May knew John had a very bad tendency, when things got unusually difficult, to sink with an almost sensuous pleasure into a warm bath of despair. Once you’ve handed the reins over to despair, to mix a metaphor just a teeny bit, your job is done. You don’t have to sweat it any more, you’ve taken yourself out of the game. Despair is the bench, and you are warming it.
May knew it was her job, at moments like this, to pull John out of the clutches of despair and goose him into forward motion once more. After all, it isn’t whether you win or lose, it’s just you have to be in the goddam game.
I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
‘S a sma’ request;
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
An’ never miss’t!
(Donald Westlake did not write this.)
Look what I found, rummaging about the dust-free virtual attic–a cops and robbers chess set! Pretty cool, huh? This leads, as ever, to a question–if you were going to make a Dortmunder-themed chess set, how would you arrange it? Obviously Dortmunder, simultaneously peripheral and central to everything, vulnerable and fugitive at all times, is the king. Of crime. And kvetching.
The queen must needs be female, someone with great power and freedom of movement, so I’d go with J.C. Taylor, no slight intended to May, who is nothing if not supportive of her larcenous liege in this story, but not a major player in it, not that J.C. is either. May’s got old movies to watch, and this is not her game. I’d say that’s maybe Parcheesi. Mah Jongg?
Knight is the easy one, that cute bastard, always moving in a crooked line. You never see him coming. Drops in unannounced and helps himself to a beer. Do I even have to say it?
Tiny Bulcher would be the castle. Because he’s massive. And comes straight at you. Best not call him a rook. He might take it as a compliment, but I wouldn’t chance it.
I guess that makes Stan Murch the bishop by default? Is there an automotive angle to work with here, as with the cops & robbers chess set? Maybe his mom could be the other bishop. She’d be in her cab, him in a purloined getaway car (that only goes slantways). Problem solved, but then I wonder if Rollo the bartender would be better suited to that role. The Bishop of Bourbon. I bet that used to be a thing. (checks) Well, I was almost right.
Dortmunder begins as something of a pawn in this novel, and a fair few others. So a looming confident Dortmunder as king, and a bunch of shrunken furtive-looking Dortmunders as the pawns? Or make them all unique quirky supporting characters who only showed up now and again, your Herman X’s, your Wilbur Howeys, your various Wallys? Aesthetically pleasing, but expensive to manufacture and confusing to play.
Arnie Albright is in the pawn game, you might say, but imagine looking at eight of him. You’d be sacrificing pawns right and left just to settle your stomach. The other pieces would sacrifice themselves to get away from him. Are pawns even appropriate in the context of a writer who celebrated the individual?
As to the other side of the board (which no decent person would even want to play), an assortment of vindictive lawmen, arrogant tycoons, crooked foreign dignitaries from fictive nations, and I guess we could fit Tom Jimson in there somewhere (a very dark knight indeed). Pawns could just be burly no-neck security men.
These things always break down when you think about it too much. Chess, as we play it now, is based on the old feudal system, and when we try to update the roles, the analogies get strained. Sets based on Japanese feudalism work beautifully, but most others fall apart. I mean, the American Civil War was a lot of things, but it wasn’t feudal, and both sides are always blindingly white, so how do you even know who moves first? Point is, we already know who moved last.
Putting such distractions aside, I ponder the central question further, and a ray of light appears–make it specifically a Good Behavior themed set–that book is about neo-feudalism, so it works. Sister Mary Grace could be Dortmunder’s bishop. (I suppose the Curia might object, but the Pope is cool, we’d get a dispensation.) A What’s The Worst That could Happen? set also has its attractions, but the temptation to make Max Fairbanks look like You Know Whom would be overpowering, and we’d get tied up in court for eons, possibly jailed for lèse-majesté. Please feel free to make further suggestions in the comments section, especially if you have access to a 3D Printer.
I prefer checkers myself. Draughts, if you want to be British about it. Also referenced in this book. But you can’t do themed checkers sets. How about Dortmunder Stratego? Risk seems too obvious to mention. Chutes and Ladders? Monopoly is definitely not his game, and anyway it’s trademarked. Okay fine, we’ll talk about the book.
