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Thursday, 27 August 2009

WHAT'S SO FUNNY - DONALD WESTLAKE

Donald Westlake
Quercus £7.99


This is the first Dortmunder I've ever read - you see the trouble with American writers who are not household names, not in the mega bestseller lists, is that a lot of us in other countries never get to hear of them. We certainly don't see them in most of our bookshops - the Internet is changing all that and genre specific sites can reach readers all over the Wild West Web. That's how I discovered Donald Westlake's other half - Richard Stark. When I read Point Blank (originally The Hunter) I was hooked. The character of Parker was an eye-opener for me, I'd never met anyone quite like this man in all fiction. I was then on a mission, I still am, to get all the Stark/Parker books.

I still avoided Dortmunder, though. I'd never seen the Robert Redford movie based on the character, nor in fact was I even aware of it. Shame on me.

I'd learned that Richard Stark was a name used by writer, Donald Westlake for a series of brutal crime novels, primarily about Parker but that the author also wrote equally entertaining crime novels under his real name, Donald Westlake. I read Hard Case Crime's Somebody Owes Me Money and enjoyed it but it was hardly in the same league as the brilliantly brutal, Parker. I became aware of Westlake' s Dortmunder series through various Internet sites and forums but for some reason I got the impression that the books, although highly praised, were out and out comedy crime novels.

Maybe it's the way they are marketed - look at the first cover image, this is a cool, subdued almost moody picture from the UK edition I finally picked up. But in contrast the original American cover looks like a tame crime caper, the type of thing you see in daytime detective series on the television. Not that there's anything wrong with daytime crime capers - hey, we've all got our thing.

However it was discovering that the first Dortmunder novel had actually started out as a Parker story led me to finally take the plunge. Dortmunder's first appearance was in 1970's, The Hot Rock. The story about the theft and loss and recovery and loss again of a precious gem wasn't working. The author realised the problem was Parker, then the main character, and that the story didn't suit his persona. And so Parker was rewritten into John Dortmunder. The character is like Parker in many ways but not so brutal. You could never imagine Dortmunder coldly killing someone who gets in his way and yet the universe he inhabits is very much the Parkerverse.

What's so Funny is actually the penultimate Dortmunder novel. It wasn't planned like that but the author, Donald Westlake sadly passed away after completing a further Dortmunder, Get Real. According to the WIKI there were a total of 14 Dortmunder novels - so one down, thirteen to go.

You see there's this ex-cop turned PI who holds some pretty incriminating evidence on Dortmunder and together with all his contacts still in the force, all linked together by this new internet thing, he makes it pretty clear that he has the power to send our hero, career thief John Dortmunder away for a very long time. That doesn't really appeal to Dortmunder but then nor does the alternative - a seemingly impossible scheme to steal a solid gold chess set from a vault beneath a Manhattan Bank.

Like the Parker books the dialogue is straight forward and direct - often hilarious it leaps from the page, each character having a distinct cadence. You instantly know which character is speaking from what they are saying and the way they are saying it. It's a talent that leaves me in awe of Mr. Westlake.

Dortmunder decides he has no choice but to play along with the ex-cop, knowing that the scheme is impossible. but figuring that the ex-cop will realise this in the end and, with no hard feelings, walk away from the plan. Hey, they tried right. However as the story goes on and more and more characters are sucked into the scheme it begins to look like they are going to try after all. However at about the half way point, the author pulls the rug out from under us and we realise that the scheme was, as initially thought, impossible. And that the Macguffin has no further use in the story, it's done its job, introduced us to characters and conflict - but wait a minute there are loose ends to tie up. And just when you think you've got the handle on the way things are going to go the author once again uses slight of hand to throw the reader into a quandary. The theft is going to happen after all, ...isn't it?

To say anything else about this book would be to risk spoilers and I'm not going to do that - if you haven't read it you are in for a treat - it is comical but the comedy comes naturally out of the characters and situations and above all it's suspenseful and John Dortmunder himself is a brilliant creation. I still prefer Parker but Dortmunder comes close and I'll certainly be reading the rest of the titles in the series. Maybe I'll alternate between Parker and Dortmunder and get the best of both worlds.

Donald Westlake WEBSITE

3 comments:

Randy Johnson said...

Good luck on the Parker novels. I own copies of all but two, The Plunder Squad and Butcher's Moon. Prices for them on the secondary markets are exceptionally high.
The University of Chicago Press is currently reprinting the earliest with the aim of getting up to the last before the twenty + year gap he took before resuming the series.

ARCHAVIST said...

RE - Parker I've still got a ways to go. I have ten of the books and have thus far read six of them. I've got getaway face on the way from Amazon and that's next for me.

Bruce said...

You really should read the Parker books in order especially up to The Jugger. Since Getaway face picks right up after The Hunter/Point Blank.

Also order a copy of Darwyn Cooke's graphic novel for The Hunter which is without a doubt the best adaptation of any of Westlake's output.