Tag Archives: The Road to Ruin

Enconium: Mr. Dortmunder and Oleg, Часть третья (Part 3)

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They all trooped in, to view the unprecedented sight of Tiny in two aprons, overlapping, with a meat cleaver in one hand and a long wooden spoon in the other, with a lot of big pots and pans hissing and snarling on the stove.  What he looked mostly like was some darker version of Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen.  “Soup’s on at six,” he told them.

I wish I knew more about Oleg Zverkov.  I wish I could read testimonials to him (that would be in Russian), learn what he loved about the Dortmunder novels, and what else he loved besides them, get something of the tenor of his personality, the cut of his jib.

I wish he’d been one of my regulars in the comments section, back when I was reviewing the Dortmunders, giving us the Russian take on these books (Ray Garraty being more of a Parker kind of guy.)  I wish we could have swapped insights, interpretations, interests.  I wish most of all that Mr. Westlake himself could have lived to see these books, to hold them in his hands (and I would have made damn sure that happened).  But alas.  Not to be.

Westlake novels are, most of all, about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.  About individuals engaged in an open-ended process of self-discovery.  And thus, they attract readers who are themselves ordinary, yet capable of the extraordinary, and who are engaged in that process themselves.  Seeing the comedy and tragedy of life in equal measure, appreciating both, refusing to let one overwhelm the other.

And why, pray tell, should we not assume that such people exist everywhere, in every nation of the earth?  Nations as populous as China,  as expansive as Russia, as untamed as Brazil, as miniscule as Anguilla, as remote as Papua New Guinea.  This blog has been visited by one hundred and fifty-four such nations as of today.  The only major land masses I’m missing are Antarctica and Greenland.  I’ve got readers on lots of little islands too (Westlake would have liked that.)

And you know, wherever there are people, there are bosses, seeking to control them.  There are organization men, seeking to be controlled.  There are rich pricks, looking to buy us on the cheap.  And there are those who just don’t fit any of the available molds, who don’t belong anywhere, but would like to find some way they could, without selling themselves on the cheap.

And it’s to that last group that Westlake sings most passionately, telling them they’re not alone.  That they can prevail.  If only by dint of sheer persistence, self-knowledge, and pooling their diverse skills.  You can make a sound in this world.  You can be someone to reckon with.  Oleg was one of those.  That I know.

But this is an enconium.  Not precisely the same thing as a eulogy.  Nothing at all like an obituary.  So let’s finish looking at the work to which he gave his last full measure of devotion, and which will be completed, in spite of his departure.

That’s the good news.  Here’s the other kind.  Title page and end papers.

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(You know, I’m guessing PC is never going to be a thing in Russia.)

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Hide? Where? Nowhere. The shelves were packed full and high. If this were a traditional department store, he could at least try to pretend to be a mannequin in the men’s clothing section, but these discount places were too cheap to have full entire mannequins. They had mannequins that consisted of just enough body to drape the displayed clothing on.

Pretending to be a headless and armless mannequin was just a little too far beyond Dortmunder’s histrionic capabilities. He looked around, hoping at least to see something soft to bang his head against while panicking, and noticed he was just one aisle over from the little line of specialty shops, the pharmacy and the hair salon and the video rental and the optician.

The optician.

Could this possibly be a plan that had suddenly blossomed like a cold sore in Dortmunder’s brain? Probably not, but it would have to do.

As the individual all those legislators most specifically had in mind when they enacted their three-strikes-you’re-out life-imprisonment laws, Dortmunder felt that any plan, however loosely basted together, had to be better than simple surrender. His wallet tonight contained several dubious IDs, including somebody’s credit card, so, for almost the first time in his life, he made use of a credit card in a discount store, swiping it down the line between door and jamb leading to the optician’s office, forcing the striker back far enough so he could push open the glass door in the glass wall and enter.

It wasn’t until after the door snicked shut again behind him that he realized there were no knobs or latches on its inside. This door could only be opened or closed or locked or unlocked from the outside, because the fire laws required it to be propped open anytime the place was open for business.

Trapped! he thought, but then he thought, wait a second. This just adds whadayacallit. Verisimilitude. Unless that’s the color.

The optician’s shop was broad and narrow, with the front glass wall facing the rest of Speedshop, plus white walls at sides and back, liberally decorated with mirrors and with color photographs of handsome people with bad eyesight.

(No mention of any of these beauteous four-eyed people being stereotypically coiffed  Native Americans, nor would they have been in 2001, but nice foreshadowing.  Also product placement.  I’d have awarded extra points for Foster Grants, but that gag wouldn’t play in Petrovka, kemosabe.)

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The three were more than an odd couple; they were an odd trio. Little Feather, the former showgirl, Native American Indian, was beautiful in a chiseled-granite sort of way, as though her mother were Pocahontas and her father Mount Rushmore. Irwin Gabel, the disgraced university professor, was tall and bony and mostly shoulder blades and Adam’s apple, with an aggrieved and sneering look that used to work wonders in the classroom but was less useful in the world at large.

As for Guilderpost, the mastermind looked mostly like a mastermind: portly, dignified, white hair in waves above a distinguished pale forehead. He went in for three-piece suits, and was often the only person in a given state wearing a vest. He’d given up his mustache some years ago, when it turned gray, because it made him look like a child molester, which he certainly was not; however, he did look like a man who used to have a mustache, with some indefinable nakedness between the bottom of his fleshy nose and the top of his fleshy lip. He brushed this area from time to time with the side of his forefinger, exactly as though the mustache were still there.

(I can’t quibble in the least regarding Guilderpost and Gabel.  Little Feather?   Ehhhhh….  women are under-represented in these illustrations.  One might argue they’re under-represented in the novels, but that’s another subject.)

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“Give me the flashlight,” Geerome said, and a huge white light suddenly glared all over them. Benny, wide-eyed, astounded, terrified, could still make out every crumb of dirt on the cheeks of Geerome and Herbie, the light was that bright, that intense.

And so was the voice. It came from a bullhorn, and it sounded like the voice of God, and it said, “Freeze. Stop right where you are.”

They froze; well, they were already frozen. The three Indian lads standing in a row in the grave squinted into the glare, and out of it, like a scene in a science-fiction movie, came a lot of people in dark blue uniforms. Policemen. New York City policemen.

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(Ho ho ho.  Merry Heistmas.  The Perfect Crime, at last.)

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(Villainy receives its just retribution.  From other villains, but that’s nitpicking.)

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Just one more.  And so fittingly, it happens to be—

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The thing is, I started in life as a stunt driver.”

Anne Marie, surprised, said, “Really?”

“You may have seen the one,” Chester said, “where the guy’s escaping in the car, they’re after him, the street becomes an alleyway, too narrow for the car, he angles sharp right, bumps the right wheels up on the curb, spins sharp left, the car’s up on two left wheels, he goes down the alley at a diagonal, drops onto four wheels where it widens out again, ta-ran-ta-rah.”

“Wow,” Anne Marie said.

“That was me,” Chester told her. “We gotta do it in one take or otherwise I’m gonna cream the car against some very stone buildings. I liked that life.”

(I must confess, I kind of like that there’s not a single picture of Anne Marie in any of these books.  Though I’ve only seen two of J.C., and one of May.  None of Gladys Murch.  Maybe in some of the earlier volumes I don’t have.  I think we can say women are better represented in Westlake’s fiction than they are in these books.  Though rich blondes in hot cars do pretty well.  Or do I mean that the other way around?)

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(This image I could have done without.)

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(Not this one, though.)

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“The shoes, Rumsey.”

He blinked at them. There they were, neatly placed on the floor, midway down the corridor on the right. “I didn’t do that, mum.”

“Well, of course not, Rumsey.” Now she clearly didn’t know what to think. “Mr. Hall put them out there.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t you know why, Rumsey?”

“Take them to the shoe repair?”

“Rumsey, I can’t believe you have been a butler for—”

“We never had nothing about shoes at the embassy, mum.”

She looked skeptical. “Who polished the ambassador’s shoes?”

In that instant, he got it. The boss puts the shoes in the corridor; the butler mouses through, later at night, to take them away to his pantry and polish them; then the butler brings them back and puts them where he found them, only now gleaming like bowling balls. So why hadn’t he known that? And who did polish the ambassador’s shoes?

“His orderly, mum,” Dortmunder said, floundering for the word. “Military orderly. All that sort of thing. Tie bow ties, polish shoes, all that. Specialist, mum.”

“Well, that’s certainly a different way to do things,” she said. “But we may never understand the eastern Europeans. Somehow, it’s all Transylvania, all the time.”

“Yes, mum.”

“Well, do them now,” she said, with a graceful gesture shoeward. “And assure Mr. Hall you’ll understand your duties much better from this point forward.”

“I will, mum,” Dortmunder said.

Buddy leaped forward, raising the sack, as Mark (green ski mask, with elks) and Ace (Lone Ranger mask) jumped to grab Hall’s arms, while Os (rubber Frankenstein head), who was supposed to grab Hall’s ankles, pointed instead at the butler and cried, “Who’s that?”

“The butler,” Mac said, apologetic even though it wasn’t his fault.

“Grab him!” Mark yelled, he already having his hands full with the belatedly struggling Hall, Mark and Buddy and Ace now tugging the sacked Hall toward the trailer.