This is one of the longest Dortmunders, 359 pages in the first edition. Like all the longer books in this series, it has a lot of extraneous material in it–I’m tempted to call it Six Subplots in Search of an Author. But once I worked my way through through a somewhat muddled opening gambit, I was pleased to find the author does in fact show up to play. Pirandello he ain’t, but he has his own decided take on theater of the absurd.
It’s not mainly about the heist, but the heist is great. It’s got a lot of fol-de-rol in it about characters we’ll never see again, who are only tangentially involved with the heist, but somehow Westlake does a better job here making them mesh with the overall story than he did with the previous two, which ended up feeling like several different books stitched together. At this point, as previously discussed, it’s almost impossible for him to find anything new to say about Dortmunder & Co. He needs new characters with new identity crises to work on. Or else it’s going to be a short book (like the next and final one, which does somehow find one more thing to say about the main cast).
It’s got two very different rich people as pivotal characters, and surprise–they’re both oddly likable, and neither is Dortmunder’s nemesis. Neither is an aggressive narcissistic billionaire, either–both have some irritating rich people quirks, but they’re not villains, per se. The rich are human too. No, seriously.
It’s also got two very different private detectives (another peevish pet of Mr. Westlake’s), and that’s a more complicated discussion. It’s got a variety of very different young people seeking their footing in the world, variously finding and/or losing it. All this plus Captain Francis X. Mologna, the somehow still solvent Continental Detective Agency, perhaps the finest extant sample of Dortmunder parkeur, a golden bejeweled chess set, a subplot ripped straight out of a sleaze paperback, and Edgar Allan Poe. Still not a patch on the early classics, but I might go so far as to call it a late one.
Let’s just lay out the set-up. Dortmunder walks into the O.J. Bar and Grill, and wonders why none of the regulars are talking about things they don’t know about, or talking at all, for that matter. Because there’s a cop in the bar, that’s why. Not in uniform, but he might as well be, with the ‘plainclothes’ he’s wearing. Not a man, woman, child, or dog there couldn’t spot a cop blindfolded, if he came in dressed like Quentin Crisp.
As if that’s not bad enough, Dortmunder realizes, to his horror, that said cop is there to see him. For which crime, he wonders? Remember, Dortmunder is now, as ever, on double secret probation with the law–one more strike and he’s out–of circulation, ’til death or compassionate release, whichever comes first, and they’d amount to the same thing, really.
When is a cop not a cop? When he’s done his twenty, retired from the force, and his wife in the ‘burbs told him to find something to do with himself before they both went nuts. This is how Johnny Eppick (for hire), formerly of the NYPD, ended up a P.I., duly licensed, with an office on East 3rd St., far east as you can go without drowning. He could have just taken a job with some security outfit, which is what most retired cops who decide retirement sucks do. But there’s a romantic streak in Mr. Eppick (that’s why his card says ‘Johnny,’ instead of merely ‘John.’)
Having hung out his shamus shingle quite recently, Eppick lucked his way into the kind of job most real P.I.’s only encounter when they’re watching TCM. An eccentric millionaire named Hemlow, an inventor no less, in a wheelchair no less, wants him to help recover a priceless chess set, made of (almost) solid gold, encrusted with precious gems, heavy as hell, with a fascinating history behind it that of course they insist on sharing with Dortmunder, who is no more successful at preventing them from doing so than Parker was with that Lost Mourner of Dijon, and you’re not skipping the history lesson either, so there.
Hemlow’s father and his army buddies found the chess set in an abandoned warehouse in the port city of Murmansk, while involved in the ill-fated American military expedition to Russia after WWI. It had been meant as a gift to the czar and his family, but that ship had already been shot and bayoneted multiple times. These shivering young shavetails dreamed of using it to become pioneering media moguls in radio once their government let them come in out of the cold.
But instead, their sergeant, a sly bastard named Northwood, made off with it, dropping from sight, along with their dreams. Hemlow’s father never recovered from the loss, his family has never stopped grousing over this injustice, even as his chemical patents made them all quite comfortable. But where’s the romance in chemical patents, I ask you?
It was his lawyer granddaughter, an amateur historian, who much to her surprised fascination, found out that Northwood used the set to set himself up in real estate (no better field for an unrepentent cad), and he’s long dead of course, but his very wealthy family is still fighting over his estate–including the chess set. Now ensconced in a bank vault in the subbasement of the very building she works in, she being a minor functionary in a major law firm, which represents one of the squabbling heirs.
