by David Bratman
There are many authors of humorous crime caper novels. But no others have the wit and imagination, displayed over such a long series of works, of Donald E. Westlake (1933-2008). Since I have read most of the numerous books he's published under his own name -- many of them several times -- and as online Westlake bibliographies are incomplete and most articles about him are sketchy, here is a bibliography with my evaluations and recommendations. I have attempted to write actual short descriptive reviews rather than blurbs. Some vague plot spoilers are inevitable, but I've given no details about the endings.
Coverage is of all the books Westlake originally published under his own name, but only those originally published under his own name. It excludes books first published under pseudonyms (even if they were subsequently reprinted with Westlake's real name as well), for the simple reason that I've read none of those. It also excludes screenplays etc. The list is in chronological order, except insofar as I cannot always guarantee that books published the same year are in the correct order. Year is of first publication. Alternative titles are of British publications. Dates are from Westlake's own online bibliography.
Westlake began his novel-writing career about 1960 with extremely tough hard-boiled crime novels. In 1965 he published his first comic caper, and for many years generally wrote his tough hard-boiled books under pseudonyms (notably Richard Stark) and his comic novels under his real name. Yet not all of the books under his own name are humorous. They range from complete slapstick through serio-comic books that are funny and tough at the same time, to novels with caper plots but which are entirely dire and somber. Starting about 1990 he wrote several very hard-boiled crime novels of psychological suspense under his own name. Most of the books on this list are comic, however; those that are serio-comic or thrillers are specifically identified.
What almost all these books have in common is that the characters are cheerfully amoral. There is honor among thieves in Westlake -- his gang members are rarely out to deceive each other, and when they are he tells you so; the humorous conflict comes from inadvertent frustrations and bumbling -- but they treat other people and their belongings in a completely casual and amoral manner. Some readers can't accept that even in fiction: Westlake is not for them. But if you can accept these capers for their humorous potential, he's the funniest writer going.
Executive summary: My recommendations of the best Westlake books
The Mercenaries (1960) (vt The Smashers, The Cutie)
Hard-boiled thriller. Have not read.
Killing Time (1961)
Hard-boiled thriller. Have not read.
A very hard-boiled thriller. The first-person narrator has just returned from military service when his father is killed before his eyes. He sets out to find out why. Surprises the reader with his skill and ruthlessness, which seem to come out of nowhere.
Hard-boiled thriller. Have not read.
Pity Him Afterwards (1964)
A more successful hard-boiled thriller than 361. Psychological thriller in which a homicidal lunatic, escaped from the asylum, kills and takes on the identity of an actor on his way to a summer drama camp. Suspense builds as murders begin to occur at the camp. Westlake hides from the reader which of several named characters the murderer is, but his identity doesn't affect the plot much. The madman's lunacy is interesting: he kills in a sort of careless way, sometimes inadvertently, more to prevent being captured than for any other reason. His lunacy is marked by his belief that after the murder is done, he can sweep the matter under the rug and it will be forgotten. He's indignant that it isn't. Westlake used a similar lunacy years later for the protagonist of the film The Stepfather for which he wrote the screenplay.
The Fugitive Pigeon (1965)
Westlake's first comic novel, and the first of his "nephew" books. This one's hero is literally a nephew: a lazy sanguine fellow whose gangster uncle got him a job running a mob-owned bar. The plot begins when two mob gunmen enter the bar to rub him out for some unidentified misconduct. The essence of the "nephew" plot is that the hero is accused of doing something bad that he didn't do. He has trouble finding out what that something is because the people who can tell him refuse to believe he didn't do it. His life depends on finding out quickly what happened and who really did it, usually while on the run from those who would kill him. A good book, with amusing portraits of mob kingpins and a satisfactory ending.
The Busy Body (1966)
Corpse of dead mob figure disappears before funeral. Comic shenanigans ensue. I didn't find this one particularly funny or memorable.
