American writer Donald E Westlake has written more than 70 novels, as well as screenplays, teleplays and non-fiction works, but much of his literary output has consisted of crime novels. Of these, many are comic crime novels that feature crooks of dubious competency and even worse luck involved in activities of questionable legality. A subset of this group deal with the misadventures of some colourful characters affiliated with small-time thief and con artist John Archibald Dortmunder. We'll take a look at this entertaining bunch.
A Bit about the Author
Westlake was born on 12 July, 1933, in Brooklyn, New York and grew up in various cities around New York State. He attended three colleges, 'none to much effect' in his own words. He also served in the US Air Force. One of the colleges he had attended eventually became SUNY Binghamton1, which awarded its former student an honorary degree in June 1996. Westlake has one wife, two ex-wives, and seven children. He and his present wife, Abby Adams Westlake, spend some of their time in Manhattan but mostly hang their hats at a former farm in upstate New York.
Westlake also publishes under the pseudonyms Richard Stark, Tucker Coe and Edwin West. In addition, he has collaborated with his wife Abby on a number of works.
The Dortmunder Books
Think of Raymond Chandler meets The Three Stooges, and an extended meditation on the vagaries of Murphy's Law. The Dortmunder novels generally stand the conventions of crime fiction on their heads and leave them with their legs waving in the air. Readers of the series know that, no matter how well thought-out and meticulously planned the crime, Dortmunder and his cronies will find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The plots typically follow a standard pattern, in which they plan a caper and watch their plans unravel, often due to events beyond their control. The action generally takes place in New York City and environs, but occasionally will venture further afield. The gang almost never succeeds in stealing whatever it is they're after, except maybe temporarily, but they avoid being apprehended by the law and usually end up with something to show for their efforts.
In addition to the regular cast of characters, there are humorous set pieces that reappear in each book. One of these involves the OJ Bar & Grill at which the group plans their capers. The scene opens with a group of barflies known as 'the regulars' who are busily engaged in hilariously misinformed debate over a wide range of topics. When Dortmunder and his crew arrive, they walk down a hall to a back room, passing restrooms that have dog silhouettes on their doors, one labelled 'Setters' and the other labelled 'Pointers'. The planning session usually starts with a long description of the route Stan Murch drove to get there (he is a driver). There is usually a session at the OJ near the beginning of the book during which the crime is plotted, and a second at the end when the guys conduct a sort of post-mortem on their efforts.
The Cast of Characters
John Archibald Dortmunder - Always on the lookout for a way to make crime pay. A nondescript man with a hangdog look, he's marginally smarter than his cronies and generally responsible for planning each caper. Drinks bourbon (or rather 'a murky brown liquid labelled Amsterdam Liquor Store Bourbon - Our Own Brand').
Andy Kelp - Always optimistic, he's Dortmunder's friend and the guy to go to if you need a car thief. He's 'the other bourbon' during planning sessions.
Stan Murch - The driver for the group. Knows his way around the mean streets and will describe them in exacting detail. Drinks one beer (only one - he's a driver, after all), which he sprinkles with salt when it starts to go flat.
Rollo - The bartender at the OJ Bar & Grill, he knows his customers by drink, not by name.
Murch's Mom - A New York City cab driver. Occasionally called in when a second driver is needed.
May - Dortmunder's live-in girlfriend. She's a supermarket cashier, and so she has ready access to cut-rate merchandise and any other items she can discretely lift (she refers to these as her 'fringe benefits'). Her steady employment and fringe benefits keep her and John fed and with a roof over their heads, especially since his income is somewhat undependable.
The Hot Rock - Dortmunder is out on parole and needs to make some money. He's been commissioned to steal a valuable emerald for a newly-formed small African nation, and he calls up some of his colleagues to help execute the crime. No matter how well they plan, each attempt to steal the jewel fails, often due to events beyond their control, which leads to further and increasingly wilder attempts to fulfil their commission.
Bank Shot - When Dortmunder and crew plan a bank heist, they don't fool around: they don't just grab the money, they steal the entire bank. Of course, it's a little hard to stash their ill-gotten gains when said gains are so darned big. As the cops start to close in, they search frantically to find a place on Long Island to hide the bank until the heat is off.
Jimmy the Kid - Andy Kelp has an idea. He's read a crime novel by Richard Stark2 describing the perfect kidnapping and thinks John Dortmunder and his band of merry bunglers should try it themselves. Dortmunder allows himself to be persuaded despite sizeable doubts. Turns out he was right to be worried. The kidnap victim, the 'Jimmy' of the title, is a precocious kid who, not having read the same book as Andy, fails to behave as expected and runs circles around the gang. The 'perfect' caper quickly unravels.
Nobody's Perfect - The name of the painting, Folly Leads a Man to Ruin, should have been a warning. Unfortunately, as a twice-convicted felon John Dortmunder has few options when the owner of the painting, a man who likes to supplement his income with a spot of insurance fraud, manages to extricate Dortmunder from what would have been a third conviction and hires him to steal the painting. Stealing an item from a willing victim ought to be a sure thing, but Dortmunder also lifts one or two other small items, and things quickly go wrong. This book introduces a very large tough guy with anger management problems, Tiny Bulcher, who becomes a regular part of the gang.
