Tag Archives: John Dortmunder novels

Review: Bank Shot, Part 2


DORTMUNDER said, “I suppose it’s unfair to blame you for this job.”

“That’s right,” Kelp said.  He was driving, and Dortmunder was in the front seat beside him.

“But I do,” Dortmunder said

Kelp gave him an aggrieved look and faced front again.  “That isn’t fair,” he said.


I forgot to mention last week that my beloved Pocket Books reprint of this book contains an extra little treat for the sharp-eyed reader.   Look at the list of other books by Donald E. Westlake.

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This bogus book list is not in the first edition from Simon & Schuster (big hardcover publishers are so serious).  Ray Garraty tells me it is in the UK first edition, and it may appear in some others.  It’s a gag we’ll see repeated (in somewhat different form) in another book we’ll be looking at soon–a first edition paperback from an entirely different publisher.  That’s a list of books that never existed at all, but this, by contrast, is a rather eclectic list combining five books Westlake really did write (all of which have been reviewed here) with nine variously famous published works from other authors that mainly saw print before Westlake was born.  Pretty sure the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature has no author at all, but now who’s being too serious?

Just FYI, The Merry Devil of Edmonton is an Elizabethan-era play that was once attributed to Shakespeare, and I know that because I googled it like one minute ago.  I have to ask–did Pocket send Westlake some kind of form on which he was supposed to list past works that readers of this book might be interested in, and he was in one of those moods he got into sometimes?  And they just printed it verbatim?  I wouldn’t rule it out.

But people who work at publishing companies generally know something about books, I would like to think.  Pocket was probably in on the joke.   And the point of the joke, I’d imagine, is that this is a book where nothing gets taken seriously, even the usual publishing house boilerplate opposite the title page that most of us flip right past on our way to the story.

I do think the reference to the W.C. Fields biography (actually written by Robert Lewis Taylor) is more than a throwaway gag–Fields was a big influence on Westlake’s comedy, and certainly on the Dortmunder books.  That same sense of light-hearted (not to mention light-fingered) misanthropy.  And the next Dortmunder even has its own much more erudite version of Baby Leroy in it.  So that’s more of a tip of the hat than a wink of the eye.   And that’s all we need say about that, except that if Stuart R. Johnson wants his book back, he’s shit out of luck.

Bank Shot is dedicated “To Bill Goldman.  Here’s something to think about at the icebox.”  That would be William Goldman, fellow novelist and nonpareil screenwriter, who had adapted The Hot Rock into a film starring Robert Redford as Dortmunder.  The Italian edition of this book, seen up top, has Redford’s image on it, even though George C. Scott played the Dortmunder character (by another name) in the abominable second film.   Westlake loved Goldman’s screenplay, even though it was pretty badly mangled in the course of making the film (see my review of The Hot Rock movie).

This seems like his way of expressing a fond personal hope that Goldman would get another crack at the Dortmunder ‘franchise’, and they could spend more time discussing the characters, as they had for the previous film.  Sadly, it was not to be.   If you want to know just how sadly, rent the George C. Scott film, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.   You ask me, somebody should have warned George C. Scott.

So when last we saw the Capitalists’ and Immigrants’ Trust (“Just Watch Us Grow!”), temporarily housed in a trailer, it was hitched to a stolen truck driven by Stan Much, with Dortmunder riding shotgun.  Meanwhile, the security guards inside are getting tossed around like radishes in a salad spinner, and are gradually losing consciousness because the robbers thoughtfully routed the truck exhaust into the bank (not enough to kill them, just knock them out–it’s not a Richard Stark novel).

The cops patrolling that street have just passed the erstwhile site of the bank, have called in the robbery to a very confused dispatcher, and are now mainly just staring at the place the bank once was in a state of quiet disbelief.  This can’t actually be happening, right?

One thing Westlake figured out writing The Hot Rock, was that in a comic crime story (much as in a silent comedy), a lot of the best comedic possibilities lay with the forces of law & order, such as they are (to be sure, Shakespeare had figured that out as far back as Much Ado About Nothing).  The second half of Bank Shot alternates between the POV’s of the Dortmunder Gang and the police, particularly one Captain Deemer and his trusty aide, Lieutenant Hepplewhite.

Captain Deemer, with a facial tic that makes it look like he’s winking when he’s particularly agitated, keeps saying they need to ‘tighten the net’ (he makes this ghastly chicken-throttling hand gesture every time he says that).   He is not a man to be trifled with.  And he knows full well that if an entire bank gets successfully stolen from right under his shiny red nose, he will never live it down in a million years.

