“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 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 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 possibly the weakest book in the series. 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, but is 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 rich prick 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
(Worth noting: Before she prudently leaves the hotel, prior to the heist taking place, May starts laying the groundwork for a close friendship with Anne Marie, which will remain a thing across the remaining books.)
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.