Why Me - Dortmunder manages to steal a large and very important ruby known as the Byzantine Fire that had, in turn, just been stolen before it was to be given to Turkey. He should be thrilled, except that the theft has resulted in a shakedown of every known criminal in New York. He has the New York City Police, the FBI4, a terrorist or two, and every known criminal in the city after him. What to do? Why un-steal the ruby, of course. Dortmunder's usual luck (all bad) holds as he enlists his henchmen to try to undo one of his few successful heists.
Good Behaviour - Dortmunder escapes across the rooftops after a botched burglary attempt, only to find himself hanging from the rafters of a convent. The cloistered nuns, ever the pragmatists, tell him5 that they will not turn him in if he will help them. Sister Mary Grace is a young nun who is being kept in a tower apartment by her millionaire father, who is trying to de-program her. Dortmunder is easily 'guilted out' by the nuns, having grown up in an orphanage run by the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery, so he agrees to return the kidnapped Sister to their convent. The rest of Dortmunder's crew refuses to help until Sister Mary Grace smuggles out the details of the high-rise's security system, which also gives them access to jewellery and antique stores in the building. Everything goes fine until a mercenary army set for a Central American Revolution shows up...
Drowned Hopes - Dortmunder's past comes back to haunt him when he returns home after an unsuccessful burglary and finds his old cellmate sitting in his living room. He needs Dortmunder's help in retrieving $700,000 that he'd buried in a small town 30 years before. The problem is that, while he sat in jail, the State of New York flooded the area to build a reservoir; the loot is now under a few feet of dirt and many feet of water. Being a man of great determination but few ethical principles, the thief plans to blow up the dam, emptying the reservoir but also flooding the inhabited countryside to get at his stash. Dortmunder pleads with him to be allowed to retrieve the money another way. His first attempt fails. And his second. And third. Meanwhile the thief is losing patience...
Don't Ask - Dortmunder agrees to help Tiny Bulcher retrieve an old bone. This bone happens to be the femur of St Ferghana, a holy relic claimed by two newly-created European nations, Tsergovia and Votskojek. The relic will be awarded to one of the two countries, which will then be admitted to the United Nations. What's Tiny's interest in all this? His cousin, Grijk Krugnk, is a Tsergovian. Dortmunder and crew attempt to steal the bone from the Votskojek embassy, currently a boat berthed in the East River. As usual, nothing goes according to plan.
What's the Worst That Could Happen? - In this outing, Dortmunder attempts to steal something that actually belongs to him. Billionaire Max Fairbanks has caught Dortmunder burgling his Long Island estate and tells the arresting police that the ring on Dortmunder's finger was stolen from him. In fact the ring was a gift from his girlfriend, May, and this gratuitous piece of nastiness makes Dortmunder see red. He spends the rest of the novel trying to get the ring back, and in a hilarious reversal of his normal fortunes, he manages to acquire a whole lot of loot but not the ring.
Bad News - Andy Kelp has joined forces with scam artist Fitzroy Guilderpost, who plans to take over an Indian gambling casino. For one reason and another, this requires the replacement of one dead Indian buried in a Queens cemetery with another corpse, who's actually related to Guilderpost's partner, a Las Vegas chorine named Little Feather. Unfortunately, the current casino owners are as crooked as Guilderpost, so while Dortmunder and company have little (for them) trouble switching bodies, they discover it's a whole lot of trouble to keep them switched long enough for the scam play out.
The Road to Ruin - A corporate pariah, Monroe Hall is under house arrest in his mansion filled with ill-gotten gains. Unable to find or retain staff because no one wants anything to do with him, Hall is reduced to hiring Dortmunder and his crew. While impersonating professional butler, chauffeur and security staff, Dortmunder, Andy Kelp and Tiny Bulcher plot to relieve the unpleasant Hall of his valuables, but before they can take the stuff, Hall disappears and the cops arrive on the scene.
Watch Your Back! - New York fence Arnie Albright returns to the city with an idea for the perfect crime: cleaning out the currently-unoccupied, art-filled penthouse of Preston Fareweather, a wealthy and very unpleasant man who is hiding out at an island resort to avoid legal prosecutions of his five embittered ex-wives. When Dortmunder and crew get together to plan the heist, they discover that the OJ Bar & Grill has been taken over by the Mob. While our heroes work to hit Fareweather where it hurts, a seriously annoyed mobster plans to hit them.
Thieves' Dozen - This collection of short stories has the Dortmunder gang involved in various small-scale illegalities while they wait for the next big thing to present itself.
While this entry is concerned primarily with the Dortmunder novels, we should note that to date four of them have been made into films, with varying degrees of success:
- The Hot Rock (1972)
- Bank Shot (1974)
- Jimmy the Kid (1982)
- Jimmy the Kid (1999 - German Language version)
- What's the Worst That Can Happen? (2001)