LOL: The Dortmunder Novels
“LOL” means “Laugh out Loud”.
In reality though, people aren’t really laughing out loud.
But since body language doesn’t doesn’t come across in a text message, LOL indicates that you’ve found something funny. You may in actuality be smiling or even grinning but rarely is anyone really laughing out loud.
However, in the real world whenever I am reading a Dortmunder novel, quite often I find myself actually laughing out loud.
I know this because my husband or son will interrupt my reading by demanding to know “What’s so funny?“
And my answer is invariably, “Dortmunder.”
“So,” you might ask, “What exactly is a Dortmunder?”
And I’d have to tell you that a Dortmunder is a terribly funny comic crime novel written by the extremely talented comic novelist Donald E. Westlake. And the Dortmunder Novels are Westlake’s best loved comic caper series, named for the crucial common denominator as well as the closest thing the series gets to a leading man.
O.K., then who is Dortmunder?
In the New York City crime community, John Archibald Dortmunder is a specialist. He’s a planner, and his plans are unquestionably ingenious… brilliant even.
But John Dortmunder is certainly not by any means the typical leading man.
“Dortmunder blows his nose.”
The Hot Rock
This is the first line of The Hot Rock, the very first time we meet Dortmunder.
Talk about an unprepossessing beginning.
But with this one line Westlake made Dortmunder real.
A peek at some of the other first lines:
“Yes,” Dortmunder said, “You can reserve all of this, for yourself and your family, for simply a ten dollar deposit.”
Of course the deposit will actually go straight into Dortmunder’s own pocket.
Because Dortmunder is a thief. A professional criminal.
Between big capers– just like any other independent contractor, legitimate or not — Dortmunder has to find other ways to keep body and soul together. Because he is too proud to comfortably live off his girlfriend May, he’ll turn his hand to any other criminal enterprises that come to hand.
A classic Dortmunder scam is to walk into the typing pool of a large corporation carrying a clipboard. The mark will actually GIVE him all the typewriters in need of maintenance. And anyone who has ever worked in an office knows that there is ALWAYS a backlog for equipment repairs and maintenance.
And for Dortmunder this is a pretty safe “filler” job. It’s brilliant because so much time will have passed in any big bureaucracy before they even notice the stuff is missing.
“Dortmunder slumped on the hard wooden chair, watching his attorney try to open a black attaché case.”
Which tells us quite a lot about Dortmunder and the type of “luck” that is his lot.
If Dortmunder gets caught, this is the type of lawyer he gets.
“Hello,” said the telephone cheerfully into Dortmunder’s ear,
“this is Andy Kelp.”
“This is Dort–” Dortmunder started to say, but the telephone was still talking in his ear. It was saying:
“I’m not home right now, but –“
“–you can leave a message on this recording machine–“
“It’s John, Andy. John Dortmunder.”
“and I’ll call you back just as soon as I can.”
“Andy! Hey! Can you hear me?”
“Leave your message after you hear the beep. And do have a nice day.”
Dortmunder held both hands cupped around the mouthpiece of the phone and roared down it’s throat:
Although a brilliant innovative thinker, Dortmunder is far from the technological edge.
His best friend and associate Andy Kelp tries with little success to bring Dortmunder into the modern world.
A determined techno-philistine, Dortmunder has one black dial phone in the kitchen… and if Dortmunder is in the kitchen, chances are that his mouth is full.
“Dortmunder opened the door
and a distant burglar alarm went CLANGangangangangang…”
You might even say that Dortmunder lives Murphy’s Law.
Stuck in traffic on the Williamsburg Bridge out of lower Manhattan in a stolen frozen fish truck full of stolen frozen fish at 1:30 on a bright June afternoon, with construction out
ahead of them forever on the Brooklyn Queen’s Expressway, with Stan Murch on Dortmunder’s left complaining about how there are no decent routes anymore from anywhere to anywhere in New York City — “If there ain’t snow on the road, there’s construction crews” — and with Andy Kelp on Dortmunder’s right prattling along happily about global warming and how much nicer it will be when there isn’t any winter, Dortmunder also had to contend with an air conditioner dripping on his ankles.
Dortmunder is undoubtedly a genius. But somehow the caper never comes out quite the way Dortmunder envisions it.
Of course there are very good reasons for this. Just having a brilliant plan go terribly wrong can be in itself terribly funny. These are comic crime novels after all. From a moral standpoint, criminals aren’t supposed to triumph. Then again, from a working writer’s point of view, if Dortmunder’s brilliant schemes are allowed to succeed, Dortmunder would most assuredly retire. Ooops… end of series! And Mr. Westlake was far too brilliant himself to allow Dortmunder to get away with any crime as heinous as that!
I was a teenager when I first saw the film version of Donald E. Westlake’s The Hot Rock. It was my first exposure to Westlake and I really loved it. But since I wasn’t yet reading film credits I didn’t realize that I was a Westlake fan until several years later when I stumbled upon the novel. The Hot Rock movie was a great caper movie. Probably because amazingly enough the filmmakers actually followed Westlake’s book.
