Wednesday, December 17, 2008
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
Much of the charm of novels that constitute a series lies in the recurrence of interesting, well-defined characters toward whom we eventually develop an affection not unlike that which we have for real-life friends. Add enthralling plots and the farcical disconnect between the best-laid plans of mortal men and the unanticipated results of those plans, and you have the substance of Donald Westlake’s remarkable string of humorous crime novels featuring ace burglar and idea man, John Dortmunder, and his gang of eccentric partners.
Westlake excels in that subgenre of crime fiction known as the “caper”: the well-planned scheme to heist jewels, cash, or, in the case of The Road to Ruin, a fleet of antique automobiles belonging to Monroe Hall, a wheeler-dealer who has managed to loot his companies while narrowly avoiding going to jail. Hall lives, however, as a virtual prisoner on his estate, afraid of the many people who have suffered from his perfidy and who may be out to get him.
Enter John Dortmunder and company. Andy Kelp – deal originator and car thief (he always steals cars with “MD” tags, because doctors know how to travel in comfort) – introduces Dortmunder to Hall’s ex-chauffeur, Chester Fallon, who nurses a grudge against his former employer and is looking for help in arranging for the theft of Hall’s fabulous collection of classic automobiles. The gang gets together at their customary meeting place: the back room of the O.J. Bar & Grill in Manhattan, where Rollo the bartender knows John and his pals only by the drinks they prefer. In addition to Dortmunder and Kelp, there’s Stanley Murch, the gang’s driver, and Tiny Bulcher, a man-mountain of somewhat tricky temperament who provides the muscle. Dortmunder is the brains of the outfit, and he ultimately decides that the best way to get inside Monroe Hall’s well-guarded compound is in the guise of servants – which proves to be fairly easy, given the fact that nobody, anywhere, wants to work for Hall.
What the gang is unaware of is that there are two other groups of people who are actively trying to get hold of their mark: a couple of venture capitalists who lost their shirts investing in Hall’s companies, and three beefy members of a union whose workers lost jobs and pensions due to Hall’s Enron-like machinations. Everybody’s plans wind up colliding like bumper cars at the fair, and Dortmunder gets kidnapped along with his “master.” From this point on, all the various schemes go off the rails.
The characters, whether recurring or unique to each individual story, are well drawn, fully developed personalities. Take Flip Morriscone, for example, Monroe Hall’s health trainer: “Flip Morriscone would rather watch himself than anyone else on the planet, man or woman, and that was because he was in the absolute peak of physical condition; rockhard abs, rockhard butt, legs like a centaur’s, neck like a plinth. On the treadmill, on the machines, anywhere, what he was really doing was not training the slobs. What he was really doing was watching himself, and getting paid for it. (In his dreams, he often walked beside himself, holding hands.)”
There are a dozen novels in the series (the first is The Hot Rock, my favorite is Drowned Hopes). In addition to the Dortmunder series, Westlake has authored numerous non-serial novels of comic crime, noir crime, adventure and even a western. One of his best adventure novels is Kahawa, the plot of which centers on the theft of a train full of Ugandan coffee during the dictatorship of Idi Amin (and a more penetrating look into the twisted mind of that monster you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere else).
You’ll enjoy spending a little time with John Dortmunder and his boys (just don’t try any funny business with Tiny).