I mean, put yourself in the dick’s flat feet. This is the stuff dreams are made of, schweetheart.
(I couldn’t find a Maltese Falcon chess set. Maybe the black birds could be different colors, sizes? Wear crowns, miters, perch on tiny castles, horses, etc? Different species of falcon? I’ll get to work on that right after the Dortmunder chess set sells its first million units.)
Since the gumshoe part of the program has already been attended to by the granddaughter, what’s left for Eppick? Well, the ailing Hemlow wants to get that chess set back before he dies. Legally speaking, he’s got no leg to stand on (that was insensitive), no way to prove prior ownership of something the gypped GI’s didn’t technically steal, and didn’t technically own, either. He’d die long before the lawyers finished collecting their fees. He doesn’t need the money himself, but dreams of righting past wrongs, seeing that the other families get their rightful wrongful due. You know–closure.
Hence–a heist. Eppick is to seek a suitably skilled specialist then solicit the sap to steal the serially stolen set. And what’s to stop a professional thief from just making off with the goods? Why would he even attempt such a risky job for the relative pittance of a fee that Hemlow shall provide?
Leverage. Eppick did his research, figured Dortmunder was the right wrong guy for the job, and obtained images from surveillance footage of him burglarizing a store. Blurry images, but if Dortmunder declines the job offer, all Eppick has to do is point and his cop buddies shall descend like vultures upon our hero’s slope-shouldered carcass. Even if they can’t make that particular charge stick, they’ll find something. And he’ll find his old cell waiting for him. As he will if they catch him trying to get that chess set. And anyone trying to get into that bank vault and back out again with a 680 pound chess set tucked in his pockets is getting caught. Catch-22.
Much as he hates the idea, rather than plagiarize Joseph Heller, our metropolitan mutt considers leaving New York forever. This passage contains one of those lines people always quote without necessarily remembering exactly how it goes or which book it came from.
Riding down, alone this trip, he thought his best move now was to go straight over to Grand Central, take the first train out for Chicago. That’s supposed to be an okay place, not that different from a city. It could even work out. Meet up with some guys there, get plugged in a little, learn all those new neighborhoods. Get settled, then send word to May, she could bring out his winter clothes. Chicago was alleged to be very cold.
(I believe that is a known fact about Chicago. The city thing remains a matter of opinion.)
Eppick, wise to the ways of felons, anticipates this fantasy of setting out for the territories, and shuts it down cold. Police departments are communicating much more than they used to, via the internet. He’d put out feelers, and the blue network would find Dortmunder, no matter what godforsaken hole he curled up in. Oh now, Chicago, don’t be so sensitive, you’ve got that deep-fish pizza or whatever and that tower named after a nigh-defunct chain of department stores. And did you just win a World Series recently? Twice in the last century? That’s cute.
(Tiny later informs Dortmunder the loophole to Eppick’s outreach would be someplace like Biloxi–southern cops still don’t talk to Yankee cops, let alone those that root for the New York Yankees–Biloxi is not even theoretically a city, so that still wouldn’t work. He might as well try Mayberry. Maybe he did, lot of eps I never got around to watching.)
Though initially, after they see him with Eppick, his felonious friends treat him like he’s come down with a mild case of plague, loyalty mingled with curiosity mingled with greed brings them in to confer. Maybe there’s some way they can get this thing. Maybe there’s even some way they can keep it.
Eppick knows quite well that Dortmunder can’t pull this job by himself, and is pleased when he learns Kelp has come in–a bit less pleased when Kelp turns out to be his opposite number in more ways than one, and not the least bit intimidated by Eppick, now that he knows this isn’t a real cop anymore, and (more to the point) that he’s actively engaged in soliciting an illegal act. Kelp, more into pool than chess, sees angles to be played here. Question is, what angle is Eppick playing?
The string in this one is composed of Dortmunder, Kelp, Murch, Tiny, and Judson Blint, who was only introduced in the last book, and is still working his day job with J.C., keeping her old mail order cons alive, while she concentrates on being her own country. That’s a photo of four of them up top. Murch isn’t there, must be working on the warp drive or something. I think you can guess which one Judson is. Oh, that was mean. But it gives us an opening for–
The Crusher Conundrum:
Kelp said, “You know, we got another little conundrum here. I know it isn’t as important as the main problem—”
“The vault,” Dortmunder said.