The Spy in the Ointment (1966)
A variant on the "nephew" plot. This time the hero knows what's going on: the problem is his extreme reluctance to be a character in this story. He's the leader of a small pacifist group, contacted by terrorists who mistook his group for a similarly-named terrorist group. The terrorists are plotting something big, and the hero's usual antagonists, the FBI, persuade him to go along with it as a spy. Oh yes, and as part of his cover he's now a wanted murder suspect: sorry we didn't mention that to you earlier. The FBI agents are serio-comic (only a sketch for what would emerge in Why Me?); the real humor comes from the terrorists, of all people: a disparate group of wildly incompatible nuts who've pooled their efforts. They don't care that their larger goals don't mesh so long as they all have the same immediate goal, to blow things up. What they'll do after that they'll worry about later. Believe it or not, there's priceless comedy in this, but also some very serious sections as the terrorists begin to get killed off, and their kingpin becomes convinced that the terrified hero is the only one as ruthless as himself.
God Save the Mark (1967)
Another "nephew" book. This hero's flaw is that he's gullible to any con job. He's just inherited a fortune from an uncle he'd never heard of, for the good reason that, never having heard of him, he's the only relative who never offended the old man. His job now is to solve the mysteries that come along with the money, and to keep from being conned out of it long enough to figure out what best to do with it. In the end, of course, he figures out the big scam before his worldly-wise friends do.
Westlake's only children's book. Hard to find; have not read.
The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution (1968)
Short story collection. Most of the contents are fairly hard-boiled, though some are darkly humorous; a couple are psychological thrillers. My favorites are two puzzle stories, "Murder in Outer Space" and "Never Shake a Family Tree." Of the 15 stories, 9 are reprinted in A Good Story and one in Tomorrow's Crimes.
Who Stole Sassi Manoon? (1968)
Set in Jamaica, at a film festival. A gang of amateurs plans to kidnap a famous movie star, for the ransom money. Some things go right for them, others wrong. A typical Westlake comic caper.
Somebody Owes Me Money (1969)
Perhaps the best of the "nephew" books, and one of Westlake's few actual straight murder mysteries. The hero is a New York cabbie who, having just won a track bet, goes to collect from his bookie, but finds the man dead and himself accused of the murder. Desire to collect his winnings keeps him involved as much as the need to clear himself. He gets mixed up with mob kingpins not quite as amusing as the ones in The Fugitive Pigeon; the best character is the dead man's sister, a cool Las Vegas blackjack dealer named Abbie, which is a variant spelling of Westlake's wife's name.
Up Your Banners (1969)
A "nephew" book, last of the group, but not a crime novel. The hero is an innocent first-year high-school teacher whose father, the school principal, through arrogance doesn't tell the son that he's being dumped in the middle of a hot race-relations/nepotism battle over his hiring. The hero spends the book trying to defuse the crisis while vainly attempting to explain that he's his father's patsy: nobody believes he knows nothing about the controversy. Rather overlong, but fairly amusing. I read this book from a public library; I've never seen a copy anywhere else.
The Hot Rock (1970)
The first of the Dortmunder books, and the funniest novel Westlake had yet written. John Dortmunder is the leader of a burglary gang, hired by the ambassador of an African nation to steal a disputed emerald -- of at least as much symbolic importance as monetary value -- from a rival African nation while said emerald is in the U.S. on a museum tour. (Getting caught in feuds between foreign countries would become a continuing theme in the Dortmunder books.) The emerald is successfully stolen, but not held on to, and has to be stolen again and again before the plot arrives at a highly satisfactory twist ending (omitted from the film version). The plot provides much of the humor: the rest comes from the characters' mutual misunderstandings and getting on each others' nerves.
Adios, Scheherazade (1970)
The hardcover's jacket had the subtitle "A Serious Comedy," and it's funny if you get a kick out of watching a fretful man in despair. He's a hack porn writer who wants out of the biz but can't afford to leave, and the text is this mixture of memoir, confession, fiction, and frustration over his writer's block that he's typing instead of this month's novel, and he does go on. Not enough sex scenes for an actual hack porn novel but a lot more than any other Westlake book.