Up to this point, the butler had just been watching events unfold, interested but not involved; as though he thought of himself as merely a bystander. But now, when Os lunged at him, shouting, “Come on, Mac!” the butler backed away, putting his hands up as he cried, “Hey, don’t call me Mac, I’m the butler, I’m not in this.”

“He’ll raise the alarm!” Mark shouted from halfway into the trailer.

Mac, having already figured that out, leaped forward to join Os in grabbing the butler by both arms and dragging him in his employer’s wake.

The butler struggled like mad: “What are you doing? I got work here! I got things to do!”

What, was he crazy?

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(The final image.  Which in this volume is on the same page as the table of contents, which for reasons I could not guess, is at the back of each book.)

In spite of having studied, at scattered moments of my existence, French, Spanish, Latin, and Irish (never got around to Klingon), I am a lifelong and inveterate monoglot.  (Every bit as unappealing as it sounds.)

And thus, to my lasting regret, I will never be able to read Oleg’s translations.  I can’t savor the unique spin he puts on Westlake’s phrasings, see how he solves all the inherent problems of making him accessible to my fellow monoglots in his homeland (though I shouldn’t assume they have just the one language simply because they don’t have mine).

Like anybody who cares about fiction, and the novel in particular, I have read quite a bit of Russian literature in translation, notably the superlative work of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  I fell in love with Moliere in high school (oh grow up) thanks to the rhyming translations of Richard Wilbur, and I’d know nothing at all about Gaelic poetry, or be able to enjoy Flann O’Brien’s An Beal Bocht, without those people who straddle diverse linguistic realities, build bridges between them, so that we can see what our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, and across the ages, have thought and felt.  Skilled translators are rare and precious beings.

(And two of them know what Trump and Kim Jong Un discussed in that meeting, which is more than anyone else can say.  Hmm, which one you think has an accident first?  Do they even bother with accidents in North Korea?  I guess we’ll find out.)

Why do I do all this?  To share my love of Westlake with others who have read him.  Why did Oleg do all he did?  To share Westlake with fellow Russian speakers who’d read him, but (in his estimation) not clearly enough.  He obviously felt something had been lost in translation, and he wanted to try and provide it.

This would be worthwhile in itself, without the quality bindings and paper, without the beautiful evocative artwork (just the image of Tiny in the kitchen alone…!!!!!!)  He could have written his translations, had them printed cheaply, distributed them via the internet, and through personal connections.  (I don’t know what books he translated for a living, perhaps Ray would.)

But in communicating his passion to Alexander, and (in his function as editor of these volumes) to Mr. Turbin, he made this so much more than just improving on existing translations.  And in a fair world, he’d have lived long enough to see all the books come out, and a while after.  But he was a Westlake reader.  And what’s more, a Dortmunder reader.  So what are the odds he thought this was a fair world?

It’s a world where you take your shots, as best you can, while you can, and he took his.

Good shooting, Tovarishch.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: The Road To Ruin, Part 2

“The question is,” Lieutenant Orville said, “is the butler in on it?”

Lieutenant Wooster cocked his head, like a very bright spaniel.  “You think the butler did it?”

“It’s been known to happen.”  Liking the phrase, Lieutenant Orville said it again: “Known to happen.”

“When are people going to get over it?”

“People don’t get over it when you’re a pariah, Monroe.”

“Why do people keep using that word?”

“Well, Monroe, think about it.”

“I don’t want to.”

“–Another three conspirators are thought to have been  involved, but little is known of them except that they are alleged to have belonged to the same labor union.”

“There you go,” Dortmunder said.  “Now the kidnappers got a union.”

Because I keep doing these multi-part reviews, and would like my readers to have something other than great tedious blocks of text to scan, I have found it necessary to scour the web for exotic cover art, traveling far afield of our author’s native land, and too often finding to my chagrin that the golderned foreigners did a better job illustrating him than us Yanks did.  Westlake had avid readers across the globe, and I could spend the rest of my life tracking down foreign editions (so rarely utilizing the original title, because why would they?), and never scratch the surface.

By far the two best covers I found for this book are the two you see up top.  The domestic ebook beneath looks like a manual on road safety the Murches would be forced to study for some court-ordered traffic school course. This is, wouldn’t you know it, the only edition of this book I possess.

French publisher Rivages (which must have the widest selection of Westlake, Coe, and Stark of any extant publishing firm, if extant publishers there be) simply looked for a pre-existing bit of art they could get for cheap, and this time they happened to hit on something that works beautifully (it would work just as well for a Jeeves novel, which is kind of the point here).

But feast your dumbfounded eyes, won’t you, on the nifty purpose-built artwork for the Finnish edition. Yes, Finnish.  According to Google, the title (so much smaller than the author’s name, indicating said author’s name alone sells books there) more precisely translates as The Road to Corruption, and I’m not sure that isn’t an improvement on the original.  Nothing could ever improve on that cover, though. Enough prologue; back to the synopsis or we’ll never be Finnish.

There are a lot of characters in this book, and it’s a challenge to explain what some of them are doing here. My inclination is to skip over these as quickly as possible, and concentrate on the storylines that matter.

For example, there’s an entire subplot involving Chester Fallon, the former stunt/getaway driver (whose incipient professional rivalry with Stan Murch doesn’t get nearly enough play here).  His wife is bugging him to get out of the house and do something useful, so even though he’s in the middle of planning a heist, he takes a job driving an office supply salesman whose license was taken away because he’s always drunk.  He’s always drunk because there’s no other way he can stand all the schmoozing and gladhanding that goes with his job.  Trouble is, he can’t turn the snappy patter and bad jokes off when he’s in the car with Chester.

This subplot does lead to Chester finding an abandoned store at a failing strip mall, that can be used to store the vintage cars they mean to steal.  Plus it gives him a fallback position if the heist doesn’t work out.  It’s not a bad story in itself.  It could have been a good short story–or a subplot in another novel, which it very well might have been originally intended as–a novel in which Chester would have played the Dortmunder role in a topical satire; another take on Put A Lid On It.  But since Dortmunder is here, Chester is little more than the finger on a job that doesn’t pan out, and the bit with the salesman seems pointless, if amusing.  So let’s skip it.

There’s a subplot involving a short heavily muscled fitness instructor named Flip Morriscone, who is acting as Monroe Hall’s personal trainer, even though he can’t stand the guy.  This gives him and his Subaru access to the estate.  Hall has a creepy mancrush on him, but still takes perverse pleasure in ratting him out to the IRS for not reporting the cash Hall hands him for their sessions together.

This gives Flip a motive for revenge, which is instrumental to the B plot, involving the alliance of three disgruntled union guys and two equally disgruntled small time venture capitalists, who are also toting large grudges against Mr. Hall.  But again, it kind of clogs the story up a bit–Westlake needed to be at absolutely top form to write a novel with this many moving parts and have it come out as a well-balanced unitary offering–this one is more of a jumble sale.  Well, those have their own pleasures to offer, right?  I’ve never gotten anywhere near Mr. Westlake’s top form, so I think that’s all we need to hear about Flip Morriscone, even though the chapters dealing with him and his passionate love affair with his buff image in the mirror are pretty funny.

There’s also a subplot about Arnie Albright, the world’s most unlovable fence of stolen goods (there’s actually a fence in Smoke who makes Arnie look like Albert Schweitzer, but never mind that now), involving his family doing an intervention and sending him to a Club Med so that he can learn to be less obnoxious, and you know what?  That’s a much more important plot point in the next Dortmunder, so I don’t need to talk about that here.

And there are many other subplots, for characters we normally don’t hear much about, so surely there must be a subplot for the delectably devious Josephine Carol Taylor?  In fact, she isn’t even mentioned in the book, though her behemoth boyfriend sure is.  Not enough eyerolls in the world, Mr. Westlake……

So with all that out of the way, what’s left?  Dortmunder & Co. hiring on as domestics at the understaffed Hall Estate–understaffed because he is now so universally despised, nobody will work for him (they have an excellent personal chef, but she came with Alicia, Monroe’s wife, and never liked Monroe to begin with).

That’s the main gag of the book, and it’s a good one.  Is it a plausible one?  I have my quibbles.  Good help is always hard to find, but so is a good-paying job, and it’s a bit hard to swallow that Hall can’t find any takers (to be sure, he’s under too much scrutiny by the law to hire illegal immigrants like a normal rich conservative).

The Enron guys were widely hated and reviled after their downfall, without question.  Money is still money.  Kenneth Lay (‘Kenny Boy’ to the more recent President Bush) presumably had all the servants he needed, right up to when he cheated the system one last time by dropping dead at a luxury ski chalet before his sentencing (and so hated was he that people were demanding to know why the chalet’s management allowed him to die there, instead of some convenient ditch).  Some of those servants probably lied to their neighbors about where they worked, but they took the money.  Contrivance is an integral part of comedy, so this is not such a huge problem.

Hall’s self-image relies upon having underlings around, so he can be condescending, irritatingly over-familiar, do the odd bit of bullying, all in order to make himself feel like the big wheel he wants everyone to see him as.  He’s basically an overgrown child with a superiority/inferiority complex that requires the constant presence of social inferiors, even while he’s painfully aware that most people on his economic level regard him as an inferior.  (Yes, I’m seeing the parallels, you can hardly miss them, but this book was inspired by different models, and let’s not kid ourselves that there’s ever just one rich prick with these types of issues at any given time.   Their name is Legion.  Or should I say, Lesion?)