And now he’s got to figure out how this supposedly wheel-less trailer just vanished from where it was supposed to be.  Towards this end, he is visited by a delegation–George Gelding (ouch!), an official of the bank that got stolen (he would like it back), George Docent  (heh), who works for the company that made the safe the money was in– and then there is Mr. Gary Wallah (Westlake is having too much fun with these names).   He works for the Roamerica Company, which made the trailer, only he insists it be called a mobile home.  The word ‘hippie’ does not appear in this book, but it should be noted that if Mr. Wallah is not a hippie, the word really has no meaning.

So it turns out Dortmunder has a problem he had not anticipated–the safe in the bank they just stole is the latest thing in asset protection, and it will take quite some time for even an experienced box man to crack it.  Somehow, the conversation in which this highly salient fact is revealed to Captain Deemer turns into a political argument.   Well, consider the time period this book was written in.  Then consider the passage below.

“I was saying,” Docent said, “that they’ll find that safe a tough nut to crack.  It’s one of the most modern safes we make, with the latest advances in heat-resistant and shock-resistant metals.  These are advances that come from research connected with the Vietnam war. It’s one of the ironic benefits of that unhappy–

“Oh wow,” said Gary Wallah.

Docent turned to him, firm but fair.  “All I’m saying,” he said, “is that research has been stimulated into some–”

“Oh wow.  I mean, wow.”

I’ve heard all your arguments, and I can’t say I entirely disagree with–”

“Wow, man.”

“At this time,” George Gelding said, standing at attention, and looking very red-faced, “when some person or persons unknown have stolen a branch of the Capitalists’ and Immigrants’ Trust, and our brave boys are dying on far-flung battlefields to protect the likes of you who–”

“Oh, wow.”

“Now, there’s much to be said on both sides, but the point is–”

“I see those flaaaaag-draped coffins, I hear the loved ones in their cottages and on the farms of America–”

“Like, really, wow.”

Captain Deemer glowered at them all through the remaining slit of his right eye.  A bellowed shut up might attract their attention–all three were talking at the same time now–but did he want them to shut up?  If they stopped arguing with each other, they’d just start talking to the captain again, and he wasn’t sure he wanted that.

Well, we’ve certainly made strides as a nation since then in our ability to calmly discuss our differences, wouldn’t you say?  You wouldn’t?  Wow, man.

Meanwhile, in a high school football field on Long Island, having left the monoxide-befuddled security guards to take a nice long nap alongside a pleasant country lane, Dortmunder & Co. are painting the trailer lime-green with a quick-drying paint, while May puts up the curtains she made.   Herman X is studying the safe with a general air of consternation.   And back at his nerd cave, Kelp’s former FBI agent nephew Victor, whose idea this job was in the first place, is writing (and tape-recording) Dortmunder fanfic, a sort of one-man radio play, with Victor in the role of Mary Sue.

“Steely-eyed Dortmunder surveyed his work.  The wheels were under the very floor of the bank itself. Hungry desperate men, their hat brims pulled low, his gang had worked with him beneath the shield of night to install those wheels, turning the innocent-seeming bank into an…


“I myself had been one of those men, as recounted in the earlier tale, Wheels of Terror!, in this same series.  And now, the final moment had come, the moment that had filled our every waking thought for all these days and weeks of preparation.

” ‘This is the payoff,’ Dortmunder snarled softly.  ‘Tonight we get the whole swag.’

” ‘Right, boss,’ whispered Kelp eagerly, his scarred face twisting into a brutal smile.

Little do these desperate fiends realize that the man they know as Lefty the Lip is in reality SECRET AGENT J-27!  (I guess J-26 was already taken?)

Victor has no idea who he is.  This is the identity puzzle of the book, which for a Westlake novel, doesn’t really delve much into identity as such, but it’s got to be in there somewhere, and this is it.  The other characters know themselves pretty well, have chosen lives that make sense for them (if not most people), but Victor is just a kid trying on different hats, looking for one that fits.

If Victor were the protagonist of this book, we’d maybe find out how he resolves his confusion, but since he’s just one comic figure among many, we are simply faced with the hilarious yet poignant tableau of a former lawman who comes up with a robbery scheme, finds career criminals to carry it out for him, then imagines himself working undercover to nab them.  Which he has no intention of doing, he loves these people.  But none of it is real to him, just another role-playing game to delay maturity, and one has to figure that’s one of the reasons his idea is not working out so well in the real world.  Such as it is.   He just assumed the safe would open up like a tin can.  Because that’s how it always happens in the stories.

The desperate fiends have now taken shelter in the Wanderlust Trailer Camp.  An increasingly flustered Herman is explaining to an increasingly irate Dortmunder that this particular tin can will take at least 24 hours to open–with morning coming, and everybody from the cops to the Boy Scouts of America looking for the stolen bank, they have to get under cover somehow.