I Gave at the Office (1971)
I barely remember this one. It's about a TV news announcer, sent to South America to cover a revolution, if I recall. The protagonist makes a cameo reappearance in Dancing Aztecs.
Under an English Heaven (1972)
Westlake's only nonfiction book under his own name during his lifetime. It describes the revolution against independence on the Caribbean island of Anguilla in 1969. Westlake thought the notion sufficiently like a Westlake novel to be worth looking into and writing about. He does not entirely succeed at wrestling reality down into a comprehensible series of events, but the book is well-researched and very entertainingly written.
Bank Shot (1972)
The second Dortmunder novel, and the best of the early ones. Westlake had seen a bank housed temporarily in a mobile home trailer, which inspired him to write this story in which Dortmunder and his gang get a truck cab, sneak up and hitch it up one night, and drive the trailer away -- stealing the bank instead of the money. The problem then becomes hiding the trailer from the comically inept police, until they can break open the safe. The absurdly deflationary ending is one of Westlake's most vivid and memorable, as well as funniest, scenes.
Cops and Robbers (1972)
A serious crime caper novel. Two New York cops turn robbers, using their legitimate identity as police to cover their activities. Mostly concerns their attempt at a big score, contracting with the mob to steal bearer bonds. A good short thriller with resourceful heroes and some clever and imaginative scenes.
Written in collaboration with Brian Garfield. Sometimes classed as a Western, but though it takes place in that era, the setting is urban and the protagonist doesn't even know how to ride a horse. It's just a comic crime caper set in San Francisco, 1874: a charming con man recruits a motley gang to help him rob the Mint. Fairly amusing.
Help I Am Being Held Prisoner (1974)
A cross between a crime caper and a "nephew" book, and generally considered one of Westlake's best. An ingrained practical joker, sentenced to prison after one of his jokes got out of hand, is inadvertently dumped into a gang of prison trusties who are able to periodically sneak out of prison to commit robberies for which they have the perfect alibi: they're in jail. The hero is not a criminal by nature, and is terrified but must hide his fear from the gang, who are tough enough that they might kill him if he chickens out. So he uses his skill at practical jokes to surreptitiously disrupt their plans. Despite the personal danger to the protagonist, the book is closer to comic than to serio-comic, and it has some good funny plot pieces.
Jimmy the Kid (1974)
The third Dortmunder book. Westlake's reworking of "The Ransom of Red Chief." The obnoxious child kidnap victim (played by Gary Coleman in the film, which is all you need to know about him) overshadows the gang. The book's main interest is that the kidnappers are working from a plot borrowed from a (non-existent) Richard Stark novel, so the mishaps and wrong turns of this book show what happens when to the thriller atmosphere of the Stark books is added the comic nemesis of bad luck that plagues the Dortmunder gang.
Brothers Keepers (1975)
A mildly comic light novel. Several Westlake novels feature a romance, but in this one it comes to the forefront because there's no crime and because the hero is a monk, living in a cloistered community in the middle of New York City (a gimmick re-employed in Good Behavior). The plot motivation is to gain an additional endowment for the monastery, and the young hero is too unworldly to know what he'll encounter in dealing with the attractive young woman who controls the money.
Two Much (1975)
An ingenious caper. You might suppose it had comic potential, but in fact this is by far the most serious, almost hard-boiled, thriller Westlake published under his own name between Pity Him Afterwards and Sacred Monster. Yet it's often described as comic: I wonder if people who say this have actually read it or only know the plot. (The film has a much lighter tone.) The narrator hero, apparently a happy-go-lucky fellow until (like the narrator of 361) he reveals an unexpected capacity for ruthlessness, sets out to seduce identical twin sister heiresses. To aid him in this, he invents an identical twin brother, and has to play both parts. Things get worse when the sisters, as part of maneuvering over their inheritance, quickly marry the twin brothers, and the hero has to live simultaneously as both parts in the same house. I suppose the scenes in which he rushes back and forth have their comic side. But then he finds himself twice cuckolding himself, and then his pretence begins to break down, and then things actually start getting nasty ...
