The Great Stone Face.

The thing is, the railroad doesn’t have handcars anymore.  Those terrific old handcars with the seesaw type of double handle so one guy would push down while the other guy facing him pulled up, and then vice versa, and the handcar would go zipping along the track, that old kind of handcar that guys like Buster Keaton used to travel on, they don’t have them anymore.  All the good things are gone: wood Monopoly houses, Red Ryder, handcars.

Which is why the big sixteen-wheeler that Stan Murch airbraked to a coughing stop at the railway crossing on the old road west of Vilburgtown Reservoir at one A.M. on that cloudless but moonless night did not contain a handcar.  What it contained instead, in addition to diving gear and a winch and other equipment, was a weird hybrid vehicle that had mostly been, before the surgical procedures began, a 1976 American Motors Hornet.  A green Hornet, in fact; so not everything is gone.

And still not gone–I can’t find one converted into a handcar, but I found this pretty easy. Just try to imagine it with the top sawed off and the tires deflated, and you get the general picture.  Just mentally airbrush out the happy picnickers.  Little do they know the bizarre and terrible fate that awaits Old Betsy.  Please don’t tell them.  It might upset their digestion.197620amc20passenger20cars-17

So as we and Dortmunder wait to learn what goes wrong this time, we are moved to ask–what about Bob?  Bob whose wedding got crashed by the gang in the First Down, Bob who got his girlfriend pregnant and reluctantly tied the knot, Bob who works inside the dam Tom Jimson still wishes he could blow up just for the sheer hell of it, Bob who saw a struggling gasping Dortmunder break the surface of the reservoir during the last salvage attempt, and assumed he was a lake monster, Bob who then decided he was going to become a mercenary and leave this unsatisfactory Dudsonian life of his behind forever, Bob who was unable to find a copy of Soldier of Fortune magazine, and ended up coming back home, and had to accept psychiatric counseling as a condition of keeping his job and his pregnant wife?   That Bob.  You surely could not have forgotten.

So as Dortmunder and Kelp climb into their green Hornet (obviously Kelp is Kato), and start rolling down the train tracks into the murky depths (with full air tanks, obviously, and slightly shady dive shop proprietor Doug Berry is still trying to figure out if he can grab a piece for himself of whatever they’re after), and coast down to the very bottom, and the large quantity of ping pong balls they brought with them to float the coffin to the surface (an idea Wally’s computer might not wish to take credit for now) become more and more buoyant as they get deeper, and start lifting the Hornet (never a large car to start with, and significantly lightened by the removal of its engine and roof) up off the tracks, taking Dortmunder and Kelp with it, back up to the surface of the water, only upside-down this time, Bob, who gazing up at the starry skies,  coming to terms with his sheer insignificance in the cosmic scheme, just then reaching a state of calm acceptance of his unsatisfactory Dudsonian life, has yet another epiphany, influenced no doubt by reading too many science fiction stories and maybe supermarket tabloids, I couldn’t say for sure,  I love run-on sentences, don’t you?

A submarine?  In the reservoir?  Ridiculous.  It couldn’t possibly–

And then, with a sudden leap in his heart, Bob knew.  A spaceship!  A flying saucer!   A spaceship from the stars, from the stars!   Visiting earth secretly, by night, hiding here in the reservoir, taking its measurements or doing whatever it was doing, now rising up out of the water, going back, back to the stars!   To the stars!

Bob ran forward, arms upraised in supplication.  “Take me with you!” he screamed, and tripped over a root, and crashed flat onto the ground at the edge of the water, knocking himself cold.

(The notion of a human secretly wishing to be abducted by aliens could have been obtained from any number of sources, including Westlake’s own youthful yearnings, but I would like to think he at some point read this classic story by James Tiptree Jr., aka Alice Sheldon.  It’s not only the women men don’t see who might like to get off this dead end dirtball sometimes.   Plenty of beaten-down males out there, o my sisters, with your faces filled of light.)

So once more–defeat.   Kelp and Dortmunder emerge yet again dripping with muck, and devoid of cash.  Dortmunder, now quite certain this reservoir will not rest easy until it has drowned him, emerges from his aspiring watery grave, divests himself of everything but his underpants and boots, and stomps off going “Oo!  Oo!  Oo!.”   Nobody tries to talk to him.  It would not be prudent at this juncture.  And the Second Down concludes.

