What’s So Funny?

Donald E. Westlake
What’s So Funny?
(Grand Central Publishing, 2007)

Jack Batten described Westlake’s work perfectly (see below).

I think I have read everything Westlake has written. He can set a scene with an eerie clarity:

When John Dortmunder, relieved, walked out of Pointers and back to the main sales floor of the O.J. Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue a little after ten that Wednesday evening in November, the silence was unbelievable, particularly in contrast with the racket that had been going on when he’d left. But now, no. Not a word, not a peep, not a word. The regulars all hunched at the bar were clutching tight to their glasses as they practiced their thousand-yard stare, while the lady irregulars mostly seemed to be thinking about their canning. Even Andy Kelp, who had been sharing a bourbon with Dortmunder down at the far end of the bar while they waited for the rest of their group to arrive, now seemed to have settled deeply into a search for a rhyme for “silver.” All in all, it looked as though a whole lot of interior monologue was going on.

It took Dortmunder about one and six-seventeenths seconds to figure out what had changed while he was away. One of the seldom used side booths, the one nearest the street door, was now occupied by a person drinking something out of a tall clear glass, revealing both ice and bubbles within, which meant club soda, which probably meant nonalcoholic. This person, male, about forty-five, who apparently still permitted his grandmother to cut his thick black hair, wore on his lumpy countenance the kind of bland inattention that did not suggest interior monologue but, rather, intense listening.

A cop, therefore, and not only that but a cop dressed in what he no doubt thought of as civilian attire, being a shapeless shiny old black suit jacket, an emerald green polo shirt and shapeless tan khakis. He also seemed to subscribe to the usual cop belief that the male body was supposed to have bulges around the middle, like a sack of potatoes, the better to hang the equipment belt on, so that your average law enforcement officer does present himselt to the public as a person with a lot of Idaho inside.

As Dortmunder moved around the corner from the end of the bar and started past the clenched backs of the interior monologists, two things happened which he found disturbing. First, the lumpy features of the cop over there suddenly became even more bland, his eyes even less focused, the movement of his arm bringing club soda to his mouth even more relaxed and even.

Westlake writes as Richard Stark about a professional criminal called Parker. In the many books starring this neutrally immoral man’s first name is never revealed. The most rivetting opening of a mystery I’m aware of is his beginning of Firebreak (Warner Books, 2001):

When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man. His knees pressed down on the interloper’s back, his hands were clasped around his forehead. He heard the phone ring, distantly, in the house, as he jerked his forearms back; heard the neck snap; heard the phone’s second ring, cut off, as Claire answered, somewhere in the house.

No time to do anything with the body now. Parker stood and was entering the kitchen from the garage when Claire came in the other way, carrying the cordless. “He says his name is Elkins,” she told him.

He knew the name. This would have nothing to do with the interloper. Taking the cordless, he said, “I’ll have to go out for a while.” Then, moving into the dining room, where the windows looked away from the lake, out toward the woods where the stranger had come from, he said, “Frank?”

Caper No. 13 Still Unlucky for Dortmunder and Co.

Whodunit | Crime fiction’s most unsuccessful burglar faces more plot, more characters — to the delight of Westlake fan Jack Batten

In the years since 1960, when Donald E. Westlake published his first book, a creepy crime novel titled The Mercenaries, he has produced the following: four more creepy crime novels, 17 comic crime novels, 10 straight novels which tend to be either all creepy or all comic, 13 novels featuring the morose Manhattan burglar John Dortmunder, file collections of short stories, one young adult novel, one western, one book of reportage and one edited anthology.

Even these impressive numbers don’t take into account the crime novels Westlake has written under two pseudonyms, Tucker Coe (at least a couple) and Richard Stark (at least a couple of dozen).

Prolific doesn’t begin to describe Westlake, and when his pen, typewriter and computer are finally wrested from his hands — he is only 73 — the Dortmunder novels are probably the books that will be remembered most fondly by his admirers, none more fondly than the 13th, What’s So Funny?

In this latest Dortmunder misadventure, he and his light-fingered colleagues are blackmailed into undertaking the heist of a set of priceless chess pieces made of gold and inlaid with jewels. The chess set weighs several hundred pounds and is held in the underground vault of a 5th Avenue bank amid tight security. Far from a routine burglary, in other words.

What’s So Funny? is distinctive among Dortmunder books because it brings into play more characters, almost all slightly bent, and is tangled by more plot diversions, than any of the dozen earlier novels. It also offers entertainment and reassurance with the following not so incidental pieces of byplay:

  • John Dortmunder reveals his just-coined family motto. It reads, in his version of Latin, quid lucrum istic mihi est. Translation: “What’s in it for me?”

  • Andy Kelp introduces a refinement in the modus operandi of his car thefts. Kelp is Dortmunder’s number one sidekick, a chipper fellow where Dortmunder is hangdog. In past books, whenever Kelp needed a car to get around town, he swiped a vehicle with MD licence plates on the theory that doctors, uniquely tuned to the highs and lows of human life, always go for the high, as in their choice of personal automobile.

    In the new book, Kelp further narrows his selection to cars owned by doctors who are also female. How can he tell that a car with MD plates sitting in a parking lot belongs to a woman? If it’s white in colour; a low-fuel-consumption hybrid, decorated with a bumper sticker reading “The Earth — Our Home — Keep it Tidy” and carrying bottles of Poland Spring water in the cup holders, Kelp knows it’s a woman doctor’s car. Beautifully maintained. The car, that is, though probably the lady doctor too.

  • A young woman, talking to Dortmunder about a set of photographs of the valuable chess set, says, “I could e-mail it all to you.”

    “No, you couldn’t,” Dortmunder says.

    He means he has no computer. Nor does he possess a cell phone, a Blackberry or any other electronic device invented since approximately the end of World War II.

    When Dortmunder wants to make a phone call, he steps over to the black rotary device on his kitchen wall. He remains relentlessly non-tech.

    He isn’t violent either. In a contemporary world in which criminals carry out their jobs with the aid of MacBooks and Glocks, John Dortmunder depends entirely on his wits.

  • Speaking of telephones, Westlake includes a sequence in which three phones on the desk of the assistant to a very rich woman go off at about the same time. “Tink-tink,” Westlake writes for the private line, “blip-blip” for the business line, “bzzzork” for the in-house line. As a venture in onomatopoeia, something Westlake puts in every Dortmunder book at least once, the telephone sounds in What’s So Funny? rank relatively low on the scale of inventiveness, but they’re a welcome pleasure nonetheless.

  • Stan Murch suggests a caper for the Dortmunder guys, in addition to the burglary of the chess pieces. What’s surprising about this is that Murch has never been an idea person. He’s the wheelman on all jobs. In his day employment, he drives a cab, as does his mother, who is addressed by everyone simply as Murch’s Mom.

    Murch knows the Five Boroughs better than the back of his hand. In each Dortmunder book, he offers one or more virtuoso and hilarious descriptions of the quickest route from one distant New York to another.

    The job that an out-of-character Murch conceives in the new book is deemed impractical by Dortmunder and never gets off the drawing board, but Murch’s ambition is admirable. In his travels through Brooklyn, he has noticed a new mosque, financed by Arab oil money, in the process of construction next to the Belt Parkway. The new mosque’s dome, not yet installed, is made of solid gold. Murch proposes that the gang cart away the dome with a crane. Dortmunder inquires about the dome’s size.

    “One thing I have learned about staying out of jail,” Dortmunder says to Murch. “I don’t go down the street with a 15-feet-wide by 12-feet-tall hot golden dome out in front of me.”

  • It will come as no surprise to devoted Dortmunder readers that the heist of the chess set, ingeniously conceived as it is, collapses in the end through no fault of any gang member. Dortmunder heists never succeed, but no previous burglary has succumbed to such irony as the luckless job in What’s So Funny?

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