Dancing Aztecs (1976) (vt A New York Dance)
Westlake's comic masterpiece: by far his most intricately-plotted novel as well as his funniest. If you haven't read all of Westlake's better books, save this one for last. Sixteen plaster copies of a statue of a dancing Aztec priest have been distributed as trophies to a widely disparate set of New Yorkers. But through a series of comic mixups which are only the beginning of the plot twists, one of them is actually the solid gold original, smuggled in from South America. (Never mind that the Aztecs weren't South Americans, and that weight alone would tell you the original isn't plaster: Westlake is skilled enough to take you past all that.) By the middle of the book, five separate groups of people are frantically combing New York, tracking down the copies and looking for the valuable original, which eventually disappears in a most ingenious sleight-of-hand trick. But despite the hilarious intricacies of plot, and the huge cast of every kind of person, each one a comic gem, the real joy of Dancing Aztecs is the writing. In other books Westlake lets the plot and dialogue carry the comedy: here he uses, brilliantly, a narrative tone at once completely omniscient and completely deadpan (of one minor plot twist he writes, "By one of those coincidences no novelist would ever try to get away with ..." and gets away with it), with frequent insertions of wickedly funny and wry expository lumps. The book has more choice quotable lines than all other Westlake novels put together. "The Hispanic showed offence by becoming taller and narrower." "... a famous economist named Brasspendle, who was driving along having an interior argument with Keynes, in which Keynes just kept making a fool of himself." A chapter-opening lecture on the three kinds of hangovers, which ends by mentioning a character last seen getting drunk: "Those are the three kinds of hangovers, and Pedro had all three of them." And my favorite, a character sketch of a self-appointed tough guy including the beautifully self-canceling line, "He's so mean he can't look in a mirror, for fear he'll annoy himself." Frequent casual references to earlier Westlake novels are fun to look for. One warning: some scenes involving two Black ghetto kids are actually written in jive talk. Some may find this offensive. If you're on Westlake's wavelength, however, it's just silly, like everything else in the book.
Two unconnected short works, neither comic, but both well-written and memorable. "A Travesty," by far the longer, is a nasty little thriller about a murderer who covers his tracks so successfully he helps the detective investigating the case. "Ordo" is not a crime story at all, but a character piece: a career sailor, briefly married in his long-ago youth but now a confirmed bachelor (a marital history shared with Dortmunder), discovers to his shock that a famous movie star is actually his long-forgotten child bride under a new name and a complete makeover -- which is why he never recognized her on screen. He sets out to meet her again, to see if there's any connection between the young couple and the very different people they are now.
Nobody's Perfect (1977)
The fourth Dortmunder book, and the first one in which the title is a generic comment bearing no relation to the plot. An art collector hires Dortmunder to steal the pride of his collection for insurance purposes. Has some good bits, but concludes with a trip to Britain that's sloppy casual slapstick unworthy of the author.
Castle in the Air (1980)
Westlake must have been going through a brief slump, because this book is an attempt at a remake of Dancing Aztecs set in France, way too short and simple, and it doesn't work at all.
The return of Westlake at full power. If Dancing Aztecs is his comic masterpiece, this one is his masterpiece, period. A huge sprawling serious (but with some comic moments) crime caper thriller set in East Africa, it employs the intricate interweaved plotting and inserted lectures of its predecessor to much more somber but equally effective ends. "Kahawa" is Swahili for coffee, and the story concerns a plot to hijack a train containing the entire coffee crop of Idi Amin's Uganda, and make it vanish: one in the eye to Amin, and a nice profit for the conspirators. Unlike many Westlake novels, this one has only the one caper, and the actual heist occurs near the end of the book. The bulk of the story describes the massive and intricate preparations, explores the characters, and deals with related plotlines, notably Amin's negotiations to sell the not-yet-harvested coffee to the international coffee consortium. Westlake unflinchingly describes a number of killings, including those of two major characters, but this is not a nasty book like most of his thrillers: only Amin and his regime are nasty. Westlake separates himself firmly from them, and the book operates as an indictment of them. (The prologue, unconnected to the rest of the plot, is a reference to the real-life event on which the novel is based.)