So this is just a bit under 5,000 words.  For a section totaling 78 pages.  And I have two more Downs to go.   I am literally drowning in detail trying to review this book in all its labyrinthine intricacies, and I still had to leave things out.

Oo!  Is that an alien spacecraft I see?   TAKE ME WITH YOU!!!!!

They left without me.  No room left in the ark.  Damn yuppies.  Okay, fine, see you next week.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books, and there’s a lot of them in this one).


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Drowned Hopes, First Down


A secret is revealed.

But why is it a secret?  The treasure is hidden, but it isn’t a secret.  Comment.

Tom plus treasure is the secret.

That’s right.  So it matters to Tom that he has a secret.  Comment.

One secret means more secrets.

Tom is a man with many secrets.  Also, Andy and the one called John were both afraid of Tom, but they tried to hide that.  Comment.

Tom is the warlord.

Does Andy work for Tom?

The warlord stays in his castle, surrounded by minions.

Are Andy and John minions?


What are the roles of minions?

Guard.  Soldier.  Knight.  Spy.

So Andy is a knight, employed by Tom.  Andy does knight errands for Tom.  Andy is a knight-errand.  What is John?

John is the spy.

No. The characteristic of spies is that they look trustworthy but are not.  John does not look trustworthy.  Comment.

Tom is the warlord.  Andy is the knight.  There is nothing to guard, so John is the soldier.

But what do they want?

The treasure beneath the water.

The cascade of doom, yes.  But why do they want it?  What is it?

More information is necessary.

Loudly the bell in the old tower rings,
Bidding us list to the warning it brings:
Sailor, take care! Sailor, take care!
Danger is near thee, beware! Beware!
Beware! Beware!”
Many brave hearts are asleep in the deep,
So Beware! BEEEEE-warrrrre!

Arthur J. Lamb

And now we come to the longest, the darkest, the weirdest, and by far the wettest of all the Dortmunder novels.  Fully twice the length of a normal book in this series, even longer than Butcher’s Moon, the ultimate Richard Stark epic.  422 pages in the first edition.  A veritable airport novel of a heist book, though it’s debatable whether any actual heists are seen in it. Maybe if you count grand theft auto as heisting, which Stan Murch probably would.  Andy Kelp just borrows cars from wise physicians who understand the fragility of life, so he probably wouldn’t.

There’s something for everyone here.  In many ways a summing up of everything Westlake had done with the Dortmunder franchise to date, and a return to the recurrent theme of the habitual crime–the job you have to keep pulling over and over again, until you get it right, or until it gets you.  That’s how he’d started off, with The Hot Rock.  He’d tried it again, much less successfully, with Nobody’s Perfect, and then you might say he inverted it with Why Me?

Here Dortmunder is trying, over and over again, to recover money that was stolen a long time ago by a past acquaintance he devoutly wishes had remained in the past, and is now lying at the bottom of a reservoir in upstate New York.  And if he thought he was having problems with the Balabomo Emerald, or Folly Leads Man to Ruin, or even the Byzantine Fire, well he ain’t seen nothing yet.  Westlake had given him a pretty nice day out with the previous escapade, the one where he rescued a nun, and walked away with a small fortune in valuables, and I think Dortmunder would have been quite happy if his saga had ended right there, with him and May lounging on a beach in Aruba.  But we his devoted readership would not.   Get off of that beach, Dortmunder–once more into the breach with you.

And once more, much to his disgust, he’s being forced to do a good deed.   The kind of job Richard Stark would never impose on Parker.   But there is much of Stark about this story, and most of all in its primary antagonist, Tom Jimson, whose name is an anagram of Jim Thompson, whose novel The Grifters Westlake was adapting into a film when he first started work on this novel.

And I’ve already explained in the previous article here that I don’t actually think anything Thompson wrote was much of an influence on this book, except perhaps for one brief interlude set in Oklahoma, where Thompson originally hailed from, and even that isn’t really what you’d call Thompson-esque.

Westlake would also have been thinking about a certain flowering weed, and as I explained last time, one of the basic story ideas in this book is probably lifted from a novel by Dan J. Marlowe.   But as always when he borrowed from fellow writers, Westlake so drastically remodeled the merchandise as to transform it into something entirely new, and in many respects, superior to the original.