After alternately pleading with, hectoring, berating, and outright threatening the increasingly disgusted head of the employment agency that’s been trying in vain to fill all his vacancies, Monroe Hall is overjoyed to learn that all of a sudden there are four new applicants!  One an intimidating mass of muscle to man his gates, frighten away any potential ill-wishers.  Another a carrot-haired chauffeur who seems to know everything there is to know about cars and potential routes for them to take.  And best of all, a personal secretary (the male kind) with a narrow nose and a congenial bustling air about him, a real take-charge kind of guy who attacks his newfound duties with unparalleled enthusiasm.

And there’s the new butler.  Well, he’s going to be a work in progress.

And how did this come to pass?  As we covered in Part 1, Dortmunder figured the only way for them to get onto the Hall property in order to steal Hall’s property was to pose as the hired help.  But all new servants will be subject to intimidatingly strict security checks.  Your average jury rigged fake ID’s are not going to cut it here.  In this new digital era Dortmunder & Co. have been forced to live in, how can the motley likes of them ever hope to fool the system?  And here’s where I switch over to those titled subheadings I so often resort to in my reviews of these books.  Not always when the book as a whole underwhelms me, while certain components within it enchant me, but……

In Memory Yet Green:

It is none other than Kelp’s charming lady friend, Anne Marie Karpinow, who, noticing her beau’s atypically downcast air, and learning the reasons for it, tells him he should have confided in her from the start.  She’s got a guy.  Well, she knows a guy.  Her father, you will recall, was a U.S. Senator.  It was through daddy that she became friendly with Jim Green, who is a ‘substitute identity specialist.’  In other words, somebody who creates the kind of fake ID that holds up to anything.  Even his own name is fake–he picked it because it’s forgettable.

He’s not with the government anymore–freelancing now, selling his services to various people who have to become somebody new or else go shopping for cemetery plots.  He’s prohibitively expensive, but she’s got an in.  The friendship came with certain benefits.  He always liked her.  Used to dandle her on his knee.  “When you were a little girl” Andy suggests.  “Oh, seventeen, eighteen” she responds offhandedly.

So there’s a chapter showing us the Verdi of Verisimilitude (damn, that would have been a good subheading), at work with some eastern bloc outcast, and we learn something about how you create new identities in the digital world, and we also learn that Mr. Westlake was actively updating his own tradecraft in this area–because he needs to believe there will always be a way for someone to disappear, if he or she really wants to.  And in fact, there is an escape hatch concealed in the prison cell of meta data.

Every day, the web of information grows thicker, more convoluted.  When so much is known, what can still be secret?  But the very complexity of the knowledge stream at times betrays it.  Here and there, in the interstices of the vast web of details covering the globe, there are glitches, hiccups, anomalies, crossed wires.  Jim Green could find those like a hunting dog after a downed quail.  He could find them and store the knowledge of them for later use.

Then the phone rings, and of course he remembers Anne Marie and he’d be delighted to come see her (no mention is made of knee-dandling, though it is surely in his mind).  He meets Kelp, Dortmunder, and the rest, and finds the experience most revelatory.  On the whole, he’s favorably impressed with Kelp.  He’s pleased to learn that the former Mrs. Karpinow, who he once knew (biblically, perhaps?) as Anne Marie Hurst, isn’t dating and/or marrying jerks like her father anymore, it being a nigh-universal guy-thing that if we can’t have some girl we fancy, we at least don’t want to see her with someone makes us sick to our stomachs, and it’s uncanny how they unerringly home in on some emetic in pants, ain’t it?    As Andy puts it, she’s changed her M.O.  (Or has she?)

Cherished memories of perfectly innocent knee-dandling aside, Jim doesn’t work for free, and they can’t afford the elite services he provides, even if he was willing to delay payment until after the job was done. Seeing the crestfallen look in Anne Marie’s lovely eyes, Jim amends his statement this much–there are certain of his former clients who have either died or gone back to their original identities.  Their manufactured identities are still out there in cyberspace.

With a bit of jiggering, he can re-engineer them for John, Andy, Stan, and Tiny.  And that somewhat attenuated level of professional service he won’t charge for.  (Or you could say Anne Marie made payment in advance.  Perhaps that knee-dandling sometimes verged on lap-dancing.  Still perfectly innocent, as long as nobody got pregnant.)

One negligible caveat–Jim cautions them it is barely possible that either the original owner of one of these identities or whatever unpleasant persons he was trying to evade, will come knocking should any of them learn that name is back in circulation.  But since the gang is only going to be using their borrowed bonafides for maybe two or three weeks, tops, it’s not very likely this will transpire.  (And of course it does transpire, but that’s yet another subplot I feel this review can do without).

Having gathered the necessary data from the four felons to meld into the new identities, Jim is pleased as punch with the way his clients react to their new aliases (complete with passports that would calm the most querulous of TSA screeners).  Like kids unwrapping their Christmas presents by the tree.

Anne Marie tries to turn the unwrapping into the kind of midwestern society shindig she’s used to from her days as a politician’s daughter, and is a bit deflated to learn her hostess skills are not needed (Jim tells her if she ever needs to disappear, he’ll give her the deluxe package, no charge, but she’s not that deflated).

Dortmunder is now John Howard Rumsey (the last name borrowed from Dortmunder’s alternate universe double, we’ll get to him shortly).  Murch is Warren Peter Gillette.  Tiny is Judson Otto Swope (he likes that name, for which Jim should be grateful).

Kelp is Fredric Eustace Blanchard, and being a Westlake character, he will shorten that to Fred.  Which brings us to–(with profuse apologies to Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow)–

Thief vs. Secretary:

All four of the guys interview first at the employment agency (which gets its own subplot, there’s a positive superabundance of them), and the way they’ve worked out their cover stories is they’ve all been distracted by other matters, and simply don’t know how universally loathed Monroe Hall is now. Or in Tiny’s case, simply don’t care, because all his character wants to do is bust heads for a living, which isn’t really all that different from what he actually does for a living.  Typecasting can work.  The minute Monroe sees him, all he can think is “I want him on my side!” (And the moral is, even very rich people don’t always get what they want.)

Kelp and Dortmunder are supposed to have worked at the same foreign embassy in DC–the embassy for none other than Votskojek (grrrrr!), a fictional Westlake nation in Central Europe, last seen in Don’t Ask.  What makes this cover story useful is that the guy they supposedly worked for there, Ambassador Chk, was assassinated, and therefore is not currently available to provide references.  Oh those Votskojekians and their periodic purges.  So quaint and Ruritanian.

When Monroe gets to interview the four of them, he’s mainly quite pleased, except he’s not so sure Dortmunder looks like a proper butler, which he doesn’t (he watched a lot of old movies with butlers in them, but simply is not to the manor born).  But then again, who’s coming to the house to see how he looks?  Nobody.

Anyway, Hall is fine with all of them, disgraced billionaire beggars can’t be disgraced billionaire choosers.  Except, as he tells this eager and attentive young fellow Blanchard, he doesn’t really need a personal secretary anymore.  He used to have two of them, and play them off against each other for laughs (I know, I know, maybe Westlake was falling back on some of the research he did on Trump, it’s possible), but now that he’s persona non grata to the world at large, what’s the point in employing even one?

This is an unexpected wrinkle in the plan, which calls for improvisation on Kelp’s part, and as ever, he rises to the task.  Well, he’s up to the task, put it that way.  He tells an astounded Monroe that he must not give in to those nattering nabobs of negativity.   Words to that effect.

“Rehabilitation!” Blanchard cried, and pointed a stern finger at the ceiling.  “It’s time,” he declared in ringing tones, “to get your story out there!”

“My story is out there,” Hall said, “that’s the problem.”

“Your old story is out there,” Blanchard insisted.  “It’s time for a new story, and that’s why you need me.  A personal.  Private.  Secretary.”

After a brief homage to Prof. Harold Hill, Kelp cuts to the heart of the matter.  Okay, so Monroe bankrupted millions, destroyed lives, simply in order to enrich himself when he was already rich.  Who hasn’t done that?  It’s time everybody just got over it!   He’s only human!  Aren’t we all sinners?  Hall has one timid little query–

“Would I have to give back the money?”

“Never!” Blanchard’s eyes flashed.  “You’re explaining your common humanity, you’re not feeding the multitudes!”

“No, no, I see.”

“We’ll start small,” Blanchard said.  Somehow, he was halfway across Hall’s desk, staring into his eyes.  “Church social egg rolls on the lawn.  Boy Scout groups meeting here.  Have your photo taken at the wheel of one of your famous cars.”

“Not driving it!”

Sitting in it.”  Blanchard beamed, his arms spread wide.  “The squire of Pennsylvania,” he announced.  “How bad a fella could he be?”

“You’re hired!” Hall cried.

Now of course this is Andy adroitly feeding into the mark’s narcissism and utter lack of conscience, but how much of a conscience does Andy himself have?  How much of a core?  The reason, I think, he’s clung to Dortmunder like a barnacle to a hull for so long is that his own identity is far more pliable and adaptive than Dortmunder’s, and he needs some kind of fixed navigational point to keep from going adrift.  But now he’s hitched his wagon to a very different star.