Why Me? (1983)
The fifth Dortmunder book. After a two-book slump, the series is back at high quality and remains that way for three more novels. But its nature has changed: in the first two books Dortmunder was a competent crime planner who just happens to have runs of bad luck. Now he's a sad sack for whom nothing goes right, and must rely more and more on his exasperating sidekick Andy Kelp. Kelp has become a fanatic for electronic gadgets, while Dortmunder remains clueless. One of the funniest scenes in this novel is Dortmunder's first, uncomprehending, encounter with Kelp's answering machine. The plot begins when Dortmunder inadvertently steals a famous jewel, bone of contention between two countries (like The Hot Rock again). It had been stolen by one country's partisans from the other and hidden in the jewelry store Dortmunder happens to burgle. When the loss is discovered, not only are both sides upset, the police impose a dragnet so fierce that the criminal community volunteers to search for the thief themselves to get the heat off. Dortmunder is in the helpless position of not even being able to give the jewel back (much as he'd like to), because of the trouble he'd be in with everybody once he's identified. His eventual solution of this dilemma, achieved with the help of Kelp's electronics, is very slick, clever, exasperating for his opponents, and highly funny for the reader. The cast features some amusing police characters, especially a slow-on-the-uptake FBI man exaggerated from the depictions in The Spy in the Ointment.
A Likely Story (1984)
A comic novel in diary form, not a crime story. The narrator is a freelance writer who, over the course of a year, attempts to pitch to publishers, compile, and get published an anthology of Christmas literature, going through various editors on the way (one of whom is based on the unsatisfactory editor Westlake had for the first edition of Kahawa). The narrator must also juggle his complex personal life, including his relationships with his ex-wife who wants him back, his jealous live-in girlfriend, and a slightly crazy mistress he acquires along the way. Great incidental comedy: intricate and very well-wrought.
Serious detective fiction, not a thriller. A sequence of short stories, most of them written some years earlier, about a homicide detective in bad health who muses somberly on mortality, including his own. Different from Westlake's usual run, and thoughtfully done.
High Adventure (1985)
Comic shenanigans involving Mayan treasures and dope-growing in Central America. Sounds good, but the result is curiously bland.
Good Behavior (1985)
The sixth Dortmunder novel, and a good one. After a failed burglary, Dortmunder stumbles into a convent of cloistered nuns (in the middle of New York City -- see Brothers Keepers). In exchange for not being turned in to the police, he agrees to rescue their newest acolyte, a young woman kidnapped by her tycoon father, who can't believe she wants to abjure his soulless wealth. She's kept in the locked penthouse of his office tower. After Dortmunder and his gang figure out how to break in, they discover that the tower also contains a private army being trained to overthrow a Third World government. Dortmunder's inadvertent recruitment into this army is the best of a lot of funny scenes.
Transylvania Station (1987)
Written in collaboration with his wife, Abby Westlake. Not a novel, but -- as best I recall -- a short series of sketches as background for a mystery party game. This one is about vampires.
High Jinx (1987)
Written in collaboration with Abby Westlake. Another book in the same format as Transylvania Station. According to some Westlake bibliographies, these books were followed by four solo-authored books in 1987 and 1988, titled The Hood House Heist, Double Crossing, The Maltese Herring, and Way Out West. I have neither seen any of these four books nor been able to find reliable bibliographical references to confirm their existence.
