Who Wants to Rob a Millionaire?

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, August 13, 2009


By Donald E. Westlake

Grand Central. 278 pp. $23.99

Here is how it begins:

"Dortmunder did not like to stand around on street corners. A slope-shouldered, glum-looking individual in clothing that hadn't been designed by anybody, he knew what he looked like when he stood for a while in one place on a street corner, and what he looked like was a person loitering with intent."

From that very first sentence, you learn two things. Primo, that this is a Dortmunder novel, one of a series of comic capers about a gang of New York crooks who have been charming discriminating readers for nearly 40 years, and secundo, that you're in for a very, very good time.

How could it be otherwise? Just the name Donald E. Westlake -- a grand master of the Mystery Writers of America, winner of three individual Edgar Awards -- virtually guarantees silkenly smooth, professional entertainment. Whether writing all-out comedy ("Dancing Aztecs") or dark gallows humor ("The Ax") or the hardest of hard-boiled fiction ("The Hunter," under the pen name Richard Stark), Westlake grabs you with his opening scene, usually with his first sentence, so that you are soon sitting down in the nearest chair, where you stay put until you come to the last page unless you get up just long enough to go to the bathroom before hurrying back to finish the book. He's that good.

In "Get Real," the gang's all here -- the gloomy mastermind himself, the safecracker Andy Kelp, getaway driver Stan Murch, the dryly witty man-mountain Tiny Bulcher and, a late addition to the crew, the 19-year-old Judson Blint, "the kid." After a certain amount of cautious give-and-take, the "team" has surprisingly agreed to star in a reality TV series, produced by Doug Fairkeep, "a pleasant-looking guy in his early thirties, with that kind of open helpful manner that people's mothers like." All they have to do is be themselves, as they plan and carry out a robbery.

Fairkeep repeatedly assures Dortmunder and the others that their faces will never be seen on-screen and that none of them will end up going to jail. Obstinately concerned about this last point, Dortmunder stresses that, all things being equal, "When you're committing a felony, the idea is, you don't want witnesses. What you want is privacy. And you especially don't want the entire television-watching population of America for a witness." Fairkeep promises that they can "work around" any possible legal difficulties.

In fact, he adds, the show -- provisionally called "The Gang's All Here" or "Burglars Burgling" or "The Crime Show" or "Heist!" -- will be quite easy to film. "Compared to the dominatrix series we did," Fairkeep says, "this is a snap. That one was nothing but problems. And laundry."

But by now you must be asking yourself: Why is John Dortmunder, who never actually watches television, even considering this loony idea? Well, as every reader of the series knows, his motto is "Quid Lucrum Istic Mihi Est" -- roughly, "What's in it for me?"

The "what," of course, is money. Stolen money. Loot. "Money from wages," Dortmunder sagely observes, "is not the same as . . . money from theft. Money from theft is purer. There's no indentured servitude on it, no knuckling under to whatever anybody else wants, no obedience. It isn't yours because you swapped it for your own time and work, it's yours because you took it."

And so Dortmunder and Kelp have come up with a scheme in which one la-di-da filmed robbery will actually disguise another far more lucrative and complicated private heist. But to say more would be wrong -- though I can safely add that things don't quite go according to plan. But in a Dortmunder novel, they never do.

Throughout the novel Westlake takes potshots at the incomprehensible vogue for reality TV series. For instance, the Get Real production company has been working on one show about a family farm stand in Upstate New York, and every plot turn is carefully scripted. As Dortmunder soon learns, what reality shows do is take real people doing real things and then "they shape it, to make it entertainment." When the farm family's younger son inexcusably refuses the love interest carefully set up for him, Fairkeep rages that "in the world of reality, we do not have surprises." Similarly, because Dortmunder and his fellow crooks are all men, it's obvious that the "team" needs a gun moll. So Fairkeep just hires the beauteous but utterly irrelevant Darlene Looper, who had appeared on another reality show called "Build Your Own Beauty Parlor." That he hopes to sleep with her is a minor consideration. Not least, when one idealistic scriptwriter hopes to raise public awareness of a heartbreaking social issue, Fairkeep answers, "reality shows do not solve society's problems. They don't even consider society's problems. Reality is escapist entertainment at its most pure and mindless."

While the developing plot of "Get Real" has holes big enough to drive a stolen Chevy through, they don't really matter much. Mostly, one just enjoys Westlake's ingratiating, laid-back narrative voice. Tiny Bulcher is called "a giant in black trousers and a vast black turtleneck sweater who suggested somehow a black hole that had come to Doug's living room from deepest space." A director asks Dortmunder and his gang, "Do you lot have a lair?" Kelp is "as casual as an aluminum siding salesman." And when a foreign tourist tries to pass some euros at the OJ Bar, the bartender tells him, "We only do American money. It isn't worth much, but we're used to it."

Sadly, this, the 14th, will be the last Dortmunder novel. Donald E. Westlake died on Dec. 31, 2008, at the age of 75 while vacationing in Mexico with his family. Our only compensation for this loss is the knowledge that Westlake wrote so much -- under his own name and as Richard Stark and Tucker Coe and other, even more obscure pseudonyms -- that even the most addicted of his readers will be kept happy for a long time. I know. I've been collecting and enjoying the man's work for more than 30 years.

Near the end of "Get Real," Dortmunder, Kelp and the others are asked to just sit around a table at a mock-up of the backroom of the OJ Bar and reminisce a while. So "the group cut up old jackpots, the bank in the trailer, the emerald they had to keep going back and getting again and again, the ruby that was too famous to hock so they had to put it back where they got it, the cache of cash in the reservoir. The time just seemed to go by." Yes, and time will most definitely go by, and very pleasantly, too, for any reader lucky enough to start "Bank Shot," "The Hot Rock," "Why Me," "Drowned Hopes," or any of the other wonderful books of Donald Westlake. Read 'em and rejoice.

Dirda -- mdirda@gmail.com-- writes each Thursday in Style.

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