Inspiration strikes, in the form of Much’s Mom, who says they can stay hidden at the camp in plain sight, like The Purloined Letter, until Herman opens the safe (there’s a reason the most prestigious award for this genre is called The Edgar, you know).  They just have to hook the trailer up to power and plumbing, and pay rent on it.  It’ll blend in perfectly, and who’s going to suspect two nice middle-aged ladies like May and Murch’s Mom of stealing a whole bank?

May is nothing short of magnificent in this crisis, as is Mrs. M.–they calmly talk their way around the confused assistant manager of the park, who is wondering where these new tenants came from. He doesn’t really care, as long as he doesn’t get in trouble.  And right as May is filling out the forms, and handing him the rental money, in come the state troopers.  If you don’t want trouble, you need to stay the hell away from Dortmunder & Co.

As all this is going on, Murch is telling his cab driver mom to keep her (wholly unneeded) neck brace on, because they’ve got this whiplash case coming up in the courts, and she wouldn’t want to be seen without it, and she’s trying to make him see the absurdity of that, given their present situation, but do children ever listen to their mothers?  Meanwhile, Herman is trying all sorts of power tools and explosives on the safe, and as Dortmunder acidly comments, you can’t say he hasn’t made a dent in it.  He’s made a very small dent.

The troopers depart, not seeing any trailers that look like banks–the paint job and the curtains really paid off.  Just one little problem–it’s about to rain.  A lot.  And they used a water-based paint.  Well, they dry faster.   Was that not a good idea?

So the assistant manager, having just been informed about the bank, is horrified to see it materialize before his very eyes, as the green trailer becomes a blue and white trailer with a bank’s name on it.  Does he call the cops?  That would mean trouble, which he does not want, so he just tells them they have to leave before anybody sees them.  He gives them enough time to get the truck back and tow the bank somewhere else, assuming they can find another suitable spot to hide in plain sight.  So is that good luck or bad?   It’s getting hard to tell the difference.

It seemed to Dortmunder, sitting there in the stolen station wagon while Kelp optimistically dragged him around through all this rain on a wild goose chase, that this was the story of his life.  His luck was never all good, but it was never all bad either.  It was a nice combination of the two, balanced so exactly that they canceled each other out.  The same rain that washed away the green paint also loused up the police search.  They stole the bank, but they couldn’t get into the safe.  On and on.

It’s almost as if some whimsical deity was planning it that way–and of course that’s exactly what is happening, and his name is not  Yahweh, but Westlake.  But ask yourself this–who’s writing your life?   Didn’t Dortmunder just describe it to a T?  I won’t speak for you, but I know he just described mine.   So are we all in some three dimensional novel dreamed up by some bored omnipotent being, who rather than killing us for his sport (for the moment) is merely putting us through our paces, just to see what we do next?  Just to see what our next bank shot is like, and where the ball might ricochet?   Are we God’s Dortmunder?

And as Dortmunder likewise philosophizes, the ever-ingenious Kelp improvises–he’s noticed there’s a space by the road they’re on where a diner–the kind that used to be housed in trailers, or trolleys, or old railroad cars (you still see them sometimes) used to be.  And the signs are still there.   Pull the trailer up (on the side that doesn’t have the bank’s name on it–ditch the truck again–voila!   Instant restaurant.  Purloined Letter once again.

So they do that, and Herman is getting close to opening the safe, and who should turn up but Captain Deemer and Lieutenant Hepplewhite.  Tired, wet, and discouraged–they’d like a hot cup of coffee and a danish.   Hello, nice middle-aged ladies–what’s that you say?  Not open for business yet?   Too bad.  Hey, you haven’t seen a stolen bank pass by, have you?

So Deemer sends out for coffee and danish over the car radio, and a bunch more squad cars show up, hoping to allay his savage fury, so now the bank is totally surrounded by cops armed with takeout food–and they even share the extras with the nice people in the trailer.  And leave.  Finally.

And Herman is about to blow the safe.   Finally.  And he does.  The money is there–smouldering a bit on top, from the explosion, and all Herman could make was a round hole on one side, but it’s enough to reach in and start scooping out cash.  And as this is going on, they suddenly notice–they’re moving.

And turns out they should have remembered to put some blocks against those trailer wheels.   Because they’re on top of a hill.  And the only thing holding them there is inertia, which Herman’s explosion has just negated.  And the trailer is now rolling downhill, in the general direction of the Atlantic Ocean.   Trailers don’t have brakes, you ever notice that?  That seems like a design flaw, somehow.  Oh well, you know what they say about hindsight.

Do I have to say it?  The bank, safe and all, goes into the drink.  There, I said it.

(For the life of me, I don’t see how they could film this scene for a movie and it wouldn’t be even the least bit funny.  But that’s exactly what they did.)