He’s got to believe in the role to perform it properly, like any good flim-flammer, something he’s always been better at than Dortmunder (who has a hard time being anybody but himself).  And there’s nothing else for him to do, really, until it’s time to jack the cars.  So he commits totally to the role of loyal lackey to a maligned mogul, and for a while he really is Fred Blanchard–and this means being a shameless toady.  Something he’s never been before.  (He was shameless, but on his own time.)

To be sure, he’s spent years steadfastly plugging Dortmunder as a criminal genius, but Dortmunder really is a criminal genius, hard as that may be to fathom when looking at him.  Plugging Monroe Freaking Hall as a misunderstood victim of circumstance is rather more of a challenge, even for Mr. Kelp’s considerable talents at dissimulation.

And he reaches the point where he’s so engrossed in this project that he starts wishing they could put off the heist for a little while, just so he can make some progress–he sincerely wants to get Hall accepted by society once more.  At no point does Andy ever stop in the midst of his nigh-Kushnerian  labors (I’m going to catch hell for that in the comments section, but he’s too slick and self-effacing for Spicer, nor is he blonde enough for Conway, or deranged enough for Bannon) and think “What the fuck is wrong with me?”

And of course his new employer is grateful to him for his devotion.  To the extent that he is capable of such an emotion, which isn’t much.  After a very short while, Monroe just accepts it as his due, as he accepts all things to be his due. At one point, Andy, with his usual curiosity about how gadgets work, pops a quarter into one of Monroe’s collectible antique toy banks.  Once his coin predictably disappears into the gizmo’s inner recesses, he asks how he can get it back.  He can’t ever get it back.  It’s Monroe’s quarter now.  He is smirking at his underling’s credulity.

Andy blinks, and the most delicious identity crisis of the entire book presents itself.  The unctuous Heep he’s pretending to be and has to some extent become should just write the quarter off as a loss.  The thief in him needs desperately to steal that errant two bits back.  In the end, the thief wins, of course (though the quarter is still history).

But you’re made painfully aware of the fact that to a very great extent we are our jobs, and that Andy is the free-wheeling independent we love precisely because he never previously had the motive, means, or opportunity to be anything else.  In a different life, he very well could have become some smug sycophant like Anne Marie’s former hubby.  There but for the grace of God (whose name is Westlake) goes he.  There’s an ass kisser lurking inside the best of us, waiting to get out.  And much as I admire Mr. Kelp, he ain’t the best of us.

But he’s still one of the best liars around (he can even lie with the truth, as we saw in What’s The Worst That Could Happen?), and here’s the kicker–by the end of his tenure there, he’s actually starting to make progress.  He figures out he just has to spread some of Monroe’s ample excess funds around in the right places–cash strapped charities, say–and he starts seeing results.  His crowning ambition is to create a golf tourney going by the majestic moniker of the Monroe Hall Cup.  You have to admit, there’s kind of a ring to it.

Given a bit more time, Mr. Blanchard might well have succeeded in at least partly rehabilitating the most loathed robber baron  in America, re-imagining him as a penitent philanthropist who has suffered, without expending more than a small fraction of the boss’ ill-gotten gains.  The secretary might have eaten the thief.  The phrase “Money talks and bullshit walks” takes on a whole new meaning here.  There’s no end of suckers out there who want to believe in Daddy Warbucks.  That’s not Little Orphan Andy’s fault, folks.  That’s on us.

But dinner’s on Tiny, as we learn in–

The Iron Chef:

The guys end up bunking together in a little green house on the estate, where Chester and his missus once dwelt in happier times, and there’s quite a nice kitchen there.  Much to everyone’s confusion, mingled with apprehension, Tiny insists on cooking.  You want to tell him he can’t?  Maybe read this first.

They all trooped in, to view the unprecedented sight of Tiny in two aprons, overlapping, with a meat cleaver in one hand and a long wooden spoon in the other, with a lot of big pots and pans hissing and snarling on the stove.  What he looked mostly like was some darker version of Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen.  “Soup’s on at six,” he told them.

Not literally soup, he explains, just an expression.  Dortmunder takes some Pepto-Bismol to prepare, but in fact the food is delicious, and wholesome, and quite different from anything any of them have had before, except Tiny.  Like mother used to make, if your mother came from a fictitious country somewhere in the Carpathians.

And then it was good.  It wasn’t your ordinary stuff, but it was good.  Real tastes, but not too sweet, not too sour.  There was lamb, in chunks; there was bacon, not too crisp; there were home-fried potatoes, with some kind of tasty oil on them; there was swiss chard, boiled up and spread with some kind of sauce that tasted sort of like chutney; there were biscuits, so light and fluffy you had to put butter on them to keep them from floating away.  And there was not just beer, but stout, to tie it all together.

There was no talk at the table for quite some time.  It was Kelp who first came up for air, saying “Tiny this is great.  What is this?  This is great.”

“It’s Tsergovian,” Tiny told him.  “It’s from the old country.  It’s how my people used to eat in the old days, when they had food.”

John said, through a full mouth, “Then I’m surprised they ever left.”

“Well, there were a lotta days,” Tiny said, “when they didn’t have food.  So that’s why they come here, before my time.  The food wasn’t as good over here, but it was around every day.”

And there’s pumpkin pecan pie for dessert, which I don’t associate with the Carpathians, but I could be wrong.  They end up eating it for breakfast, because nobody has room for another mouthful.   And this review has no more room to explain something the pleasures of which are self-explanatory.  As I said in my review of Bad News, the late Dortmunders are about lagniappe.  This is a fine example of that.  Tiny, we hardly knew ye.

Something else you’d hardly know about, going by this review, is what’s going on elsewhere, as the gang gears up for the heist.  Namely–

The B Plot:

Plot as in scheme, naturally.  The very inorganic teaming of Mark and Os, the venture capitalists without capital (thanks to Monroe Hall), and Buddy, Mac, & Ace, the union guys without jobs or pension plans (ditto).   Having agreed that they must find a way into the estate, grab Hall, and force him to cough up large quantities of offshore cash by way of electronic transfers, they are, all through the book, figuring out how to go about doing this.  Then figuring out they shouldn’t have done it at all.

The scheme they eventually hit upon involves Flip Morriscone (I knew I’d have to type that name again), just as enraged by Monroe’s perfidy as they, because Monroe (who actually likes Flip) went and reported his off-the-books cash payments to Flip to the IRS, leading to substantial tax penalties for the latter (Monroe finds this very funny, tells a mildly reproving Alicia that it’s good for the lower orders to make up the revenue shortfall stemming from people like him, who know how to avoid taxation).  So Flip is amenable to participating indirectly in their venture.

Monroe has mentioned to Flip that he wants to learn how to ride a horse, since he owns a bunch of them. It seems like a thing to do.  Flip tells Monroe he knows an instructor, but the guy has to bring his own horse, specially trained as a practice mount.  Mark and Os don’t have any money (Mark is actually sleeping in his mother and stepfather’s basement, all too aware of what a cliché that is), but they have credit, so they can rent all kinds of things, including a horse trailer.  A Trojan horse trailer, if you will. (Mr. Westlake did so enjoy his implicit puns.)

The plan goes swimmingly, until they actually get through the gates, and Hall comes prancing out to greet them–with his butler in tow.  Uh-oh.  Dortmunder tries to explain he’s on their side–well, he’s not on Hall’s side, at least–but they can’t stop to listen, or leave any witnesses, so he gets scooped up and carted away in the Trojan horse trailer, fuming impotently at the ruination of his perfect plan by some unforeseen event, like that’s never happened before

So this is all perfectly sound comic capering, with a class-based satiric bite to it,  and what’s the problem?  The problem is that everybody likes Dortmunder & Co. better, including Westlake, who is giving them all the best material, see above.

There’s lots of good story material in the B Plot too; it’s just not quite as good.  The voices of these one-shot characters are less well-defined, and with Westlake’s attentions divided about equally between the A and B Plots, not to mention the endless subplots, there isn’t enough space to refine them.  Devout Dortmunderians understandably feel they are being deprived of more quality time with their beloved rogues, and their resentment predictably if unfairly falls upon the B Plotters.

But I think some of the more interesting moments in the book do, in fact, involve these auxiliary protagonists.  Which I’ll get to in due course, but before I do–why on earth would Monroe drag poor old Rumsey out with him to greet some silly-ass riding instructor?  What’s been going on between the Squire of Pennsylvania and his gentleman’s gentleman?  A tale I shall plagiarously entitle–

‘Jeeves’ and the Lie That Binds:

Kelp loves being the personal secretary.  Dortmunder hates being the butler.  Hates.  There could not, in all the world, be a job he is less well-suited for, all the more since it requires him to wear a suit.  He goes through the motions as best he can, trying not to stick out too much, which only makes him stick out more.  He opens endless doors for the master and mistress of the house, as he saw the movie butlers do; he says “Sur!” at every opportunity, and honestly, shouldn’t this Hall fella just be grateful anyone even wants to be his butler?  I think we’ve already discussed Mr. Hall’s limited grasp of gratitude.  All he’s mastered thus far is the ‘tude part.