“That’s the problem I was thinking of,” Kelp agreed. “Anyway,” he told the others, “you see these pictures of these two rooks.”
“Those are castles,” Stan said.
“Yes, but,” Kelp said, “rook is a name for them in chess. Anyway, everything weighs the way it’s supposed to, except this one rook here is three pounds lighter than the other rooks.”
They all leaned over the pictures, including Judson, who got up from the radiator and came over to stand beside the table, gazing down.
Stan said, “They look alike.”
“But you see the weight,” Kelp said. “They wrote it down right there.”
Stan nodded. “Maybe it’s a typo.”
“This stuff is all pretty careful,” Kelp said.
Dortmunder said, “I don’t find this as gripping as the main problem.”
“No, of course not,” Kelp said. “It’s just a mystery, that’s all.”
“No, it isn’t,” Judson said. “That part’s easy.”
Judson Blint is something of a prodigy, something of a ‘Nephew’, and 100% a Wesley (I should not need to explain). And maybe just a wee bit of a Mary Sue, Westlake’s idealized younger self, stepping into an exciting criminal underworld, and grasping its finer points with alacrity. The amateur learning how to be a pro.
And he’s all over this book, even though little further attempt is made to develop his character. He’ll be playing this role for the remainder of the series, which isn’t saying much. He figures out things the more seasoned heisters, including Dortmunder, are baffled by. A fresh young mind. Is this necessarily a good thing? Well, it’s a thing, whether we think it’s good or not.
Hence The Mystery of the Cooked Rook. Looking at the vital statistics of the set provided them by Hemlow’s granddaughter, Kelp notices one of the pieces is much lighter than it should be. It’s Judson who has the sleuthly flash of insight that this is because Northwood, having stolen the set, needed some ready cash in order to get out of town and then make his fortune with it as collateral. He raised it by selling the gold and jewels from one of the castles–and replacing it with a clever copy, so as to seem not to have broken up the set, thereby reducing its value.
This later leads to the gang doing the same thing themselves, Anne Marie knowing a jeweler of flexible ethics in DC (yes, we all get the joke, Mr. Westlake). But it does not solve the problem of how to get into the vault, and when asked how they do that, Judson says they can’t. It’s impossible. The gang wracks its collective brains and comes up with zip. Dortmunder is in despair, and Judson feels bad.
It’s Dortmunder, the full professional, with more than amateur brilliance to guide him, who will find the answer. But this answer doesn’t come to Dortmunder immediately, and in the meantime Judson is at the bank building (the good old Capitalists and Immigrants Trust from Bank Shot, called C&I International here), casing the joint to try and find the solution himself, and Kelp comes along to tell him he’s doing it wrong, drawing too much attention to himself. Kelp continues to take Judson under his wing, because Kelp is the Riker in this crew. Dortmunder is Data. Tiny is Worf. Murch would be some combo of La Forge and O’Brien. There is so not a Picard here. There are a whole slew of Trek-related chess sets we might look at, but let’s don’t.
Rather, let’s take a closer look at a character not much older than Judson Blint, who plays a somewhat less intrepid role here, but also a more important and interesting one. But though her role be large, she herself is not.
Ode to a Mouse:
“So you found this thing,” Dortmunder began. “This chess set.”
She laughed. “Oh, Mr. Dortmunder, this is too good a story to just jump in and tell the end.”
Dortmunder hated stories that were that good, but okay, once again no choice in the matter, so he said, “Sure. Go ahead.”
“When I was growing up,” she said, “there was every once in a while some family talk about a chess set that seemed to make everybody unhappy, but I couldn’t figure out why. It was gone, or lost, or something, but I didn’t know why it was such a big deal.”
She drank Diet Pepsi and give him a warning finger-shake. “I don’t mean the family was full of nothing but talk about this mysterious chess set, it wasn’t. It was just a thing that came up every once in a while.”
“So last summer it came up again,” she said, “when I was visiting my father at the Cape, and I asked him, please tell me what it’s all about, and he said he didn’t really know. If he ever knew, he’d forgotten. He said I should ask my grandfather, so when I got back to the city I did. He didn’t want to talk about it, turned out he was very bitter on that subject, but I finally convinced him I really wanted to know what this chess set meant in the family, and he told me.”