Even though The Capitalists’ and Immigrants’ Trust (“Just Watch Us Go!”) rolled through a small sleepy fishing town on its way to have a nice swim, it was early in the morning,  and the only witnesses were an irate crossing guard and a confused fisherman.  They have no idea what they’ve just witnessed. Neither is calling the cops.

So they got a bit of cash–enough so that after paying the backer, the gang members get about 2g’s each.  “Still, we did the job, you have to admit that.  You can’t call it a failure,” Victor days.  “I can if I want to,” Dortmunder replies.  So negative.

And the trailer, along with the safe, and most of the money, is drifting slowly out along the ocean floor, eventually to drop into the Hudson Canyon, where perhaps someday James Cameron will discover it (like he’d care; there isn’t enough there to pay for a day’s catering on one of his productions).  The Dortmunder gang can drive back home with their meager takings (and bad head colds), knowing that nobody will ever connect them to this heist (unless Victor tries to get his radio play produced).  The Perfect Crime.  Yeah.  Right.   It’s over.

But as far as Captain Deemer is concerned, nothing is over.  He’s tightening the net!   Three weeks later, he is still making Lieutenant Hepplewhite drive him up and down Long Island in search of the Capitalists’ and Immigrants’ Trust (Just Watch Us–never mind”), and he will not give up.  Because once he does, he has to accept that an entire bank was stolen from under his shiny red nose, and nobody ever found it.   And he could not live that down in a million years.  And if it takes that long to find the bank, that’s how long he’s going to look.   Well, everyone needs a hobby.

They park up on the hill that diner was on, and Lieutenant Hepplewhite notices it’s gone.   Out of business already.  “I knew they wouldn’t make it,” he says.  He doesn’t know the half of it.

That’s a pretty short Part 2 (for me), but that’s really all there is to say about it.  What started out as a comic take on Parker has become very much its own unique creation, that Westlake can add to over a dozen more books, a number of short stories, and a depressingly large number of horrible movies.  Dortmunder won’t always do this badly–then again, sometimes he’ll do even worse.  Like next time.  But he’ll always have May–and Kelp.   He tries to lock Kelp out, but Kelp just picks the lock and lets himself in.

And the moral is, you have to take the bad with the good in life–well I don’t know that it’s a moral, precisely.   An aphorism, really.  Here’s another one I just found–

Cops and robbers would score the same on personality tests. Children who love guns and action, when they grow up, may act out their instincts on either side of the law. They may shoot people, or shoot people who shoot people. What we call brazenness in a criminal we call courage in a police officer.

Hmm–I almost feel like telling this guy it’s a little long for an aphorism (it’s really four aphorisms bunched together), but never mind.   My point would be this–are most cops really cut out to be cops?  Are most robbers really cut out to be robbers?   Aren’t a lot of people in both professions really bad at it?  How many people end up in the jobs and lives they are best suited for?

And suppose you were a cop by trade, but then decided to become a robber–while pretending to be a cop–which you really are–and then committed a robbery–only you didn’t really.  But you had to be a robber just once, so you could stop being a cop forever, and start being yourself.  How would that work out?

We’ll find out next week.  If I can finish the review before I report for jury duty downtown.  Where there’s no end of cops.  And all the robbers are on Wall Street.  Gee, it would be nice if somebody stuck it to those guys just once…….

PS: Quite a nice array of covers, huh?  Something about this story really inspired a number of artists around the world.  If you want to see more of them (and what those titles mean), I direct you to the Official Westlake Blog.


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

Review: Bank Shot

bank_shot_1st_1 bank_shot_3rd_1  bank_shot_uk1_1kew1

CALLING all cars, calling all cars.  Be on the lookout for a stolen bank, approximately eleven feet tall, blue and white…”

May shook her head.  “I never saw a nephew yet,” she said, “that was worth his weight in Kiwanis gum.”

“Everybody’s somebody’s nephew,” Kelp said.

May said, “I’m not.”

This may not be Westlake’s best comic novel (it’s up near the top of the pile), but it’s got to be the easiest to sum up–“Dortmunder steals an entire bank.”  That’s not all that happens, but it’s the lead item.

The Hot Rock had been a great success, and was made into a major motion picture (which was no success at all, but Westlake’s check still cleared), so a sequel was obviously called for.   Westlake had himself a new series protagonist, and one who was palatable to many people who would never read a Parker novel.  I sent my mother a large-type edition of Good Behavior as a gift, and she liked it (she might enjoy Butcher’s Moon for all I know, but I’m not going to be the one to send it to her).