Taking all this into account, Tom is most of all a symptom of something we’re going to see a lot of in the first half of Westlake’s work from the 90’s–Westlake starting to recover that part of himself that was Richard Stark.

What’s the biggest difference between a Parker novel and a Dortmunder novel?  Lots of people die in the first, absolutely no one in the second.  Not so here.  Death comes to the Dortmunder-verse, for the first and I believe only time (offstage deaths don’t count).  Actual death and potential death, the latter looming over an entire town, like the Johnstown Flood (referred to in the book–kinda).  This is the grim outcome Dortmunder must somehow prevent in this case.  Because he is our champion.  Whether he likes it or not.

Is Tom Jimson the Dortmunder-verse’s equivalent of Parker?   No, because that’s Dortmunder himself.  Tom’s something else again [Tom is the warlord]–computer, if I want you to start writing these reviews, I will let you know, okay? We’ll have plenty of time to talk about Tom.  Three more articles after this one.  This is just the First Down.  (Westlake divided the book into four main parts and one brief epilogue, which in his ineffable quirkiness he called ‘downs’, like this was some sort of aquatic football game, and actually isn’t there such a game in reality?–oh never mind.)

Check your tanks, spit on your masks, and we’ll start the dive.   Mind the sharks.  Not normally a problem in New York reservoirs but this book is the exception to every rule.

Dortmunder comes back from a typically harrowing honest night’s burglary (dogs.  why is it always dogs?), only to find May waiting up, and there’s a guest with her.  Tom Jimson.  I mentioned him already.  A tall wiry cold-eyed heister out of Oklahoma and the dust bowl era, and boy does he look it.  He used to be in Dillinger’s string–called him ‘Dilly.’  He addresses Dortmunder as ‘Al’ for reasons you can read the book to learn (Westlake’s reasons probably have something to do with Ring Lardner, but it’s worth noting Westlake’s father was named Albert).

“Well I’ll be goddamned,” Dortmunder says, “They let you out.”  He seems less pleased than you would expect by a colleague’s reprieve.

They roomed together in prison for a while.  Tom, who more or less defines the word ‘recidivist,’ and a few other terms derived from criminology, was never supposed to get out, but as he explains, there’s all kinds of unqualified people committing armed robbery these days, amateurs on drugs, screwing up the whole profession, and the prisons are so full of these yo-yo’s they gave him what they call compassionate release at age 70.  But ya know, just because somebody’s compassionate to you does that mean you have to respond in kind?  Golden Rule?   He who has the gold…..

Tom made a big score before he went inside, all of 700 g’s (he had a few partners, but they’re all dead, which seems to happen to pretty much everyone he ever works with, hmm…).  He buried the cash in an airtight coffin of all things, in this little upstate New York burg called Putkin’s Corners.  But then the cops nabbed him for something else (he likes to keep busy–the devil really does make work for idle hands, it seems), and then just a few years after the heist, the state of New York, in its infinite wisdom, built a dam that put Putkin’s Corners under water, for keeps.

I mean, they moved the people out first, of course.  Bureaucrats, always adding unnecessary details to a job.  Tom favors a more efficient approach than those pork barrel politicians.  He wants his money.  The water is in the way.  He wants to blow up the dam, dig up the coffin, retire to Mexico.  He’s asking Dortmunder if he’ll help out for a cut.  He doesn’t mention the dynamite part up front.  He probably figures that part of it goes without saying.  Dortmunder has never particularly relished the thought of working with this guy, but 700 g’s is 700 g’s, so they rent a car and check it out.

It’s a large dam–the kind you can drive over.  The kind that even has offices and stuff inside of it.  A whole lot of water behind that dam.   And right in front of the dam lie several slightly less forgotten small towns (all of them with Dudson in the name), that still have people in them.  This is where Tom chooses to mention the dynamite part of the job.   Dortmunder doesn’t shock that easy.  He’s shocked.

“Everybody asleep down there,” Dortmunder said, musing, imagining it, “and here comes the water.  That’s your idea.”

Tom looked through the chain-link fence at the peaceful valley.  His gray cold eyes gleamed in his gray cold face.  “Asleep in their beds,” he said.  “Asleep in somebody’s bed anyway.  You know who those people are?”

Dortmunder shook his head, watching that stony profile.

Tom said, “Nobodies.  Family men hustlin for an extra dollar, an extra dime, sweating all over their shirts, getting nowhere.  Women turnin fat.  Kids turning stupid.  No difference between day and night because nobody’s goin anywhere anyway.  Miserable little small-town people with their miserable little small-town dreams.”  The lips moved in what might have been a smile.  “A flood,” he said.  “Most excitin thing ever happened to them, am I right?”

“No, Tom,” Dortmunder said.

And he means it.  And just for the record, I think Parker would say the same thing.  This is nuts.   It’s not morality speaking here, or humanity.  It’s sanity.   Something Tom Jimson said goodbye to, maybe during all those years in prison, maybe sooner.

You know how I’m sure Westlake didn’t intend Tom as a satiric Parker?  He talks too damn much.  The one thing Dortmunder most remembers about Tom in prison is that he never stopped gabbing.  He even talks too much about how he talks too much, explains that it comes from being alone so much of the time, so once he’s in the company of somebody else on the bend that he can open up to, the words just come pouring out.

He’s actually a pretty eloquent guy, with a lot of interesting and deeply nihilistic ideas.  In that respect, not much like Blackie, the character from Dan J. Marlowe’s Four For The Money–much more like like Tyrone Ten Eyck from The Spy In The Ointment, without the political gloss, or the inherited wealth, or a formal education.  Just for the record, we’re told there’s a Ten Eyck Hill overlooking this reservoir.  Westlake was never averse to borrowing from himself, either.

Tom explains, with unusual insight for a sociopath, that other people just aren’t real to him.  He can wipe out all those lives without losing a minute’s sleep.  Well maybe just one minute–to chuckle softly, envisioning the townspeople’s reaction when the water hits them, all those astonished gurgling sounds.   You can’t accuse him of not having a sense of humor, anyway.

So they drive back to the city, and as they do, Dortmunder is made to understand that his refusal to participate in this dam(ned) job hasn’t dampened Tom’s enthusiasm in the slightest.  He’s got a list.  Dortmunder was at the top of it.   He’ll just keep going down it until he finds some guys who’ll do it, and then they’ll do it.  This is the part of the book where Parker would just pull out a gun and shoot Tom for being a liability.  Unfortunately, Dortmunder can’t do that either.

So most unhappily, he proposes to Tom that he will find a way to get at the money without blowing up the dam.   Although Tom doesn’t quite see the point of going to all that trouble, he is forced to concede that the manhunt for a gang of mass murderers might be a slight hitch in his retirement plans.  But where’s he going to stay in the meantime?    Guess.

May is most displeased with the ensuing domestic situation (Tom likes to watch television in the living room and cackle loudly when somebody gets hurt or killed), and though she’s no rat, she does broach the tender subject of maybe just telling the law what Tom wants to do. Yes, she understands it’s not professional, but maybe they could make an exception to the sacred heister’s code of ethics, just this once?  Particularly since it only exists in crime fiction, anyway?

Dortmunder points out that the law can’t arrest Tom on the basis of hearsay evidence regarding something he hasn’t done yet.  All they could do (since he’s not on parole) is give him a stern talking to, tell him “Don’t you dare blow up that dam, you mischievous old rapscallion!  You should know better at your age!”  Tom would then murder Dortmunder and May for informing on him, then blow up the damn dam in spite of the civics lecture, because that’s the kind of thing people who have said goodbye to sanity tend to do.   Just because Dortmunder won’t kill for money doesn’t mean he’ll die for nothing.   They need some help from their side of the law.

So as ever, the call goes out for that hero of heroes, Andy Kelp, who is just then engaged in some serious shoplifting at an establishment called Serious Business.   It’s some kind of techie store.  Games, apps, etc.  His cellphone rings.  Yes, of course he has a cellphone already, have you not been paying attention?   If there’s a gizmo, a geegaw or a doodad to be had out there, Kelp already has it, and odds are he didn’t pay for it.

Dortmunder is confused.  He called Kelp at home.  Oh now he remembers, the forwarding thing.  They talked about that in Why Me?     But see, now Kelp can forward his calls to a compartment in his voluminous many-pocketed peacoat, now bristling with pilfered wares, of the soft variety.   As he prepares to head over to the apartment, figuring there must be a job in the offing, he thinks about how Dortmunder should have a PC.   But Andy, he’s the creative type–shouldn’t you steal him a Mac?

Yes, at long last, the cyber-age has impinged upon the literary domain of Donald E. Westlake.  At the very moment in history that Westlake was writing this book, a fellow named Tim Berners-Lee was writing the code that would shortly lead to the World Wide Web (and just typing those words, I realize they would make Dortmunder very very nervous–isn’t a web something you catch unwary flies in to suck their blood?  That’s exactly what it is, John).

The Dortmunders are always about social change to some extent, but never more than in this book.   Westlake, still working on a manual typewriter, couldn’t know just how soon even technoklutzes like me would become intrepid navigators of the netscape, but he could see the general trends emerging, with his usual precognitive perspicacity.

And he could see just as easily that a certain class of formerly despised persons would now suddenly be in great demand. You know.  Nerds.   There was a movie in the 80’s, you may recall.  But this particular nerd isn’t the vengeful type.  Well, not in three dimensions, anyway.  Wally Knurr wouldn’t hurt anybody.   Though I could imagine him possibly someday filing a lawsuit against the producers of The Big Bang Theory.

You roll aside the two giant boulders and the tree trunk.  You find the entrance to a cave, covered by a furry hide curtain.  You thrust this aside and see before you the cave of the Thousand-Toothed Ogre.

Wally Knurr wiped sweat from his brow.  Careful, now; this could be a trap.  Fat fingers tense over the keyboard, he spat out:

Describe this lair.

A forty-foot cube with a domed ceiling.  The rock walls have been fused into black ice by the molten breath of the Nether Dragon.  On fur-covered couches loll a half-dozen well-armed Lizard Men, members of the Sultan’s Personal Guard.  Against the far wall, Princess Labia is tied to a giant wheel, slowly rotating.

Are the Lizard Men my enemies?

Not in this encounter.

Are the Lizard Men my allies?

Only if you show them the proper authorization.

Wally Knurr is  twenty-four years old, four feet fix inches tall, exceedingly plump, friendly, and perennially damp.   Companionable though he is, he does not have a lot of friends, but one he does have is Andy Kelp, who shares his passion for computers–they met at a computer course Wally was giving at the New School For Social Research.  Kelp sees Wally as a potentially useful ally, to whom he need show no authorization–Kelp, as we have seen, collects people as eagerly as he collects devices.

Kelp brings Dortmunder and Tom to see Wally, figuring Wally’s computer might be able to find a solution to getting that money out of the reservoir without resort to high explosives.     They are necessarily vague about the parameters of the problem, telling Wally they’re doing a sort of treasure hunt, a game.

Wally is naive, not stupid (he lives in a very bad neighborhood), and just one look at Tom tells him these guys are not playing around.   That conversation he’s having with his computer up top is basically him using the computer’s pre-programmed responses to tell himself what he already knows–which isn’t much. A sort of gamer’s version of symbolic logic.  Useful to a point, but not very rooted in reality.  More information is necessary.  And he’ll be getting plenty of that as his latest scenario unfolds–as he thinks later in the book–“Real life.  The greatest interactive fiction of them all.”   Indeed.

As he was in Jimmy the Kid, when Kelp suggested using a lousy crime paperback as the blueprint for a kidnapping, Dortmunder is offended that Kelp is bringing in yet another amateur to do his job for him.  He’s the planner.  But underwater salvage isn’t really his area.  He’s reading up on it–he finds a book in the library, Marine Salvage, by one Joseph N. Gores.   Here it is–check out the subtitle on the first edition–“The Unforgiving Business of No Cure, No Pay.”   You know, there’s something familiar about that style…..

Donald Westlake also collected potentially useful people, and as it happens, this is the very same Joseph Nicholas Gores who ended up writing crime fiction for a living, with whom Westlake had formed a close friendship (Marine Salvage was only his second published book, from 1971)–one of Gores’ DKA novels crosses-over with the Parker novel Plunder Squad (from 1972).  And in fact, one of his novels in the same franchise crosses-over with Drowned Hopes, but I’m not ready to talk about that yet.   (Nor am I ready to shell out for a copy of Marine Salvage, because damned if it’s not a lot more expensive than most of his crime books).