“And that made you find it,” Dortmunder said, “when nobody else could.”
“That’s right,” she said. “I’ve always been fascinated by history, and this was history with my own family in it, the First World War and invading Russia and all the rest of it. So I took down the names of everybody in that platoon that brought the chess set to America, and the other names, like the radio company they wanted to start, Chess King Broadcasting, and everything else I thought might be useful, and I Googled it all.”
Dortmunder had heard of this; some other nosey parker way to mind everybody else’s business. He preferred a world in which people stuck to their own knitting, but that world was long gone. He said, “You found some of these people on Google.”
Fiona Hemlow, daughter of Hemlow Senior’s third son, is in her middle 20’s, black of hair, slight of stature, efficient, decent-natured, and mainly a stranger to herself. Like many people just out of law school, she’s a very small part of a very large firm–a ‘wee beastie’ she terms herself, and you know where that term derives from, dinna ye not? A modern girl, probably not fluent in Lallans, she wouldn’t describe herself as sleeket, cowran, or tim’rous. But aren’t we all, sometimes? Us and all our best-laid schemes. Beware of murd’ring pattles.
Fiona, like any mouse, has a tendency to poke her curious whiskers where they are not welcome. She’s clearly bored with her job, and to find that the fabled chess set of family lore is being kept in a vault beneath her tiny feet is not something she could be expected to keep to herself, so off she runs to the grandfather, the patriarch of her clan, the one whose inventiveness and drive brought them all up in the world with him, and no doubt paid for her schooling.
She herself is not to be involved in any way with the theft, naturally–Hemlow Sr. is repeatedly at pains to warn Dortmunder about that, wracked with guilt at any thought his granddaughter might suffer for his pursuance of an old vendetta. And yet here she is, talking to Dortmunder about it, in her own office, and feeling guilty about having put the poor man in this situation. Her worries will be closer to home soon enough.
It’s a bit like the Stone Soup. Seems so simple at first, then you get lured in, one ingredient at a time. Dortmunder needs the specs on the set, he needs to know more about the heirs, he needs this, he needs that, or the soup will never be ready. And Fiona self-evidently wants to play the sleuth as much as Judson does, but she is constrained by her position. She can’t commit to the game, as Judson does, because she’s playing too many different games at once.
She forces herself to personally address one of the squabbling heirs, just because it’s such a thrill to meet a member of the family her family has had a shadow-feud with all these years. Mrs. Livia Northwood Wheeler, who does not bear fools gladly, or at all (though she herself has never worked for a living in her life, would be mortally offended if you suggested she should).
Fiona makes up a story about how she’s always admired this woman, her guts, her refusal to ever let anyone get the better of her (least of all her own family), and only later realizes she really does admire Mrs. Wheeler for that, because that’s how she’d like to be (but such is not a mouse’s lot).
Mrs. W, as she’s known for most of the book, suspects a ploy (because she always suspects a ploy, literally every day of her life) and goes to Fiona’s boss, Mr. Tumbril (the term for the carts used to convey prisoners to the guillotine; you ever wonder how much time Westlake spent on names alone?) She assumed Fiona was questioning her on Tumbril’s behalf.
Mrs. W., not quite the dragon she appears, Fiona’s fellow mortal (and female, in a man’s world), only realizes her mistake when Tumbril decapitates Fiona (in a professional sense) right in front of her. A stunned Fiona mails out the intel Dortmunder needs, right before she cleans out her desk, with security watching her, and is conveyed in disgrace (but not in a cart) to the street outside. Her wee-bit housie in ruin.
And the end result of this bleak December wind? She winds up as Mrs. W’s personal assistant, in a fantastic office with a view of Central Park, a spy in the enemy’s camp, but really more of a double agent, because as mentioned, she truly does admire and like her curmudgeonly new employer, and is grateful for her suddenly improved prospects–but she’s embroiled in a plot to steal from her. How long before the cruel coulter (no, not that one) slices through her cell once more? Forward tho’ she canna see, she guesses and fears.
Oh, and there’s some stuff about her no-good boyfriend (spoiler alert), but that can wait for later.
What could have waited for always is the one subplot (in this book crammed to the gills with them) I can’t for the life of me figure out why it’s there. Maybe you can pierce the puzzle of–
Murch’s Muddled Mecca:
“I’m happy for them,” John said. “But up till now I don’t see your idea in here.”
“The dome,” Stan said.
John just looked at him, ostrich or bison visible in his open mouth.
So Stan said, “The dome got delivered before they shut down, and it’s gold. Not solid gold, you know, but not gold paint either. Real gold. Gold plate or something. It’s sitting out there on this empty construction site, it was delivered when the walls were supposed to be up, but of course the walls weren’t up, so it’s sitting there, with this crane next to it.”
“I think I’m getting this,” John said. “It’s your idea, we use the crane, we pick up this dome— How big is this dome?”
“Fifteen feet across, twelve feet high.”
“Fifteen feet across, twelve feet high. You wanna pick this up and take it away.”
“With the crane, like you said.”
“And where you gonna stash this thing?”
“That’s part of what we gotta work out,” Stan said.
“Maybe you can take it to Alaska,” John said, “and paint it white, and make everybody think it’s an igloo.”
“I don’t think we could get it that far,” Stan told him. “All the bridges. And forget tunnels.”
Poor Stan. The world’s greatest getaway driver, the human GPS, and he gets no respect, no respect at all. He never even gets to outrun the cops in a thrilling chase scene (because seriously, if you’re being chased by the cops, probably with news choppers overhead, the heist is already ruined, and you’re going away for a long time, to watch the chase footage in the prison rec room, over and over, on those damn reality shows).
So at least he gets a subplot here, but it goes nowhere. He wants to heist the (partly) golden dome for a mosque under construction along the Belt Parkway–he drives past the site all the time, to and from Canarsie, and it’s calling out to him, “Stan! Stan! Come get me!”
Dortmunder really does not have time enough in the day to list all the ways in which this is an incredibly bad idea (he already had some kind of fatwah out on him in Why Me?, and that was just over a fucking ring). He’s got this chess set to worry about, he’s got Eppick to worry about, and if anything, this dome job is even worse. He gives a very hurt Murch the brush.
But Murch just won’t give up. He gets Kelp out there, he gets Judson out there, they all have to go look at the golden dome, and they all think it’s a terrible idea to try and heist it, and finally Murch has to give up on it, and go along with this other job they’re all getting sucked into, because John (their brain, and down inside they all know it), is going to get sucked back into prison if they can’t manage to make it work.
What the hell was that about? You keep waiting for it to get tied back into the main story (maybe they could hide the chess set under the dome?), and it never is. Dortmunder subplots sometimes turn into dead ends, which is not typical of Westlake’s work as a whole. The first three books were perfectly balanced–most of what followed was Westlake clearing out his mental attic, while spending time with old and cherished friends.
I would think Westlake himself was driving past a construction site for a mosque, or saw it on TV, and thought “hmmmm.” And then “naaaaahhh!” Maybe this ties back to research he did for the first Samuel Holt novel, which hinged upon a newly built golden-domed mosque in L.A. (In that case, it was the entire four book series that went nowhere.)
Now I say he doesn’t tie it in to the main heist, but axiomatically speaking, you might say he does. Because Dortmunder finally hits on it. What they have to do in order to get that chess set. That is in that vault. The one even Judson says they can’t possibly get into and back out again.
“No, you were right,” John said. “That’s what I’ve been saying all along, there’s no way to get into that vault.”
“Fuggedabodit. See, what it is I gotta do, I gotta stop thinking about getting into the vault because I can’t get into the vault. That’s the backwards part.”
Judson said, “It is?”
“The mountain,” John explained, “gotta go to whatsisname. Mohammed.”
Fearing the worst, May said, “John?”
“You know,” John said, and gestured vaguely with both hands. “He won’t go to that, so that’s gotta go to him. Same with the vault. We can’t get in at the chess set, case closed, no discussion, so what we gotta do is get the chess set to come out to us.”
“That’s brilliant, John,” Andy said. “How do we do that?”
“Well,” John said, “that’s the part I’m working on.”
Let’s work on it next time. I’d say next week, but look how long it’s been since my last post. Whenever. Oh, and Murch to Kelp 2. Check. Your move.