Trust Me On This (1988)
Unusually for a Westlake novel, this is a formula murder mystery. There's a dead body at the beginning, clues salted in the middle, and a solution at the end. But as with most good murder mysteries, that's the least important, or interesting, part of the plot. It's really a comic caper novel, the capers consisting of the efforts of a team of tabloid reporters to get stories for their newspaper. Their holy grail: covering the wedding of a virulently anti-tabloid TV star. Also unusually for a Westlake novel, this book though set in the U.S. almost entirely avoids New York City. (The tabloid is edited from Florida; the wedding is on Martha's Vineyard.) Westlake examines his characters' typical amorality in this book. These reporters have so much fun meeting the challenge of getting their stories that they've convinced themselves of their righteousness in invading their subjects' privacy and manipulating their lives. A gem of a book, one of his best.
Tomorrow's Crimes (1989)
Short story collection of Westlake's science fiction and fantasy stories, most of them also crime fiction. Most were written in his hard-boiled days in the early 60s under pseudonyms. Includes a short novel, "Anarchaos," and a notable semi-fantasy horror story, "Nackles."
Sacred Monster (1989)
The first of Westlake's later attempts to write, under his own name, a serious character study of human pathology. Concerns an egocentric movie star and an id-character who knows his secrets and thus, though distasteful, cannot be ignored. Unlike the more focused pathology of Pity Him Afterwards and The Ax, this one seemed to me to be solipsistic and tedious.
Drowned Hopes (1990)
The seventh Dortmunder novel, and the most serious of the series, with a fair amount of humor but no slapstick, and with more serious matters at stake than usual. Contains the only actual killing in a Dortmunder book. The tone is set by the principal guest crook, Westlake's parody of a Jim Thompson character, whom he names Tom Jimson. Years ago, Tom had buried a large stash of robbery loot in a small upstate town. Now, after spending most of the intervening years in prison, he's out and wants to recover it, but the town is now under a reservoir. If Dortmunder and his gang can't succeed in diving in and fetching the loot, Tom intends to blow up the dam, so Dortmunder's small shred of human sympathy for the people living downstream is his motivation (along with a share of the loot, of course). But unlike most of his previous cases, this one brings so much frustration -- diving to the bottom of a lake is not a simple job -- that he actually gives up, more than once. Tom's threat is what keeps him coming back.
I vaguely recall this as another solipsistic serious character study, a fantasy novel about an angel. So bad I've done my best to forget it.
Don't Ask (1993)
The eighth Dortmunder novel, a successful mixture of light comedy and something entirely new to the Dortmunder series. Once again, there's a sacred object disputed between two countries, and as in The Hot Rock Dortmunder is hired by one country to steal it from the other. This time the two countries are Slavic, and the object (which again is in New York) is a saint's relic, a holy bone. Once again, the object must be stolen several times, lost each time for reasons reminiscent of those in The Hot Rock. What saves this book from being a retread is the freshness of the writing, and the new tone of the second half of the book. Having been tricked and bamboozled by his antagonists, Dortmunder decides, in his last attempt on the bone, to wreak a thorough revenge and embarrassment on them -- and he succeeds. At last, he is no longer purely a sad sack. It's richly satisfying.
Baby, Would I Lie? (1994)
The tabloid reporters from Trust Me On This go to Branson, Missouri, to investigate the death of a country music singer, a plot copied from a minor thread in the earlier book. A weak, disappointing sequel.
The more I consider this book, the more I think it's the one later novel fit to rank with Kahawa: a gripping serious thriller with lots of comic moments. It's also an ideal science fiction novel: it's not about the scientific discovery, but about the discovery's effects on people's lives. In this case, the discovery is a formula for perfect invisibility. The set-up to get our burglar protagonist invisible is a little convoluted, and there's some hand-waving to explain why the formula doesn't have the same effect on anyone else, but once he's invisible the plot is off and rolling. The advantages and disadvantages of invisible life are keenly explored, poignant (his girlfriend has very mixed feelings about it) and highly funny in turns: the scene in which the hero snatches a passerby's cell phone in order to call home is Westlake's funniest set-piece since Dancing Aztecs. And the hero must avoid those who would lock up the invisible man and put him to work for them: they're entirely nasty and not at all incompetent. The showdowns (there's two of them) are as intense as anything Westlake has written, while still being comic.