In this book, Westlake further refined and defined his new protagonist, and his partners in crime, adding to their number, as he would throughout the series.  It became much more obvious that Dortmunder was a comic take on Parker–obvious already to anyone who knew that The Hot Rock had begun as a Parker outing, but very few knew that at the time.  Dortmunder is described as dark-haired, tall and lean, with oversized knobby knuckles–obviously he has big hands, but he never kills anybody with them.  He never kills anybody, period.  He probably would, if he had to.   But somehow, he never does.  And he’s fine with that.  It’s hard to say if he has a conscience, but you might say he’s got a heart.

We hear once more that he served in Korea, as Parker served in WWII.   We learn that like Parker, he was once married to a woman of somewhat shady background, the professionally named Honeybun Bazoom–but he doesn’t seem to have been in love with her, and when it became obvious she wasn’t much into him either, they got a divorce.  She didn’t shoot him; he didn’t goad her to suicide.   Dortmunder is not one for drama.  He likes to keep things on an even keel as much as possible.   So does Parker, but Parker lives in a very different universe, administered by a very different god, with very different expectations.

And like Parker, he goes to movies, and doesn’t remember much of anything that happens in them–just light and color and sound that passes through him without much effect.  Fiction has no particular allure for him, nor does music, or athletics (except the equine variety).  He has no real opinions on anything that isn’t directly relevant to his work.  As we learn in later books, his only hobby seems to be blowing his  money at the racetrack–a convenient way to explain why he needs to keep working, even though some of his later scores are pretty damned impressive.

In short, he’s much more relatable than Parker, but he’s not really human either.   We’ve been over this–he’s a coyote in human form, making a living in a world he can never really understand, doing his best to blend in, but giving the rest of us these sideways glances that say “You people are nuts.   What the hell is up with you?”

But he’s found himself one hell of a great girl, all the same–not as glamorous as Claire Carroll, but a lot less high-maintenance.  In fact, most of the time she’s the one maintaining him.  We’re told that he ran into May at the Bohack Supermarket she works at while trying to walk out with a lot of items he hadn’t paid for–he may be a brilliant (if perennially star-crossed) heist planner, but he’s a lousy shoplifter, and May (a much more accomplished shoplifter) spotted him easily–and something about his hangdog expression as the groceries tumbled out of his sleeves, won her heart instantly.

Love at first sight.  So deep and true that neither of them ever has to say it in words, or formalize it with a ceremony.   They just clicked.   No drama at all, nor is there ever.  It is, in many ways, the most alluring romantic fantasy at all–to find somebody you don’t need to be romantic with.  Because it’s so right, that hearts and flowers stuff would just feel phony.  What he likes most about her is that unlike the not terribly bright Honeybun, who was only interested in herself, she’s very interested in everything around her–yet she doesn’t ask him a lot of questions about his work, and when she does, she only needs to hear the answers once.   That’s a keeper, guys.  A pearl of great price, is our May.

But despite not being overly inquisitive about it, May, unlike Claire, wants to be part of Dortmunder’s work life.   As with Claire, she doesn’t want to play any part in people getting hurt, but this isn’t the world of Richard Stark, so somehow that’s never a problem–in fact, she’ll successfully push Dortmunder into several jobs that involve helping people (as Claire tried to do in The Black Ice Score, but nobody reforms Parker).

So really, she is to Claire what Dortmunder is to Parker–less romantic and exciting, more down to earth and proletarian–but she’s a lot more successful in her remodeling effort than Claire ever was.  She has her own womanly wiles.  She may not look like a model, but she bakes a tuna casserole you would not believe.

She also wanted a more exciting life and an unconventional relationship, but she can do fine without the expensive shopping trips and the fancy vacations.  Just like Claire, May generally gets what she wants.  Unlike Claire, she can play a significant role in most of the books.   It just works better that way.

(I know I’m making it sound like I’d take May over Claire in a heartbeat if that were an actual choice, but that may have something to do with the fact that I’m currently imagining her as Winona Ryder–as Winona Ryder looks now, only without the expensive clothes, or the star temperament.  And hey, Winona got busted for shoplifting a while back, so that would be damn good casting, Hollywood–and she could use a steady gig.  I’m just saying.)

Obviously May is going to have to give up smoking at some point in the future.   I have never smoked a cigarette in my life (scout’s honor, though I was actually an Adventure Guide), and I’ve never considered it an attractive habit, but there is something oddly disarming about the way she does it.   She’s always running out of matches, and the moments where she has to go looking for them constitute the only times she doesn’t have a Virginia Slim dangling from her mouth (well hopefully not when she and Dortmunder are having an intimate moment, but delicacy forbids the question).   She finds some more matches, and this lovely little character-revealing moment ensues–

May lit the cigarette and dropped the match in the ashtray next to the TV.  She’d been concentrating on nothing but matches for five minutes, but not as her mind cleared she became aware again of the things around her, and the closest was the TV set, so she turned it on.  There was a movie just starting.  It was called The Tall Target, and in it Dick Powell played a New York City policeman named John Kennedy who was trying to stop an assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln. He was on a train, Dick Powell was, and he kept getting telegrams, so trainmen kept coming down the corridor shouting “John Kennedy, John Kennedy.”  This gave May a pleasant feeling of dislocation, so she backed up until her legs hit the sofa bed and sat down.

Dortmunder came home at the most exciting part, of course, and he brought Kelp with him.  It was 1860 and Abraham Lincoln was going to his first inauguration and that’s where they wanted to assassinate him.  Adolph Menjou was the mastermind of the plot, but Dick Powell–John Kennedy–was too quick for him.  Still, it wasn’t certain how things would come out.

I’ve seen bits and pieces of that movie, but never watched it through.  How does it come out?  Anyone know?

Anyway, as the book begins, Dortmunder is back on the phony encyclopedia grift–getting ten bucks here, ten bucks there, from gullible housewives, only this one turns out to not be so gullible, and calls the cops, and he’s got to get out of there–he takes just one more fall and he’s going away for good (another parallel with Parker, whose fingerprints would link him to the death of that prison camp guard he killed while escaping, were he ever to get arrested).

He’s got no way to get out of suburbia in a hurry, but then up comes Andy Kelp in yet another stolen vehicle with MD plates, and Dortmunder starts thinking prison might not be the worst option after all–Kelp’s got another crazy scheme up his sleeve, and he needs Dortmunder to plan it.   This is yet one more way in which Dortmunder is like Parker–he’s nearly always the one planning the heist, but the heist is never his idea–it’s always something that gets pitched to him, and it’s always something crazy, and he’s got all kinds of problems with it, and he always goes ahead and does it anyway, because a guy’s gotta work, right?

But this time Kelp has surpassed himself–first of all, the ‘finger’ on this job–the one who spotted the opportunity–is Kelp’s nephew Victor (a nephew in more than one sense of the word), who is a former FBI agent.  Never a very high-ranking one, because he was so clean-cut and gung-ho, even the Bureau found him kind of creepy, and they eventually fired him for proposing ideas like an FBI secret handshake.  And now he’s got an idea for Dortmunder, who Victor is gazing at with awestruck delight, as if he just stepped out of an old Warner Brothers gangster film.   This certainly bodes well.

Victor thought of the FBI in terms of very dated stories about daring G-Men that he read in old pulp magazines, and never could get his mental image to match up with the drab reality.   He’s turned his garage into a sort of nerd-cave, crammed with juvenile pop-lit from eras other than his own.   Now that I think on it, we saw something very similar to this in Wax Apple, only that guy had just gotten out of a mental hospital.  Victor just got out of the FBI.  I believe a statement is being made here.

But as disturbed as Dortmunder may be to have a bank job pitched to him by a lawman who got fired for being a bit of a nut, that’s nothing compared to his reaction to the job itself–see, there’s this bank out on Long Island.   The old building is being torn down, and a new one constructed in its place.  And in the meantime, the actual bank is in a trailer parked near the construction area.  So Victor’s idea, which Kelp of course just loves (must be genetic) is to hitch up a suitable vehicle to the bank, and just drive away with it.

(Sidebar: Now here’s another Parker parallel–Parker also had a job pitched to him by a cop–to rob an entire town.   Only Parker didn’t know this guy was a cop, or that he had a score to settle with that sleepy western burg, hence the title of the book–the score is both the money to be taken, and the debt to be settled.  In the world of Richard Stark, that story leads to plunder and betrayal and death.  This book, however,  is in the world of Donald E. Westlake, writing with tongue firmly in cheek, so it all works out quite differently.   Nobody dies, nobody wins.  This bank shot ends up ricocheting every way but the right way.  Westlake did enjoy pun titles.)

It isn’t that simple, naturally–they need a planner, like Dortmunder, to work out the nitty gritty.  Six nights a week, there’s no money at all in that trailer.   The only exception is Thursday night, when the bank stays open late for shoppers, so they can’t move the money out of there.   Thursday  night, they have armed guards inside the trailer–from the Continental Detective Agency, no less.   Bit of a shout-out to Mr. Hammett and The Op, though I’m not sure either would approve.

One more little complication–the bank people took the wheels off the trailer.   And the money will be in a safe that has to be opened at some point.  Technical expertise of various kinds is called for, so Stan (the man) Murch, who knows everything there is to know about things on wheels, gets called in.

Their cracksman from the last job, who was you may recall, a bit cracked in the head regarding trains, somehow managed to ride a derelict subway car to Cuba (don’t ask–Dortmunder doesn’t), so they need someone new–and boy, do they get someone new.   Would you believe a bi-sexual black revolutionary named Herman X?   Holding a swanky bi-racial dinner party at his posh Central Park West digs.   Now dig this spread he’s prepared for his guests, at least two of whom he intends to seduce later–a black man and a white woman–which comes first is up to the vagaries of fate, but he’s left nothing to chance with the food.

He had planned the menu with the greatest of care.  The cocktails to begin had been Negronis, the power of the gin obscured by the gentleness of vermouth and Campari.  The caviar and pitted black olives to nosh on while drinking.  Then, at the table, the meal itself would start with black bean soup, followed by poached fillet of black sea bass and a nice bottle of Schwartzekatz.  For the entree, a Black Angus steak sauteed in black butter and garnished with black truffles, plus a side dish of black rice, washed down with a good Pinot Noir.  For dessert, black-bottom pie and coffee.  For after-dinner drinks, a choice of Black Russians or blackberry brandy, with bowls of black walnuts to munch on again in the living room.

Herman, to me, is one of Westlake’s more underutilized players–we really should have seen more of him than we did, though he did make a few return appearances in the later books.  I think Westlake liked the idea of him, but found it hard to make him mesh with the Dortmunder crew.  He’s a full-time revolutionary, loyal to some obscure splinter of the Black Panther movement, so his larcenous talents (which include safecracking) are mainly devoted to robbing banks, payrolls and (in this book) box offices, to pay for their various social programs.  Those jobs he does with other members of the movement.

But to finance his own lavish (not to mention lascivious) lifestyle, he also pulls heists on the side, and those he’ll do with any solid pro, regardless of race, creed, or color.  That’s how he knows Kelp, and it’s Kelp that calls him in.   Kelp asks Dortmunder if he has any problem working with a black guy–Dortmunder looks at him like “Why the hell would that be a problem?”  Again, very much like Parker–he does not understand our tribal fissions.  But he’s not sure about Herman, has doubts about his abilities all through the book, mainly I think because he doesn’t see why any guy on the bend would want to make his last name the letter X.  That’s just begging the law to take a second look at you.

They meet at the OJ Bar and Grill, of course–the ultimate Dortmunder hang-out spot, which Westlake mere touched upon in the last book, but now its full potential as becoming clear to him–there’s basically nothing you can’t hear in a New York City bar.  As Dortmunder enters, three Puerto Rican subway motormen are having a spirited conversation about whether there are alligators in the subway tunnels, or just in the sewers.   The first of many such thought-provoking barstool debates to come.

Herman’s a bit startled as well to find out Victor is a former FBI Agent, and Victor doesn’t help things by innocently asking him what newspapers he reads, and questions like that–it’s just force of habit–he wants to figure out which group Herman belongs to.  Herman would rather keep that to himself, thanks very much.   But they have a shared love of adventure, the romantic side of life, which serves as a point of understanding between them.

So they have to case the job out, do the legwork, and everybody pitches in.   May and Murch’s Mom (she’s got a name, but somehow that’s what everybody calls her) snap surreptitious photos of the bank, and May independently comes up with the idea of making curtains to disguise it as a regular mobile home.  The guys have to find a place to hide the trailer after they heist it, so Herman will have time to crack the safe.  And they need wheels to put under the trailer, which means they have to steal them–but in such a way as that nobody knows they’ve been stolen.

Kelp borrows a truck (no seriously, he puts it back afterwards, that’s borrowing), and they go to a plant that makes this kind of trailer, and along the way it turns out the seemingly innocent truck was being used to smuggle American cigarettes and Canuck booze back and forth across the border. The smokes are a nice bonus, but unfortunately some of the whiskey bottles broke during the previous trip, and the sickly sweet smell of Canadian Club (it ain’t Kentucky bourbon, folks) is soon making everybody in the back of the truck not so sweetly sick.

Everybody wants to sit up with Murch in the cab on the way home, and since there’s five of them, and the truck has a floor shift, it’s a really tight fit.  Murch thinks they deliberately didn’t share the whiskey with him (there wasn’t any, just the smell), so he keeps aiming for potholes on the way back.   These little misunderstandings will happen amongst the best of chums.

Not to get too far offtrack here, but damn, there’s a whole lot of cigarette references in this book.  May’s chainsmoking, for one.  The discussion in the truck over the smuggled smokes they find–L&M, Salem Virginia Slims–it’s kind of perversely sweet that Dortmunder immediately wants to take some of those home to May, even though she apparently steals all she needs from the Bohack (they sold cigarettes in supermarkets back then?).  There’s also this little exchange after Kelp picks Dortmunder up at the start of the book–Kelp offers Dortmunder a cancer stick (that’s what they are, leave us not forget)–

“True?  What the hell kind of brand is that?”

“It’s one of the new ones with the low nicotine and tar.”

“I’ll stick to Camels,” Dortmunder said, and out of the corner of his eye Kelp saw him pull a battered pack of them from his jacket pocket.  “True,” Dortmunder grumbled.  “I don’t know what the hell kind of name that is for a cigarette.”

Kelp was stung.  He said, “Well, what kind of name is Camel?  True means something.  What the hell does Camel mean?”

“It means cigarettes,” Dortmunder said.  “For years and years it means cigarettes.  I see something called True, I figure right away it’s a fake.”

“Just because you’ve been working a con,” Kelp said, “you figure everybody else is too.”

“That’s right,” Dortmunder said.

Oh if you only knew, pal.   There is grift, and then there is grift.  And right in the middle of my Pocket Books reprint of this novel (my favorite edition of all, in spite of what I’m about to show you, or maybe even a little because of it)–

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I know I shouldn’t even ask, vis a vis the ‘Kent Collectables’ (sic)–but–a popcorn popper?  In case you get the munchies while smoking?  What kind of cigarettes are these?

It’s probably just a coincidence that Kent isn’t one of the brands mentioned, but you never know, in the incestuous world of multinational corporations.  The Pocket Books reprint of I Gave At The Office also had a full color cigarette ad in it, also for Kent.

So anyway, in the wee wee hours of Sunday morning, when everything is closed and absolutely nobody is inside the bank, they jack up the trailer, very slowly and carefully, and put the wheels on.  There are concrete blocks around the base of the trailer, so nobody will know the wheels are there until they’re already rolling.   Dortmunder, in spite of himself, is pleased–this is good work, and it promises to be a nice score.   It’s not like that last job, where he had to steal the same emerald over and over.   This will be different.  Oh it’ll be different all right, Dortmunder.

So we get a brief chapter inside the bank, where the Continental Agency bulls are tossing the bull, and playing five card stud.  The guy whose head we’re inside is named Joe Mulligan–like many working this kind of gig, he’s a former cop, who got a P.I. license which he just used to get himself a steady security job with a reputable firm, instead of buying himself a trenchcoat and getting a seedy little office and faithful gal Friday with great gams, waiting around for Brigid O’Shaugnessy to come prancing in.   There’s no security in that line.

Aside from Joe, there’s some rather familiar-sounding names–guy named Block, another named Garfield, there’s even a Dresner.   These all being names belonging to writer chums of Westlake’s that he played poker with all the time.  This not being a joke 99% of people reading this book would ever get, but so much fun for the ones that do, eh?   There’s also a Fenton, who’s the boss of this shift, but I don’t know if he’s named after a friend of Westlake’s–I do know we see him again in some of the later books.  He and Dortmunder seem to have some kind of karma thing going on–mainly bad.

Westlake loved writing about card games, and I like reading what he wrote, but since I never even mastered the fine points of Go Fish, I can’t tell you how accurate he’s being.   All I can tell you is that Mr. Block has just laid down his cards, and Mulligan knows he has him beat, and he’s just about to slap his hand down triumphantly and claim the pot, when the trailer jerks violently, and everybody falls down, and the cards are all sent flying, and his winning hand is trumped by the bank he’s in being stolen by the Dortmunder Gang.  Don’t you hate it when that happens?

Something else you may have come to hate is my way of breaking these reviews off just when things are getting interesting, but it’s Friday, I want to relax this weekend, there’s plenty more to discuss, and anyway, making it a two-parter will really jack up my hits for the month.  If my review of his first outing taught me anything, it’s that Dortmunder is good for business.   He’d probably find that cruelly ironic.  Just suck it in, man.  Miles to go before you sleep.

PS: While helping Dortmunder make his grifter’s getaway from surburbia, Kelp gets rear-ended by a guy in a Pinto, who is hopping mad and wants to call the cops.   Kelp kindly points out to him that in the back of the car there are copies of some books the authorities might take an interest in–Passion Doll, Man Hungry, Strange Affair, Call Me Sinner, Off Limits, and Apprentice Virgin.   These are all ‘sleaze’ books written by Donald Westlake under pen names (see my review of Adios Scheherazade).  I must say, for a fellow who claimed to be embarrassed by his virginal apprenticeship in the porn pits Westlake certainly did bring it up a lot in his ‘respectable’ books.  If this qualifies as respectable.  I guess it’s all relative, no?

PPS: There are still more advertisements in the back of my Pocket Books reprint–

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I am particularly taken by that one on the right–“Invest $6.95 in a better marriage.”

J.C.?   That you?   Good Behavior, indeed.   How could I send my sainted mother that filth?  Oh well, she seemed to enjoy it.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder