Monday, August 20, 2012

Donald Westlake, and Dortmunder

The other day I was sitting around looking for something to read, and it occurred to me how long it had been since I'd read something fun, for fun.  I've been doing all this research for a play, reading all sorts of business books and books on macro-economics and mid-20th century history.  And I thought I was kinda up to speed on all that.  So off to the library, straight to the Mystery shelf.  And something that I would not have thought possible; found a Dortmunder book I'd never read.  Called Get Real--turns out, probably Westlake's last published novel.

Donald E. Westlake, mystery writer extraordinaire, died about four years ago, alas.  The Dortmunder books are a series of comic novels about a gang of thieves in New York.  John Dortmunder is their leader, and planner for their various heists.  His best friend, Kelp, handles logistics, while Murch is their driver.  Those three were in all the novels, but in most of them, the gang was rounded out by Tiny Bulcher, a massive guy who handled muscle when necessary, and a full cast of characters--Murch's Mom; May, Dortmunder's girlfriend; B.J., Tiny's girlfriend; Anne-Marie, Kelp's ditto; Arnie Albright, their fence; Rollo the bartender, who lets them use the backroom at the O.J. bar for planning, many others. One running gag is that they use a different locksmith each time; in the final novels, Kelp served as lock specialist.

Dortmunder's plans are ingenious, but his luck is horrible.  They never get caught, but they also don't make much money--about what they'd make if they just had normal blue-collar jobs.  That's the overall message of the series, not that crime doesn't pay, it certainly pays, just about what you'd make with a job.  Dortmunder is a sad sack, a fatalist. He knows his luck is bad, but doggedly forges ahead nonetheless. There've been movies based on the books; Dortmunder was played by Robert Redford in one, The Hot Rock (1972).  Redford's a fine actor, but dead wrong for Dortmunder--Harry Dean Stanton would be perfect, if he was twenty years younger.  

These thieves have a code of honor.  Two main principles drive them: 'what's in it for me,' and 'don't get caught.'  For example, if Kelp and Dortmunder are on a job, and it appears as though Dortmunder might get caught, Kelp just leaves.  No dramatic rescues--it's clearly understood he's on his own. And as Kelp puts it in Get Real, "we don't do violence.  We don't kill unless we're absolutely certain we can't get caught."

A lot of the fun comes from Westlake's deep knowledge of and affection for New York City.  One recurring bit involves Murch's encyclopedic knowledge of Manhattan traffic patterns; he seems to enjoy route planning more than the actual driving.  Kelp has his own code--he only steals cars with MD plates.  He figures doctors can afford it, plus they tend to prefer very high end cars.

I love the writing, the voice: the sardonic, world-weary voice.  As with this:

"Stan Murch's speciality was driving; when it became necessary to leave a location at speed, Stan was your man.  And his Mom drove a cab, so that was probably an argument for nurture."

He's so great at quick, two or three sentence character descriptions.  As with Darlene, a minor female character in Get Real.

"When your town is too small for a movie theater, and your combined regional high school is an hour away by bus and too small to have a football team, you are a deprived teenager, and there wasn't a teenager in town who didn't know it and didn't dream of the day when the Trailways could take them away to anywhere in the world that wasn't N. Flatte, Neb.  The first place the Trailways took Darlene was St. Louis, where she got a waitress job at a diner, lost her virginity, had an abortion, and learned how to avoid that sort of thing in the future, by which she didn't mean abstinence."

And so, in one short paragraph, we know Darlene.  We get her.  And we're probably going to root for her.

Here's why I love Westlake.  He's so relentlessly amoral.

People love caper novels and caper movies because they're about criminals getting away with it. Think about Ocean's Eleven, The Italian Job; the characters are all crooks. Are those movies immoral?  Sure, in the real-world sense that it would probably be better for criminals to get caught.  But in fiction, we like reading about rascals.  We just don't like admitting that to ourselves.  So we have this moralistic Hollywood structure, in movies but also in fiction, in which those rules get obeyed; heroes get rewarded, villains get satisfyingly punished, unless they're needed for the sequel.

Or, in which we root for bad guys because the bad guys they're ripping off are exponentially badder.

Westlake loathes that whole formula.  He's even said so, in interviews.  Dortmunder is not a role model--he's a capable, professional crook.  By choice and inclination.  Who never gets caught.  And while the Dortmunder books are fun, and funny, Westlake's written others that make use of the same approach, but much much darker in tone.  He wrote a whole series, for example, under the pseudonym Richard Stark, about a crook named Parker, who is a cold-blooded killer.  And as violent as he is, we do root for him.  Number one rule of fiction: you will root for the protagonist.  No matter what.

Quentin Tarantino has said that Elmore Leonard is an influence, and Leonard has talked of his admiration for Westlake.  They're all working the same side of the street.  Walt, on Breaking Bad, lives there too, as does Don Draper.  I love Leonard too, as much or more than Westlake.  But they're all terrific. They're all in the business of telling us something about humanity, something maybe we'd rather not know, but something real and true nonetheless.  Crime, in Dortmunder's case, does pay.  Just not very much.  


  1. I think not having a TV in our house until I was ten, and preferrind tickets for 2-3 good plays or musicals, with good seats has made me movie illiterate.

    My husband tries to teach me, but we have to pause things every few minutes for him to explain things. If I have read the book or short stories a movie is based on, I do okay.

    At the end of the day I still enjoys plays more. I can read the script before so I understand the story arc, and then get lost in how the characters bring it to life.

    Part of what I enjoy about your blog is that I get a peak inside the head of a person who doesn't just like movies, but who understands connections and nuances I would never think to look for, nevermind catching it as it happens. How you write about movies is what is most fascinating to me.

    I suspect I am a lost cause. The only movies I saw before middle school were Star Wars, ET, The Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes, Wizard of Oz and White Christmas.

    I am in my 36 now, and I am guessing I might have seen 100, maybe 150? I would be curious to hear your opinion of the top 50-100?, (whatever number seems right) movies that everyone should see before they die.

    I hope Enchanted April is one, since it is probably one of my all-time favorites. ;-)

    1. Gosh, that's a great question. I'll take it up one of these days. I've seen lots of those lists, and I pretty much always disagree with them. I would certainly include Enchanted April, though! Lovely movie.