In P.G. Wodehouse stories, ineffectual rich men are slaves to their unflappable butlers and their anal dress codes (Yes, Jeeves is a valet, I know, and so did Westlake, but to the world at large he’s a butler).  Even if that was universally true for silly-ass English gentlemen with inherited incomes in the 1920’s (and I greatly misdoubt it), it’s not at all true of someone like Monroe Hall.  To him, the whole point of having a gentleman’s gentleman is that he doesn’t have to behave like a gentleman himself, the moment even the least little thing is out of place.  There’s a reason the wealthy here so often have to outsource this type of job to people they can have deported if need be.   (Though be warned–that’s changing.)

(I should perhaps mention, my maternal grandfather, formerly of the county Limerick, was ‘in service’ for a time–chauffeur, mechanic, and general handyman to Ethel Barrymore.  Yes, that one.  Actors, even famous ones, are perhaps a tad less class conscious than your average rich person, less inclined to stand on ceremony, and I never heard any horror stories about his tenure there–I never heard any stories at all from him about that time in his life, since all we ever did together was dig potatoes in his garden–he was the first of my grandparents to pass, and I wasn’t yet old enough to be curious about who he’d been before he was grandpa. All I knew was my mom couldn’t stop crying for a while after he died.

He didn’t stay with the Barrymores all that long–married my grandma and got his own gas station in New York, during the Depression.  The additives in the gas ultimately caused him to die a painful death by cancer, though at a fairly advanced age.  And if he’d known that would happen, you think he’d have opted to remain in service?  I’m sure he touched his cap with the best of them.  A step up from tugging your forelock to a landlord back in Ireland.  It’s a long hard climb.  Don’t look down.)

For some reason, none of the films he’d studied explained to Dortmunder that one of a butler’s jobs is to polish the master’s shoes down in the pantry.  Which is probably more of a valet’s job, or maybe a footman’s?  (What is a footman, anyway?  I know they started out as dogs, or lizards, or something, but that’s all I can remember from the Disney films.  I’ll look it up later, maybe add a footnote.)

Monroe, formerly surrounded by underlings, has nobody to boss around now but the butler.  So when he sees his unshined shoes gathering dust in the hallway, where he left them, he gets to enjoy the most important perk of being a rich bastard.  Not having to pretend not to be a rich bastard.

Hall won’t even tell Dortmunder what he did wrong.  He’s told to go and ask Alicia.  Who is normally a pleasant enough person, but this Lord and Lady of the Manor thing can be contagious, and she’s almost as snippy.  She explains to him that Monroe wants his shoes polished, how could a professional butler not know this to be one of his duties?  Dortmunder makes up a story about how at the embassy there was a military orderly in charge of that kind of thing.  (No one even suggests that Monroe might want to shine his own fucking shoes, or that it doesn’t matter if they’re shined or not, since he never leaves the grounds, or has any guests.)

In the event, he only had to go back twice to buff the shoes some more, even though he could see his reflection in them the first time he’d whacked them around.  But three trips was all it took.  While Kelp sat smug and amused in his office, Hall gave each shoe a long and critical once-over, and at last grudgingly said, “I suppose they’ll do.  And do you know what to do with them next, Rumsey?

“Put em outside your door, sur.  Where I got um.”

“Very good,” Hall told him.  “We may make a third-rate butler of you yet.”

“Thank you, sur.”

It’s right after this that he tells Dortmunder to be so good as to come get him when the riding instructor arrives, and Dortmunder fondly imagines him riding head-first into a very thick heavy tree branch.

And you know, that wish does come true, after a fashion.  Dortmunder is bad luck for rich bastards.  God bless him.  If the gap between the very wealthy and everybody else continues to grow (as it is doing in China, of all places, where butlering to newly minted millionaires is a vocation on the rise now), God bless us everyone.  The Jeeves stories make for delightful fiction, precisely because they are a comic reversal of the normal order of things in a class-based society.  The Lie that Binds is much closer to the mark, I think.

And speaking of getting closer to the Mark (God save him)–

If Only There Were Territories:

I have this sneaking feeling that, in the book this might have been if it hadn’t turned out to be a Dortmunder, Mark would have been co-protagonist with Mac–each serves as the POV character for his respective side.  Each makes a claim on our sympathies, which is not to say those claims are equally valid.

Mark isn’t a real tycoon yet, just an aspiring one, though he already thinks of himself as a Master of the Universe, albeit one who moved back in with his mom and step-dad for lack of funds.  He and Os (the more severe and formidable of the two, whose inner depths, if any, are never plumbed) basically looked around for investment opportunities, and sometimes they scored, and sometimes they didn’t.  It wasn’t until they invested all they had in Somnitech that they found out what it means to lose everything.  But they still had themselves.  And their vendetta against the much richer man who conned them.

He’s not a bad guy, and he’s not a good guy.  He’s just a guy on the make–a sort of Nephew figure, as is Mac.  Each man is much more frightened by what he’s doing than he’s willing to admit .  Mark’s goals are totally self-interested, Mac’s entirely altruistic.  But in both cases, they can only get what they want via Monroe Hall.  So they keep shoving that very justified fear back down into their guts, where it proceeds to ruin their digestion.

So now they have him.  The wellspring of all their ills.  Locked up in a remote hunting lodge, where they believe they can frighten him into coughing up the necessary funds.  But you know that line from Prizzi’s Honor?  About how Sicilian mobsters would rather eat their children than part with money, fond as they are of their children?  All very rich people are Sicilian mobsters at heart.  And Monroe recognized Mark’s voice, in spite of the silly Halloween mask Mark was wearing.  He figures he just has to wait them out.  Or escape.

Both Mark and Monroe, I’d say, are grown-up and corrupted versions of the title character from Jimmy the Kid.  Resourceful, determined, deplorably admirable in their single-minded absorption in getting what they want.  Mark was the main planner of the abduction,  and Monroe uses a metal rod borrowed from the toilet in his room to break through the boarded up window of his makeshift cell, and scarper.  But now that he has escaped, Mark and Mac both have to face up to the fact that they committed felony kidnapping.

Mark is particularly frightened, since it was his voice Monroe half-remembered, and will attach a name to eventually.  Even before they find Monroe’s room empty, he’s remembering that line from Huckleberry Finn, Huck thinking about how he’s going to light out for the territories.

Isn’t that, after all, what it really means to be an American?  All of the current resistance to a national identification card (and many years ago, for the same reason, to the Social Security number), all of the alarm about the threats to “privacy,” are based on the simple American conviction, from the very beginning of the immigrant experience, that it was the ultimate right of every American, if circumstances happened to call for such drastic measures, to turn himself into somebody new.  The classless society was the ideal partly because, in a classless society, all identity is flexible.  Mark, in  his sleepless hours of not so much battling funk as welcoming funk aboard, had used every shred of schooling he could dredge out of memory to convince himself that at this point of crisis in his life, it would be not only acceptable, it would not be only guilt-free, but it would be damn near his patriotic duty, to run away and become somebody else.

But he tells himself it’s impossible–in this new modern age, there are no Territories to light out for anymore.  Then Monroe disappears, the game is up, and he desperately thinks to himself, If only there were Territories! 

Mac and his friends just want to get out of there.  Os, the level-headed pragmatist, heartily agrees with this sentiment.  None of them are really bad people, so they go to let Dortmunder (who they still think is the butler) out.  Only not knowing he’s going to be let out, he hides behind the door and clubs Mark hard in the face.  Later, he comes back to the abandoned lodge to get some food, and figures out how Monroe escaped.  Hmm.  Pretty good.  He should have thought of that.

So in the hospital, his jaw swollen up, speaking with a ridiculous lisp, refusing to listen to his lawyer, and mentally speaking not at his very best, Mark plays what he thinks is the proper card in this game of Prisoner’s Dilemma he’s found himself in–be the first to confess.  Only the detective, named Cohan, who showed up to question him had nothing on him.  Until now.

Yes, they found Monroe Hall, but he seems to have developed permanent amnesia, due to severe head trauma (the price he paid for going out that window).  Without Mark’s helpful confession, they would never have cracked the case.  They’re grateful to him for ratting out Os, but seems like Mr. Faulk cagily planned in advance for such a dread contingency, and is now hiding on some tropic isle, under a new identity he’d worked out in advance.  There really are Territories!

Mac and his buddies?  They just went home.  They thought about Territories and stuff, but here’s the thing–they are who they are.  Just working stiffs, with families and friends, who hang out in each other’s basements, drink beer, sing union songs, and try to think up noble ways to help their fellow man.  They never did it for themselves.  They wouldn’t even ask for help from their union brothers and sisters, for fear of implicating them in the crime.

And thankfully, there’s nothing Mark can tell the law that will link them to the crime.  Os could, but Os is gone, baby, gone.  They failed to win their symbolic victory of a few thousand bucks for each member of the Amalgamated Conglomerated Workers Factory Floor Alliance (at least we finally find out what ACWFFA stands for).  They don’t feel like they won.  But they kinda did, anyway.

It was never their intent to harm Monroe Hall, much as they hated him (nor did they).  It was never their intent to personally profit from his abduction (nor have they).  And he’s still alive, reasonably healthy, back in the care of his loving if increasingly weary wife, who one suspects won’t ever be getting high-handed with the hired help again–and he’s wiped clean as a newborn babe.  Tabula Rasa.  Has no idea who he is, what he’s done, why anybody would dislike him, who the pretty blonde lady fussing over him might be.

Most of his money is gone, because only he knew the codes for the numbered overseas bank accounts–he didn’t even trust Alicia with them.  There is no Monroe Hall anymore.  The estate and all its furnishings is going to be sold off.  And the valuable antique cars Dortmunder & Co. hoped to steal?  Shipped to that museum in Florida Monroe donated them to earlier as a tax dodge.  Gone, baby, gone.

(One is reminded of that scene in Memory, where the amnesiac protagonist goes to a priest for guidance, and instead of getting him to a doctor, the old man starts musing to himself about whether if you can’t remember any sins you committed, are you still guilty of them?  Have you inadvertently entered a state of grace?

This could become a highly relevant theological/philosophical debate in the near future, if a certain President whose name I’m weary to my death of typing inherited the Alzheimer’s gene from his equally scurvy dad, and it’s looking quite likely this is the case.  One way or another, he’s getting locked up.  Whether we’ll still have a comfy basement den to go drink beer and sing union songs in after that happens remains an open question.)

I’m over 7000 words.  I could go on like this for another 7000.  There’s a lot in this book to talk about.  So many good gags to mull over, and realize as we do, that there was much more to them than mere drollery.  A fellow of infinite jest, was Mr. Westlake.  But the jokes were never at our expense.  They were for our edification.  They were to try and wake us up.  Not his fault we mainly prefer to go on sawing wood.

So yeah, it’s not a great Dortmunder novel, as such.  Maybe it wasn’t originally going to be a Dortmunder at all.  You can say that it’s too many mismatching (if delightful) bits and pieces, a patchwork quilt of criminal farce and social satire.  I think Westlake himself had the last rueful word on its mixed merits, when he typed the final paragraph.

Yet one more running subplot–when Monroe is abducted, two detectives are assigned to the case.  Lieutenant Orville, and his sidekick, who is named Wooster (but of course he is).  They are not, shall we say, the brightest badges on the force, or at least one hopes not.  Orville, in particular, comes in for more than his share of ribbing from the detective-mocking Westlake–seems he learned most of what he knows about police work from crime fiction–like those 87th Precinct novels (damn, those boys were good, he thinks to himself).   Orville thinks in clichés, because he is one.

But he is not without certain constabulary instincts.  He can sense that this Fred Blanchard fellow, the personal secretary with the guileless air about him, isn’t who he’s pretending to be.  He thinks the kidnapping is an inside job, and Rumsey the butler was taken precisely because he’s in on it.  Of course, there is an inside job, and Rumsey the butler is in on it, but they haven’t done it yet, and it’s not a kidnapping.  Dortmunder had enough of that kind of gig to last him a lifetime, eight books ago.

And then, when somebody shows up trying to kill Fred Blanchard (thankfully for Kelp, his borrowed identity didn’t set off any alarm bells with the previous Blanchard’s enemies until they’d all gone back to their true selves)–Orville is even more convinced he’s on the right track.  They arrest the baffled hitman from Votskojek (grrrrr?) who showed up a mite too late to do his job.  Surely he shall provide them with clues as to the whereabouts of this so-called secretary!  Fred Blanchard has disappeared without a trace, but he shall not forever escape the long arm of the law!

“I knew I was gonna get you, Fred Blanchard!  You won’t hide from me!  Nowhere on Earth, Fred Blanchard, will you be safe from Lieutenant Wilbur Orville!  Let’s go, Bob.  This is a wrap.”

This is almost a direct lift from the final lines of Bank Shot, the most dismally awful film ever made from a Dortmunder novel (if there’s something worse, please don’t tell me).  A good satirist doesn’t exempt himself from the slings and arrows of his art.  And in my estimation, Donald E. Westlake was one of the finest satirists his nation ever produced.  If the nation but knew it. Well, the nation has other concerns at present time.

And just FYI, nation, the Road to Ruin is a cul-de-sac.  Further down it you go, the longer the return trip will be.  If you won’t believe Donald Westlake, will you believe a nice girl in a feather boa doing a wicked Mae West impression for Jesus?

The nation can attend to its own affairs (maybe).  In the meantime, I have eleven very short reviews to write for next week. See you then.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: The Road to Ruin

At loose ends–well, he was always at loose ends these days–Hall went over to the treadmill, set it at a very leisurely pace indeed, far more languid than Flip would ever allow, and went for a little walk.

A little walk to nowhere, that’s what his life had come down to.  He could walk, he could walk all he wanted, but he couldn’t actually go anywhere.

Treadmill to Oblivion, 1954, Fred Allen’s grim-titled memoir of his life writing and starring in a weekly radio show.  Hall had a copy of it, of course, signed first edition with a dustjacket in almost perfect condition.  He’d been told it was a very good book.

He didn’t need to read those books.  He didn’t need to exercise on all these intimidating machines.  He didn’t need to drive all these cars.  He needed to have them, that’s all, have everything, have the complete set of everything ever made.  Then he’d be happy.

Dortmunder was never happy outside the five boroughs.  There was always something wrong with the rest of the world, some way it had figured out to make him more uncomfortable.  For instance, in the uncharted middle of Pennsylvania, he had to sleep on the kitchen floor.

Anne Marie said, “I remember that!  Wasn’t he the white-haired man that testified in front of congress?”

“Anne Marie,” Andy said, “every white-haired man in America that owns a suit has testified in front of congress.”

Before we start on this one, let me lay out the rest of the program for this revue of reviews that is now approaching its end.  There is nothing left to cover now but three Parker novels, four Dortmunder novels, ten Dortmunder stories (plus one alternate universe Dortmunder story), one Dortmunder novella, and Forever And A Death, which I’m not reviewing until it’s been available to the general public for a month or two.

When all of that is done, I may well find other things to talk about, but the primary mission statement of this blog will have been completed, much to my own amazement, since I never finish anything I start, unless it’s a glass of beer, or a crossword puzzle (I cheat).  First time for everything, I suppose, but we’re not there yet.

The three linked novels that inconclusively conclude the Parker saga stand out starkly from the rest of the work he did over the last five years of his life.  I want to review them as a set, so even though Nobody Runs Forever came out the same year as this book, I’m going to put it off until I’ve reviewed all the Dortmunders other than the last one, which I believe was written with the idea it would be the last.

By the time I’m through all that, it’ll be time to give Forever And A Death  the detailed scrutiny I have no reason to think any professional critic will have given it.  Then the final three Parker novels, one after the other.  My one-part reviews of Dirty Money and Get Real will be published within less than a minute of each other, because I don’t want to show favoritism.  We clear?  Let’s get this show on the road.  To ruin, naturally.

This is yet another book in which Dortmunder comes into conflict with a very rich and narcissistic man, though one who has already suffered his comeuppance.  One might start to come to the conclusion that Westlake didn’t care for the very wealthy. Though he spent so much time writing about them, one cannot deny there was a certain fascination there–what’s it like to have so much more in the way of material resources than anyone could possibly need?  What does that do to your sense of self?

Westlake seems to believe that too often it distorts, disengages, and ultimately destroys your sense of self.  But first it magnifies your sense of self-importance to absurd, almost Swiftian extremes.  Which can lead in its turn to rather edifying downfalls.  And the rest of us, torn between admiring, envying and disparaging the very wealthy, while being all too aware of the low regard they hold us in, can perhaps be forgiven for rejoicing in the fall of titans, who turned out to be not so big after all.

What’s The Worst That Could Happen? was the first of the Dortmunder novels where the tantrum-prone tycoon had some identifiable models in real life.  Most notably the one who somehow got into the White House, and refuses to leave now (best check his pockets for silverware when he does, and maybe the launch codes).  But that character was a composite, and Westlake pretty carefully avoided getting too obvious about it, because his primary model was well known for his thin skin, and love of litigation.

As matters worked out, however, no lawsuits were filed (to notice you’ve been lampooned in a book requires that you occasionally read books), and Westlake may have felt emboldened when it came to choosing  his next victim.  Or rather, victims–another composite composed of figures ripped from the headlines, but all from the same company this time.  Most notably, people like Kenneth Lay, Jeff Skilling, and the lesser known Andrew Fastow, and his wife, Lea.  You know.  Enron.  We still remember Enron, right?  A decade feels like an eon, nowadays.  You can bet there are still millions of people struggling through unexpectedly sparse retirements who remember them vividly.  And all the horrible yet richly deserved puns on the first guy’s name.

(With all due respect to Murdoch’s rag, this looks like a job for the Weekly Galaxy.)

Again, it’s not meant to be a direct portrait, but rather an extrapolation based on reading the news stories, the interviews, and imagining what such a creature might be like, what his life would be after his public disgrace, what stories might potentially be told about him; positing that he avoids prison while staying alive, something none of the Enron guys ultimately managed to do.  Which kind of undermines the premise, but what the hell.  A writer of satiric fiction, moved by current events, must nonetheless create his own characters, with their own unique fates.  And Westlake, writing this not long after the scandal broke, couldn’t wait for the courts to get around to sentencing these guys.  He couldn’t be sure he’d live that long.  Satirists are not required to be fair and balanced (neither are cable news channels).

And fairness is wasted on some people, if we’re going to be balanced about it.  It’s wasted because they have rejected the very concept of fairness, or compassion, except for themselves.  By degree they become isolated, not merely from the lower orders of society, but from society itself.  Narcissism devolves into solipsism, the black hole of identity.  That’s going to be one of the points of this book.  That a pitiable character is not the same thing as a sympathetic one.  But as always with a Dortmunder, the main point is to make us laugh–the better to keep us from crying over our lost pensions and portfolios, and the general unfairness of Life.

And who knows more about Life’s injustice than Our Hero, who we rejoin now, as he ponders the mysteries of local media.

Dortmunder sat in his living room to watch the local evening news, and had just about come to the conclusion that every multiple-dwelling residence in the state of New Jersey would eventually burn to the ground, three per news cycle, when the doorbell rang.  He looked up, surprised, not expecting anybody, and then became doubly surprised when he realized it had not been the familiar blatt of the hall doorbell right upstairs here, but the never-heard ing of the street-level bell, sounding in the kitchen.

Rising, he left the living room and stepped out to the hall, to see May looking down at him from the kitchen, her hands full of today’s gleanings from her job at Safeway as she said, “Who is it?”

“Not this bell,” he told her, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder at the hall door. “The street bell.”

“The street bell?”

Dortmunder clomped back to the kitchen, to the intercom on the wall there that had never worked, that the landlord had just repaired in a blatant ploy to raise the rent.  Not sure of the etiquette or operation of this piece of machinery, for so long on the inactive list, he leaned his lips closer to the mouthpiece and said, “Yar?”

“It’s Andy,” said a voice that sounded like Andy being imitated by a talking car.

“Andy?”

May said “Let him in, John.”

“Oh, yeah.” Dortmunder pressed the white bone button, and yet another unpleasant sound bounced around the kitchen.

(You will never know the restraint I had to employ to stop myself from typing out the entire first chapter of this book, which is probably illegal, but then so is most of what happens in the book, so there.  Our landlord, parenthetically, years ago replaced our old apartment number based intercom with one that requires visitors to punch in a secret code that rings the bell, and then you have only about twenty seconds to get to the button and buzz them in, before everybody has to start all over again.  Richer buildings in my nabe, by contrast, have security cameras at street level, little TV monitors up above, and you can look your would-be visitors in the face and tell them you don’t want to see them, even though you are, in fact, seeing them.  Think of all the fun Westlake could have had with that.)

There’s no pleasing that old grouch Dortmunder.  Normally Kelp never announces his impending presence, merely picks the locks and lets himself in, but this time he thought he’d respect their privacy by making them listen to New Music.  Anyway, Andy just wants to know if Dortmunder has a pending job he can horn in on, and if not, he’s got an idea about robbing the Speedshop big box store in New Jersey, where Dortmunder nearly got nabbed by the cops in the last book.  Dortmunder takes a pass on that.

Then the phone rings, Kelp starts in on his usual spiel about how he could put in all kinds of extensions, Dortmunder just has to say the word, and Dortmunder responds with his favorite word, which is no.  Then May comes back from the phone, and says it’s Anne Marie for Andy.  She wants him to know there’s this man sitting in their living room who says he’s an old friend, and he won’t leave, and he won’t give his name, and would Andy please come home now?  And then Dortmunder realizes he’s expected to go too.  And this is what comes of modern communications technology; intercoms, landlines, etc.  Well, that’s what Dortmunder thinks of as modern communications technology.  Please, nobody tell him about Twitter.  Though probably Kelp already has.

I can be grouchy too, and I have many problems with the final run of Dortmunders, but Westlake’s talent for observational humor never once flagged, to the very end.  He drags you in with the first paragraph, and you’re hooked.  But hooked to what, pray tell?  The ideas being used here would work fine for a short story, or even a short novel.  Thing is, most of the final Dortmunders run long.  The market wanted them long, to justify that  intimidating price on the inner dust jacket.

If there’s anything harder than writing comedies, it’s writing long comedies, with elaborate premises. This premise is decidedly elaborate.  The book is a lot better than I remembered–still a rambling, somewhat disjointed, and not entirely satisfying escapade, due partly to its excessive length and complexity.  And the same could be said of many a Dickens novel, to be sure.  But Dickens has tenure.  Westlake’s is still hung up in committee.  Anyway, what’s the premise here?

The guy waiting in Andy and Anne Marie’s apartment out to be an old friend of Andy’s, named Chester Fallon  He wouldn’t ID himself to Anne Marie, because for all he knows she’s the law, he’s seen cops as pretty as her, to which Dortmunder replies “Not enough of them,” so he does notice things like that.  Anne Marie is mainly irritated that he wouldn’t even give his first name–would have saved her a lot of worry, since nobody was ever scared of a guy named Chester.

Chester was a stunt driver in Hollywood, back before Hollywood replaced most stunt drivers and their deathproof cars with computer generated imagery.  Having become redundant in one career, he made use of his skills to drive getaway cars for heisters, which landed him in stir for a while.  Getting out early on good behavior, he landed a dream job as chauffeur for Monroe Hall, a mega-rich corporate executive, who owned a large assortment of rare and nifty old autos, worth about two million dollars on the collector’s market.  Aside from driving Hall and his wife, Chester was expected to tool around in all these cars regularly, to keep them in good working condition.  Great salary, great benefits, great rides–what’s not to like?

This.  Hall’s company was called Somnitech.  Note the past tense.  Somnitech dealt in energy, communications, manufacturing, etc–“It’s what they call horizontal diversification, which to me sounds like a whorehouse that caters to all tastes, but if that’s what they want to call it, fine.”  Somnitech paid Chester’s salary, benefits, retirement plan–it paid for basically everything and everybody Hall needed or wanted in his personal life, which was not 100% kosher, but he and others at the top of the Somnitech food chain did it anyway.  

And they got caught.  The company’s stock collapsed, and due to its very large size, this had a very bad effect on the personal fortunes of people from all different walks of life.  Calls of “Lock the rascals up!” were heard throughout the land, but they were not locked up.  Their lawyers saw to that.

They did have to make restitution, however, and although Monroe Hall remains fabulously wealthy, most of his funds are tucked away safely in offshore accounts where no greedy government or choleric creditor can lay covetous hands upon them.  How he spends his stateside cash is tightly controlled. His cars are now the property of a museum in Florida, but the terms of the  donation say he can have the use of them while he’s still alive, so they’re still on his estate in Pennsylvania.

And he can’t consort with known criminals, being one himself now (which seems a bit perverse), so guess who’s fired?  Chester hadn’t gotten so much as a parking ticket since his release, but he still lost his salary, benefits, retirement plan, and the little house on Hall’s estate he and his wife Grace were living in.  Hall did something literally millions of times worse than Chester ever did, and his punishment is to live like a rich man with his beautiful blonde wife in a well-appointed mansion on a lovely little piece of land that takes up most of the county it’s in.  I feel like Anatole France should have lived to comment on this, but I suppose he did in his way.  “La majestueuse égalité des lois…”

So everybody present is saddened to hear about Chester’s misfortune, but what does he want them to do about it?  Clearly something unlawful, because that’s the only thing people ever ask them to do.  John cuts to the heart of it–“What is it you want to steal?”  “His fucking cars,” Chester said, and nodded at Anne Marie.  “Excuse the French.”

(Sidebar: Not for the first or last time, Westlake’s often uncanny penchant for prognostication plays him false here.  Let it not be said life never improves on fiction.  Within a short time of this book being published, the central figures in the Enron debacle had been imprisoned, with the exception of Lay, who died shortly before that could happen.

Not even moats filled with man-eating lawyers, as Chester puts it, were able to protect them from the raucous public outcry for their incarceration that came–and this is key–from all segments of society.  If they’d only screwed over the hoi polloi, they’d have probably gotten a deal somewhat like Hall’s.  But a large segment of the gentry lost their shirts on Enron too.  And that’s the moral of the story, kids.  As Bernie Madoff could tell you.

Westlake does make it clear, later in the book, that it wasn’t only working stiffs who nursed a grudge, but he underestimated how the rules can change when you screw over the patricians along with the plebes.  Or, having seen boobs like Trump avoid justice so long, he figured any rich prick could do it.  Or maybe he just needed to keep Monroe Hall out of prison for the purposes of the story–and had his own unique form of punishment in mind.  There was much of W.S. Gilbert’s Mikado in Mr. Westlake, I often think.

Anyway, we can nitpick all we want, but Fastow only did a year.  Skilling gets out in 2018 [they lopped ten years off his sentence], and can look forward to a very comfortable retirement in an America he oddly helped to bring about.  Want to see the dank stygian hellhole they stuck him in?

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Montgomery Federal Prison Camp.  Considered by many to be one of the four best lock-ups in the country to stay at, if you’re shopping around.  “La majestueuse égalité des lois…”  Excuse the French.)

Chapter 3 takes us over to Pennsylvania, to Monroe Hall, and his lovely wife Alicia, who we’re told loves the bum, but not without certain reservations.  She also worked at Somnitech, had a fair bit of culpability in its misdeeds, and being maybe the only person Hall gives half a shit about, he’d protected her.  So now she feels she has to share in what amounts to his house arrest, since he doesn’t dare go outside the grounds, for fear of encountering some among the very large number of people who want to do him bodily harm (there is reputedly one fellow toting a horsewhip in happy anticipation of the day he lays eyes on Mr. Hall).

He wants to throw a big party for all their friends.  She informs him sadly he doesn’t have any friends now.  Most of their former social circle will never forgive him for fleecing them.  He and his fellow conspirators at Somnitech are expressly forbidden to see each other.  She says they should all feel very lucky they’re not in prison.  He sulks that he might as well be.  She suggests he is perhaps feeling a little sorry for himself, and says they can go for a drive.  He doesn’t want to.  She says she’s going for a drive anyway.  In the Healey-Silverstone.  One of her favorites in Monroe’s collection.  If you want to see why–

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(She looks good in it, we’re told.  “With the beautiful long-haired blonde at the wheel, flashing through the lush green Pennsylvania countryside on the first day of June, it was a sight to make you glad there’s evolution.”)

Chapter 4 is Dortmunder walking into the O.J. Bar & Grill, where the regulars are discussing global warming, air conditioners, and why all the holidays are on Monday except Christmas and Thanksgiving.  Rollo the bartender has a new electronic cash register, the functioning of which he explains to a skeptical Dortmunder, while the regulars begin pondering the weighty question of whatever happened to Armistice Day.  If you are a reader of these books, you are experiencing a warm inner glow right now, just thinking about it.

Dortmunder takes the usual array of beverages back to the back room, which he’s happy to see he’s the first to arrive at, so he can sit facing the door (no doubt thinking of poor Mr. Hickok).  Murch arrives, later than he’d hoped, complaining about bicycle lanes on the BQE, and monorails on the Van Wyck (there are not, to this day, any monorails in the five boroughs, unless you count the one in the Bronx Zoo, but the word ‘monorail’ is just inherently funny, ask The Simpsons).

Kelp and Chester arrive, while Tiny lingers behind at the bar a short time, to explain to the regulars that he really does not care whether we ever celebrated Decoration Day in America.  The regulars should have learned by now not to confuse Tiny Bulcher, but maybe this is a new set of regulars, to replace past sets he was forced to chastise.  Chester looks at the Kong-like hand Tiny proffers to him, the knuckles damp, and asks if Tiny hurt himself.  “I don’t hurt myself,” is the rejoinder.

So Chester tells his story again, and Tiny expresses the opinion that this Monroe Hall person could do with a little chastisement, and at this point the reader is of the opinion that the world could use a lot more Tiny Bulchers in it.   Like one stationed right outside Mar-a-Lago would be good.

Basically, the idea is that they steal the six most valuable cars, and maybe pack them with a lot of smaller collectibles, like music boxes and cuckoo clocks, that Hall accumulates to himself like the world’s richest and least lovable pack rat.  But this rat has a large security staff (larger than ever, now that the whole country wants to dismember him), and is surrounded by an electrified fence that is also alarmed, so that if the current is broken, the rent-a-cops come running.  So everybody looks at Dortmunder, like they always do when they need a plan to get in somewhere they’re not supposed to be and come back out again.  And he says they need to go see the place.

So then we meet Mac, Buddy, and Ace, three stout-hearted union members (not stout in heart only), parked outside the Hall estate, singing their union anthem:

“Who will always guide the way?
Give us comfort in the fray?
Gain us benefits and pay?
The A C W F F A!”

If you were wondering whatever happened to the American labor movement……well, let’s say it’s come a long way since Killy, and probably the wrong way.

They follow Alicia around the countryside, as they have done many times before, which is at least aesthetically pleasing, but brings them no closer to their goal of getting their hands on her husband, who screwed over them and their union siblings something fierce.  But in this instance, it brings them allies–of a sort. Remember what I said about how it wasn’t only the working class who have bones to pick with Monroe Hall?

These two gentlemen sidle up in their leased Lincoln Navigator, “the most carnivorous vehicle on the road, the Minotaur of motoring.”  As thin and natty as their bluecollar counterparts are pudgy and disheveled, they go by the names Mark Sterling and Osbourne Faulk.  Venture capitalists.  Relative small fry in the seas of commerce, but with the ambition of someday becoming full-fledged sharks.  Or rather, that was their ambition, before the blandishments of Monroe Hall & Co. induced them to invest heavily in Somnitech stock.  Uh-oh.  Every time Mark brings up what followed this investment, Osbourne (‘Os’ to his friends, Mister Os to his enemies), growls softly.

Buddy says they can relate–they lost everything too.

Surprised, Mark said, “You invested?”

“Everything,” Buddy told him.  “Life insurance.  Health insurance.  Pension plan.”

Oh, those things.  They hardly mattered in the grand scheme of existence, after all, but Mark could just see that Buddy and his friends might treasure them more than they were really worth.  Symbolic value, and so on.  Sympathy at full bore, he said, “So you see, we are in a similar situation.”

As the scorpion once said to the frog.  But Mark does have some valid points to make here–the three amigos don’t really have a workable plan.  They think if they can capture Monroe Hall, they can hold him for ransom, ten million dollars, to be distributed equally to all of their members–a bit over 3k apiece.  As Mark thought–symbolic value.  Though in his own cold way, he does find their altruism moving, if naive.

He lets them down gently–even if they could get Hall, even if Alicia agreed to pay, as she probably would (none of them believes Hall would pay ransom for her, or his own mother, were she unfortunate enough to be among the living now)–as soon as the money got stateside, the Feds would siphon it up.

No, the thing to do is to get Hall in their clutches, and then, fixed beneath the baleful gaze of Mister Os, who keeps saying things along the lines of “With our hands upon his throat,” they can gently persuade him to transfer the needed funds–ten million for the union,  millions more for Mark and Os to invest in a new business opportunity they believe will proceed more felicitously–from his numbered overseas bank accounts, via their laptop.  Do it all electronically. Don’t bother with such a greasy fungible as mere cash.  He doesn’t mention bitcoin, but how much you want to bet he would have had this book had come out a few years later?

So the bargain is struck.  They will work together as a team, and since they have mutually concluded Hall is never coming out, they will have to figure out a way to go in and get him.

And now we’re with Andy Kelp, called upon to provide a car for the gang to head over to Pennsylvania in, and still imbued with a deep faith in doctors–not their medical expertise so much as their good taste in cars, and he is pleased to have his faith borne out once more, as he finds a Buick Roadmaster Estate station wagon, circa the Mid-90’s, complete with MD plates.  Seats nine, or in this instance, four plus Tiny.

This grand vehicle was a color not seen in nature, nor much of anywhere else except certain products of Detroit. It was a metallic shimmering kind of not-chartreuse, not-gold, not-silver, not-mauve, with just a hint of not-maroon.  It was in effect a rendering in enamel of a restaurant’s wine list descriptions.  But even better, from Kelp’s point of view, the Roadmaster was dust-free.

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As one auto-centric website describes it, “The last of its kind. An end of an era. The final chapter.”  In short, the ideal transport for the Dortmunder gang.  But far from ideal for Dortmunder, who ends up sitting in the auxiliary seat in the far back, that you have to enter via the tailgate, and which faces the rear of the vehicle, meaning that he has to put up with all kinds of disrespectful gestures from passing motorists and their bratty kids.  He bears it with his usual stalwart dignity and forebearance.  Tiny suggests they get some carpet tacks to fling under the tires of the offending motorists.  Dortmunder is grateful for the suggestion.

So they size up the security at the estate.  If only Somnitech had been this secure. Dortmunder quickly figures out there’s no way they can break in there undetected and get the goods out.  So it’s no go?  Not quite.

They had a lot of time to gab on the way there and while sizing up the terrain, and Chester has understandably had a lot to say about his former employer–and he lets it slip that nobody really wants to work for the guy anymore.  He’s pitifully understaffed.  And here is the point of vulnerability Dortmunder’s practiced eye always looks for.  “Monroe Hall needs staff,” Dortmunder said. “We hire on.”

So he declares at the end of Chapter 9, and now the premise of the book is is fully established.  Dortmunder & Co. will pretend to be the faithful employees of a faithless billionaire.  The union guys and the baby capitalists will pretend to be on the same side.  Monroe Hall will pretend to be a human being and Alicia will go on pretending to believe that he is one.  The ducks are lined up.  The stage is set.  The cast is assembled.  Part 1 is concluded.

Which leaves a whole lot of book left for Part 2.  Not quite four fifths of the book, to be precise.  But that four fifths includes a whole lot of extraneous material we can skirt past, which is the primary weakness of this novel–and at the same time, one of its undeniable pleasures.  As I like to say, reading the late Dortmunders is a bit like hanging out and chewing the fat with old friends.  It may not always be as productive or enlightening as one might hope.  But if there’s a more pleasant method for frittering away one’s spare time betwixt the cradle and the grave, I’ve yet to find it.

PS: The title of this book had been used several times before–in several different genres and artistic medias.

So which of these might have inspired the erudite Mr. Westlake to choose that title?  I’m guessing the first.  But hell, let’s say all of them.  Why not?  It’s the road we’re all on, after all. These gents will vouch for that.

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels