Who Wants to Rob a Millionaire?

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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."

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