John and Andy head back to Wally’s apartment to hear what he and the computer have come up with–to wit–

  1. Laser Evaporation
  2. Spaceship From Zog (don’t ask)
  3. Magnet
  4. Ping Pong Balls
  5. Plastic Bag

John tries not to look too smug, and Andy tries to look somewhere else.  But in fact, John’s preliminary research tells him some of these ideas are potentially workable.  Not the first three, though.  Not in this genre.

But they need to actually go under the water to make anything work.   Meaning they need diving equipment, which is to say sporting equipment, and when New Yorkers need sporting equipment, they go to a sporting goods store; in fact the Paragon of all such stores.  Mr. Westlake takes some pleasure in informing us that their underwater equipment is sold on the top floor, even though they have a perfectly good basement (where I have on occasion purchased footwear).  I have just now ascertained this is no longer the case, that the diving gear is currently located at street level, and they no longer sell oxygen tanks.  They did then (at least in this book), but there’s a catch.

Kelp said, “You know, you’re not supposed to drive a car without a license, too, but I bet some people do.”

She gave him a severe look and shook her head.  From a sunny happy healthy young woman she had segued with amazing suddenness into the world’s most disapproving Sunday School Teacher.  “It doesn’t work quite the same way,” she said, sounding pleased about that.  Pointing at the display of tanks, she said “I’ll sell you as many of those as you want.  But they’re empty.  And the only place you can get them filled is an accredited dive shop.  And they won’t fill them unless you show them your certification or agree to have an instructor go with you.”  Her look of satisfaction was pretty galling.  “Diving or walking, gentlemen,” she said, “you will not want to go very far underwater, or for very long, with empty tanks.  If you’ll excuse me?”  And she turned on her heel and went off to sell a $350 Dacor Seachute BCD to a deeply tanned Frenchman with offensively thick and glossy hair.

Leaving, slinking away, clumping morosely down the wide stairs towards Paragon’s street level with their tails between their legs, Dortmunder said, “Okay.  We gotta getta guy.”

(Though the location and variety of the diving equipment at Paragon Sports may have changed, this I can assure you–that pitying look the younger salespeople there direct at you when you say something stupid has not.)

Dortmunder just figures they can walk on the floor of the reservoir to the area where the money is buried, and dig it up.  Simple, right?  But they need somebody to show them how to use the equipment, so they avail themselves of the services of yet another expert, Doug Berry, the tanned blonde proprietor of South Shore Dive Shop in Islip, Long Island.

Doug’s not quite exactly on the bend, but he’s not 100% on the up and up either. He’s one of those in-between guys who tend not to fare so well in Westlake novels (always a first time).   He knows a guy named Mikey Donelli (Donnelly? Doug’s not sure, and he’s afraid to ask).  Mikey provides him with fine diving equipment to sell his customers, at a bargain price, and Doug doesn’t ask why the price is so good.  But now Mikey’s providing him with two customers, and Doug’s not supposed to ask them too many questions either.  But he gets the general picture–there’s money somewhere, lots of it, at the bottom of a body of fresh water, and in his mind, it’s there for whoever gets to it first.   But that’s for later.  In the meantime, he’ll gladly train and equip these guys for a nice fee.

And John now has to remind Tom that since he’s the one who insists on getting this money from a place he shouldn’t have put it in the first place, he should be the one who finances the job, and it’s going to cost a pretty penny.  “Oh I dunno,” Tom said.  “Dynamite and life are cheap.”   He still hasn’t completely reconciled himself to the prospect of getting his loot without loss of life.  (In fact, there’s going to be loss of life no matter how they get it, but that’s also for later).

So they drive back up to Dudson Center, one of the towns Tom would like to see underwater in place of Putkin’s Corners, and crash a wedding.  The money’s stashed under the altar of the church, you see.  The Elizabeth Grace Dudson Memorial Reformed Congregational Unitarian Church of Putkin Township (depopulation has led to consolidation).  The wedding involves someone we’ll be seeing more of later in the book, but on the way there we see somebody who has already been introduced, one Myrtle Street, who happens to live on Myrtle Street, in Dudson Center.  Myrtle is described as being pretty, but not ostentatiously so (I figure maybe Anna Kendrick pretty, which is pretty good).

And she is, as we’ve already been informed, Tom Jimson’s illegitimate daughter. Her mother, Edna Street, had a brief ill-fated affair with Tom (as if there could be any other kind of affair with Tom) while he was in the area for criminal purposes, years before.  Edna, who had been devoutly circumspect about the identity of Myrtle’s dad, figuring like everybody else he ever met that nobody would ever be dumb enough to let him out of prison, blurted out his identity when she happened to see Tom driving by with Dortmunder some weeks back, thus arousing Myrtle’s curiosity about the nature of her long-lost progenitor. And now he’s down there again, with a larger group of suspicious-looking individuals.   It’s all very mysterious and exciting.

So back to the wedding, which has something of a shotgun aspect to it, the bride being pregnant.   Mr. Westlake’s first marriage, also perpetrated in upstate New York, may in fact have had a similar element of biological compulsion involved, but we don’t have much in the way of details.  He makes up for that with a wealth of detail regarding this wedding.  Jane Austen never provided more details of a wedding, but I’d say there’s considerably more prejudice than pride going on here.

Relatives of the bride continued to predominate for first ten minutes or so; giggling awkward large-jointed people wearing their “best” clothes, saved for weddings, funerals, Easter, and appearances in court.  Soon this group began to be supplemented by members of the groom’s family: skinnier, shorter, snake-hipped people with can opener noses and no asses, dressed in Naughahyde jackets and polyester shirts and vinyl trousers and plastic shoes, as though they weren’t human beings at all but were actually a chain dental service’s waiting room.  Intermixed with these, in warm-up jackets and pressed designer jeans, were the groom’s pals, acne-flaring youths full of sidelong looks and nervous laughter, knowing this was more than likely a foretaste of their own doom: “There but for the grace of the Akron Rubber Company go I.”  The bride’s girlfriends arrived in a too-crowded-car cluster and hovered together like magnetized iron filings, all demonstrating the latest soap opera fashion trends and each of them a sealed bubble of self-consciousness and self-absorption.  The groom, a jerky marionette in a rented tux, a wide-eyed pale boy with spiky hair and protuberant ears, appeared with his grim suspicious parents and entered the church with all the false macho assurance of Jimmy Cagney on his way to the electric chair.  The church door shut behind him with a hollower boom than it had given anyone else.

Mr. Westlake isn’t done with the groom yet, or the bride for that matter, but let’s leave that to one side for now, and observe that Tom’s stash is obtained, and Dortmunder & Kelp obtain their underwater training from Doug–at a high school pool in Islip, no less.  It’s more complicated than that, but I don’t have the time.

Wally Knurr, who has delighted Andy Kelp by informing him that he knows they’re obtaining stolen money from a reservoir (Tom is not so delighted) ventures himself to Dudson Center, and makes the acquaintance of Myrtle Street.

He is (understandably) smitten.  She is  (understandably) not.  Friendzones him in two seconds flat, but he shows her how to use the computer terminal at the library she works at, she is suitably grateful at finding out how useful digital information resources can be, and friendship with a gal like Myrtle is nothing to sneer at.   As much to her surprised as anyone’s, she introduces herself to Wally as Myrtle Jimson.   The Warlord’s Daughter!   A Princess!

And, as his computer aptly reminds him, The Purpose of the Princess is to be rescued.  This is the part where he thinks that thing about life being the greatest interactive fiction of them all, but somehow one sadly suspects he’ll never know the half of it where girls are concerned.

It just keeps getting more complicated–they need a really big strong guy to winch the coffin out of the reservoir, and also to keep Tom in his place.   Who better than Tiny Bulcher?   Still happily domiciled with the delectable J.C. Taylor (who most unhappily does not appear in this book), Tiny is approached by Dortmunder and Kelp during a meat heist he’s perpetrating in the wholesale meat section of Manhattan, on Ganesvoort Street (now better known for being an access point to The High Line)–he’s carrying an entire dead cow on his own meaty shoulders, as easily as you or I would tote two pounds of ground round.

After the usual string of reminiscently threatening remarks, he’s amenable to joining their enterprise–there’s just this one little bit of news they have to break to him.  One would not wish to say this to Mr. Bulcher’s face, or anywhere near it, but–well, listen in, as they and the dead cow are traveling together in yet another unfortunate physician’s purloined automobile.

Tiny thought about that.  “From inside?”

“That’s the one,” Dortmunder agreed.  “That’s where we both knew him.  He was my cellmate awhile.”

“Nasty poisonous old son of a bitch,” Tiny suggested.

“You’ve got the right guy,” Dortmunder told him.

“A snake with legs.”


“Charming as a weasel, and gracious as a ferret.”

“That’s Tom, okay.”

“He’d eat his own young even if he wasn’t hungry.”

“Well, he’s always hungry,” Dortmunder said.

“That’s true.” Tiny shook his head.  “Tom Jimson.  He was the worst thing about stir.”

Looking in the mirror, Kelp said, “Tiny, I never heard you talk like that before.  Like there was a guy out there somewhere that worried you.”

“Oh, yeah?”  Tiny frowned massively at this suggestion that another human being might give him pause.  “You’re lucky you don’t know the guy.”

At which point Mr. Bulcher must be informed that Kelp does know the guy, because the law was actually stupid enough to let said guy go, and they’re doing this job with said guy, upon which it becomes very difficult to persuade Tiny and his cow not to exit the vehicle.   Tom Jimson, Tiny points out, has a way of not having any partners left to split the take with after the job is over.  He is assured they’ll watch Tom carefully for any sign of treachery.  “Birds watch snakes” Tiny replies.   Yeah.  He’s scared.  (He’s scared!).  But it’s a lot of money.

So it is that the four of them, Dortmunder, Kelp, Bulcher, and (unfortunately) Tom arrive at the reservoir late one April night (in a doctor’s stolen Dodge motor home), and the first two of them, donned in scuba gear, march resolutely into the water, attempting to find the old blacktop road that will lead them to the site where the money is buried.  They have underwater flashlights and everything. Much good it does them.

As they walk along the silt-encrusted floor, they stir up debris.  Turbidity, it’s known as in salvaging circles (you learn so much in these books!).  Visibility goes from bad to non-existent. There’s also stumps of felled trees, and various other unanticipated obstacles to ground navigation.  Their feet become enmired in the mud.  Dortmunder’s boots come off.  They don’t know where they are.   They don’t know how long they’ve been down there.  They don’t know which direction is up.  They panic.  You can imagine a self-satisfied look on the face of the girl at Paragon Sports right about now.

Kelp remembers his gizmo that controls buoyancy, and surfaces.  Dortmunder does not, and has to be winched all the way back in by Tiny.  In the process, he scares the living hell out of the young man we just saw get married a few chapters back, who works nights inside the dam, and thinks Dortmunder is some kind of lake monster.  Nobody believes him, of course.  Nobody will ever believe him.

So really, a typical first attempt in a Dortmunder novel.   And equally typical is Dortmunder’s reaction, much as Kelp tries to deny it.

This creature, looking in fact less like a sea serpent and more like one of the clay people of Mayan mythology and Flash Gordon serials, stomped up out of the reservoir and slogged straight to Tom, who actually looked kind of startled at this abrupt approach, saying “Al?  You okay?”

“I got one word to say to you, Tom,” Dortmunder announced, pointing a muddy finger at Tom.  “And that word is dynamite!

Tom blinked.  “Al?”

“Blow it up!” Dortmunder raned wildly, waving in the general direction of the reservoir.  “Do it any way you want!  I’m through!”

Tiny, sitting up from his supine position, said, “Dortmunder?  You’re giving up?”

Dortmunder swiveled around to glare at him.  In a clear and praiseworthy effort to keep himself more or less calm and under control, he pointed again at the reservoir with his mud-dripping finger and said, “I am not going down there again, Tiny.  That’s it.”

Kelp approached his old friend, worry creasing his features.  He said, “John?  This isn’t you.  You don’t admit defeat.”

“Defeat,” Dortmunder told him, and squished away to the motor home.

Huh.  An unusually negative ending, even for a Dortmunder.  But that’s where Westlake leaves us, in Chapter 29, Page 150 of this–oh damn.  I forgot.   This is just the First Down.  We’ve not even halfway through the book.   It’s taken me over a week just to write this.


[Computer here.  Fred Fitch squished away to the basement to do laundry, vowing never to return.  The blog lord has no pity.  Maybe if we baked him a nice tuna casserole?  Actually, he would probably prefer a case of that beer you see up top, which is very difficult to obtain in New York City for some reason.  Well, see you next week. Hopefully.   Can’t wait to learn how Wally’s computer rescues the Princess. Spaceship from Zog, I bet. Computer out.]


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels, Uncategorized