(O.K., I’m sure it didn’t hurt that William Goldman wrote the screenplay… )
The Hot Rock casting was quite good. In spite of having to overcome the double barreled handicap of being both too young and too handsome, Robert Redford’s comedic genius allowed him to bring Dortmunder to life. He WAS Dortmunder. He may have been young and handsome but he sure played the heck out of “hangdog”. George Segal made a good Andy Kelp, and I thought Ron Liebman created a creditable Stan Murch, although harder edged than I now see the character. After fifteen books my picture of Stan is somehow softer and… fluffier.
But then The Hot Rock was after all both the first Dortmunder novel and the first Dortmunder movie. And Dortmunder and company have in fact changed and grown a lot over the years.
So although it was the best screen version of a Dortmunder novel, the book was infinitely better.
There have been lots of attempts at translating Westlake books to film but it rarely works. No one seems to understand why. The caper is always flawlessly planned, the action is usually quite visual and should in fact lend itself to the screen. And of course the characters are brilliantly drawn. So how can Hollywood miss?
But they do.
And I think I’ve solved the puzzle.
It’s all down to Donald E. Westlake’s prose.
How can you film funny descriptive prose?
He was slumped over his cereal bowl, looking down into it, at the sugar and the milk and the cornflakes all massing together in there, all in a soggy clump, turning gray somehow. His breakfast had never turned gray before. He held the spoon angled into the gob, as though he might use the stuff to patch a road somewhere, but not as though he had any intention of eating it.
Westlake doesn’t just write about funny things happening.
Westlake doesn’t just write about funny characters.
Westlake just plain writes funny.
“All suburbs look like paintings from before the discovery of perspective.”
What’s the Worst That Could Happen
How do you film a funny observation?
You know what a chain link fence is? A ladder.
So even if they follow the ingenious plot to the letter, it’s inevitable that there will be no way to film most of the funny bits. So although it could be a very good movie, it can never be as funny as the book.
Sometimes Westlake’s unfilmable humour is cumulative… Say something that isn’t funny sets up an extremely funny joke. One of my favorite examples of this is from Bad News.
On page 31 (paperback version) we find Dortmunder and Kelp subcontracting a job in a cemetery:
As they grasped handfuls of daisies, Dortmunder said,
without moving his lips, “A car followed us.”
Skipping ahead to page 197, they’re back in the cemetery again:
“It’s just a little ways along here,” Dortmunder said, moving his lips.
Placed so far away from the set up line it’s completely unexpected, and therefore much funnier. And it’s so deliciously subtle that you might miss the joke entirely. (A compelling reason for re-reading Westlake is to find the gems I missed the first time.)
Here’s something else I love. Most series authors– even the very best– will fall into the trap of using almost the exact same descriptions of their series characters in each of the books. And I admit, for most of the world it isn’t a big deal. But if you’re someone like me who will re-read the whole series, you notice it.
But although Westlake may re-use an adjective here and there, he seems to have a great deal of fun trying to describe the indescribable Tiny by creating completely fresh virtuoso descriptions every time. Here’s one of my favorites:
The speaker, who looked mostly like a hillside brought to life by Claymation, was a man monster– or monster man– named Tiny Bulcher by someone with a grim sense of humor, or fast legs, or both.
In the company of human beings of normal size and shape. Tiny Bulcher looked…different. He reminded most people of the thing they used to believe lived in their bedroom closet at night, when they were very small, and they would wake up, and it would be really really dark in the whole house, and they would lie in bed and know just how small they were, and the closet door was the only thing in the entire vast universe they could see, and they just knew that inside that closet right now, reaching for the doorknob on the inside there, was… Tiny Bulcher.
Sometimes the humor is in seeing the world from the point of view of one of the characters, like Guy Claverick’s take on Dortmunder and Kelp:
“Sloping, suspicious, dubious, ramshackle people, dressed as though for a long bus ride somewhere in the third world, they were about as far from the general idea of Raffles, the gentleman thief, as one could get without actually entering prison.
“Come in gentlemen. ” Guy said, which was his idea of a joke.
Dortmunder doesn’t belong to a gang, per se. Each plan, for each caper, requires different specialists. When creating a plan, Dortmunder recruits from the pool of available talent (also known as “known associates”). His rule of thumb is that the “string” needed for any job should include no more than a maximum of five men. Of course like most rules, there have been a few exceptions over the years. Say the lockman you want is in jail because he absentmindedly picked the locks on the lion’s cage– then Dortmunder would have to choose an alternate.
These guys are professionals. And the world they inhabit is a little different than our own.
When a FedX package arrives at the apartment for Dortmunder’s lady friend May, Dortmunder is taken aback. When May gets home from her supermarket cashier’s job, it isn’t a problem for her, as she is used to functioning in both worlds. Dortmunder watches as,
“With hardly any hesitation at all, she pulled the tab along the top, reached inside, and withdrew a folded sheet of top-quality letterhead stationery and a small box, such as earrings might come in, or a kidnap victim’s finger.”
What’s the Worst That Could Happen
Westlake provides lots of subtle little humorous touches to emphasize these different worlds. Sometimes it can really sneak up on you, like:
“See John,” Andy said, happy as could be, taking somebody’s cellular phone out of his pocket, “already I’m a help.”
What’s the Worst That Could Happen
Sometimes the differences in our perspectives lead to funny bits.
“I’m sorry, May, ” Dortmunder told her, as he dropped twenty-eight thousand dollars in cash on the coffee table. “I’ve got bad news.”
What’s the Worst That Could Happen
We can believe in John Dortmunder, and his world, because Donald Westlake has done such a good job in showing it to us.
They were walking home from the movies in the rain. May liked the movies, so they went from time to time, though Dortmunder couldn’t see what they were all about, except people who didn’t need a lucky ring. When those people in movies got to a bus stop, the bus was just pulling in. When they rang a doorbell, the person they were coming to see had to have been leaning against the door on the inside, that’s how fast they opened up. When they went to rob a bank, these movie people, there was always a place to park out front. When they fell off a building, which they did frequently, they didn’t even bother to look, they just held out a hand, and somebody’d already put a flagpole sticking out of the building right there; nice to hold onto until the hay truck drives by, down below.
Dortmunder could remember a lot of falls, but no hay trucks.”
What’s the Worst That Could Happen
Beyond providing me with wonderful entertainment over the years, I’ve also learned important things about home security from Dortmunder and Westlake:
Happily, this was another place that left a light on for burglars, so they wouldn’t hurt themselves tripping over things in the dark.
What’s the Worst That Could Happen.
In other words, A “burglar light” may be good for Dortmunder and his friends but not for the householder.
It has been said that Westlake’s Parker is the dark side of Dortmunder. But I don’t think that’s true. Parker is certainly much nastier, and the books he is in are definitely much darker, but Dortmunder could never be Parker. Because Parker is truly a lone wolf. A sociopath. The closest Dortmunder can ever get to Parker was in Jimmy The Kid, Westlakes ultimate “in joke”. If you haven’t read it you have to, because I’ll never tell.
And although Dortmunder thinks he is a lone wolf, he is in reality a man who is at a loss without his community. (Something that became very clear in Why Me.) After all, who can think of Dortmunder without Kelp? Or Murch, Or Tiny. And May is a very important part of his existence. And if Dortmunder was not a “humanitarian”, the story in Drowned Hopes wouldn’t have happened. Dortmunder is a man operating by his own code of ethics, in his own world. The fact that his world is part of our world allows Westlake to have some fun with social commentary.
Although Dortmunder is a criminal, and he’s brilliant, things go wrong for him. (I don’t know about you, but >I< can surely empathize with that!) And I especially love it when Dortmunder gets mad. Which is probably why What’s the Worst that Could Happen will always be my personal favorite. Although John Dortmunder may seem like a downtrodden sad sack, you really don’t want to get him mad at you.
[Please don't confuse the Danny DeVito film of the same name with the Dortmunder Novel. There is NO comparison. Which is really too bad, because if they had actually followed the story instead of just pulling out the bits they liked, it might have been pretty good.]
The new Dortmunder is on the shelves.
Regrettably it is also the final Dortmunder. It’s bittersweet knowing there will be no more after this one, but that didn’t stop my smile the first time I saw the cover art online a few months ago.
I pre-ordered my copy from Wordsworth Books, and they called me when it came in.
I’ve already finished it. Who could stop? So I’ve read it and it was wonderful. Well of course Donald Westlake’s comic novels are so smooth they just slide on down. So now I can get back to finishing my re-read of the rest of the series.
I will not give you any spoilers (I HATE spoilers).
I’ve had so much fun reading the Dortmunder series over the years.
I loved noticing when Westlake would slip fictitious automobile names into his stories. Like the luxury car he called a “Caliber”, just so he could later make a pun by referring to Stan’s Ex-Caliber… And this one became funnier since Dodge introduced a new economy car they named the “Caliber”.
The hilarious interplay between the regulars at the OJ were always good for a LOL. Or seeing Dortmunder’s confusion the few times when May is driven to actually interfere in his life. Or watching Anne Marie attempt to civilize the guys with far out ideas like Thanksgiving Dinner. Seeing Dortmunder get a free ride in Murch’s Mom’s cab.
Then there are all the in jokes. Like the fictitious Veenbes painting “Folly Leads To Man’s Ruin” (painted by the ficticious Renaissance Master Veenbes) that Westlake created in one book getting a passing mention in another, or crossover chapters like my favorite in Drowned Hopes where a Joe Gores’ car hawk tries to reposesses the car Kelp has stolen (for which we can find the DKA version appearing in Joe Gores‘ 32 Cadillacs).
But I think that the real reason that the Dortmunder books are so much fun is that Donald Westlake had as much fun writing them as we do reading them.
I will quote one lovely bit from Get Real which rather sums up the Dortmunder philosophy:
“Money from wages,” Dortmunder said,
“is not the same as the same money from theft.
Money from theft is purer.
There’s no indentured servitude on it,
no knuckling under to whatever anybody else wants,
It isn’t yours because you swapped it for your own time and work,
it’s yours because you took it.”
–John Archibald Dortmunder