What's the Worst That Could Happen? (1996)
The ninth Dortmunder novel, a retread of the second half of Don't Ask. After being victimized himself, Dortmunder seeks lengthy, serial revenge on the rich man who did it, accomplishing it many-fold. Rather tiresome, and sloppy in the mold of Nobody's Perfect and Castle in the Air rather than intricate in the usual Westlake manner.
The Ax (1997)
By far Westlake's finest serious character crime/suspense study, entirely hard-boiled. An unemployed executive is so desperate for a job he determines to murder everyone who could be a candidate for his ideal job, culminating with its current occupant. Cold and ruthless, with graphic descriptions of the murders, but unlike previous Westlake books of this kind which hold the protagonist at a distance, this one is a keen psychological observation (in first-person narrative) of how a sane man could bring himself to do such a thing, and the effect it has on him when he does.
A Good Story and Other Stories (1999)
Short story collection. Most of the best ones are reprinted from The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution.
The Hook (2000) (vt Corkscrew)
Another serious character crime/suspense study, in the manner of The Ax, but involving two people. Both are novelists, so there's a lot of meta-discussion about fiction-writing. The protagonist can't sell his books; the other guy is more successful but can't write. So they strike a bargain that's been struck in stories of this kind before: the one publishes the other's book under his own name. But there's also a contract for murder involved, so the emphasis, as in The Ax, is on how the protagonist can bring himself to do it.
Bad News (2001)
This would be a good Dortmunder novel except for the fact that he's so peripheral to it. For most of the book the reader may wonder why Dortmunder is there. Dortmunder himself wonders the same thing. The plot concerns a false-heir scam that he and his gang get inadvertently pulled in to. It's clever, but there's way too much surreptitious digging up and replanting of coffins (to give false DNA evidence) to make the story plausible, and not enough slapstick to make it excusable. The false heir herself is a good creation, though: a tough cookie but a sympathetic character. As in most of the later Dortmunder books, he and his gang are taken as patsies by other characters but prove not to be.
Put a Lid on It (2002)
Something like a serious Dortmunder novel, with a protagonist who could be Dortmunder if his life had gone a little differently. He's a crook hired by a political campaign to steal an incriminating videotape. This is one of those books I can't remember very much about.
Money for Nothing (2003)
A great set-up for a serious caper. The hero has been for years receiving, and cashing, checks from (it seems) an untraceable government agency, with no idea why he's getting them. Then one day a man approaches him and tells him that his checks were a retainer: he's a "sleeper" spy and now he's being activated. Unfortunately the spy plot that follows doesn't quite measure up to this clever opening; the best aspect is the hero's attempts to keep his family out of this. There are occasional touches of "nephew" plotting where he has to figure out what nobody's told him because they assume he already knows. But although the book is written in very tight third person, its most striking characteristic is the way the hero's brutal (and necessary, in his circumstances) ruthlessness comes out of nowhere, making this book more of a throwback to early Westlake than a follow-up to The Ax. The last novel Westlake published under his own name without Dortmunder in it.
The Road to Ruin (2004)
The eleventh Dortmunder novel, and again Dortmunder is a rather peripheral character. Like some earlier books, this is a story of taking revenge on a rich man. But rather than serial revenge, it concerns the competing attempts of several different groups of revengers, of which the Dortmunder gang is just one, to gain access to the rich man's impregnable homestead. Most of the humor consists of the groups inadvertently thwarting each others' plans, though this is not carried out to the pitch of hilarity it could be.
Thieves' Dozen (2004)
A collection of Dortmunder short stories written over many years. Quite amusing for readers who already know the novels, but not for beginners, and best read one at a time. One of the best is the one about stealing a race horse, but Dortmunder is even more peripheral and superfluous to the story than he is in Bad News or The Road to Ruin.
Watch Your Back! (2005)
The twelfth Dortmunder novel. There's three plots going on in this one: the gang's plan to rob the artwork from a penthouse whose owner is permanently out of town, in hiding from court proceedings; the (initially unrelated) life of that owner at Club Med; and the gang's simultaneous attempt to save their favorite bar from being taken over by the mob. The three plots do come together in a fairly satisfactory fashion at the end, and the gang is front and center for most of the story, despite many scenes not involving them at all. But though it's enjoyable and quick to read, the heaviness to the storytelling and an obsession with irrelevant detail that have been growing in the Dortmunder series since Drowned Hopes are much in evidence here and in the subsequent books.
What's So Funny? (2007)
The thirteenth Dortmunder novel, and more than any of the others, the title has nothing to do with the book. This one is best remembered as "the one about the chess set," a valuable artifact that Dortmunder is engaged, much against his will, to steal on assignment. Very like Watch Your Back! in tone, and less successful at bringing together the various plot strands, despite the setting off of a virtual time-bomb near the beginning of the book that explodes at the end.
Get Real (2009)
The fourteenth and last Dortmunder novel and Westlake's final completed book, published posthumously. In this one the gang are persuaded to star in a "reality show" (actually scripted) about crooks, and simultaneously plot to rob the megacorp that's producing the TV show. Once Westlake would have written this as a romp. Here he takes it entirely seriously and manages to be persuasive that such a thing could happen. There are some unexpected hitches, of course, but essentially everything works out the way the gang plans, and they don't even lose the loot as they do in most of the previous books. John Dortmunder, sad sack no more.
Really sad and disconcerting psychological thriller about a man who gets hit on the head and loses his memory. Almost everything he learns, and everything he's known in the past as well, slowly seeps away, leaving only ghosts of itself behind. He's away from home when it happens, and by the time he gets home - having had to take a laboring job for two months to earn the bus fare - he's forgotten why he's going there, having only a note to himself as a clue. Written in the early 1960s and for some reason never published in Westlake's lifetime, it's as hard as his early thrillers, but except for the initial clobbering almost entirely non-violent.
The Getaway Car (2014)
Posthumous collection of miscellaneous nonfiction, including book introductions, interviews, and some personal letters. Explains much about his own work, including which novels are actually novelizations of screenplays, and about how his work reflects his personal character (and vice versa), but the longest and most interesting essay is a history of hardboiled detective fiction, a model of nonacademic literary criticism, melding discussion of theory and practice with well-chosen quotations illustrative of authors' styles.
Forever and a Death (2017)
Serious thriller novel, set in Australia, Singapore, and Hong Kong, written in the late 1990s but not published at that time. Based on an unused treatment for a James Bond movie, the novel removes Bond but leaves in the Bond villain, a businessman so over-the-top in his maliciousness that the cops disbelieve the heroes when they describe his deeds, on the grounds that nobody would do that. The result has some of the mien of Kahawa without the humorous overtones, and the caper is the villain's not the heroes'. What it does have in common is being long but fast-paced, and in having an assortment of miscellaneous heroes, some of whom get killed. The leading hero - if he can be called that; much of his character arc is left out - is one of Westlake's ordinary men who under pressure discover a capacity for necessary ruthlessness, only this one is more plausibly presented than some.
Call Me a Cab (2022)
Non-comic but lighthearted novel, not a crime story. Written ca. 1978, published them in abridged form as a magazine story, but for some reason never appeared in book form. The gimmick here is that a young woman, unable to decide whether to accept her fiance's marriage proposal, is taking an extra five days to think about it by taking a taxi across the country instead of flying from NYC to LA to meet him. Told from the point of view of Tom, the cabbie, who is a relaxed "go along, get along" young man similar to the cabbie Chester in Somebody Owes Me Money, while the more brittle and anxious Katharine resembles Abbie in the same book. Less than fast-paced, it details their adventures along the way and their conversations about marriage, which lead to her self-realization at the very end.
Footnote: Ethan Iverson has a very different idea of which are the best Westlake novels than I do.Return to David Bratman's home page for contact information. Last Updated: March 12, 2022