Review

Get Real: A Dortmunder Novel

by Donald E. Westlake

Books and the authors who write them become important parts of
our lives. A new novel featuring a beloved series character by our
favorite author becomes a special event, something anxiously
anticipated. So it has been for the millions of fans of Donald E.
Westlake over the years. Westlake died at the age of 75 last New
Year’s Eve.

You know an author has left his mark when the first thing you
think of after the passing of the man is the passing of his
creations. When I heard that Westlake had died, my first selfish
thought was, “Well, what happened to Parker, the noir heist
man he wrote about as Richard Stark, or to John Dortmunder, the
hardworking burglar who plans so often went so wrong?” And
the sad finality is that they, like Sherlock Holmes, Steve Carella
and the gang from the 87th Precinct, are gone now as well.

But sometimes not without a glorious sendoff, a final gift in
the form of one last book. GET REAL is the 14th and final
Dortmunder novel. It is not a sad occasion but a joyous book that
will make you want to go right back to the start and reread the
entire series starting with THE HOT ROCK in 1970.

Westlake was a prolific author of over 100 books and a
three-time Edgar Award winner. He could write very dark stories ---
noir --- with the best of the hard-boiled masters. But it was while
trying to come up with a Parker novel about a jewel heist that
Westlake discovered John Dortmunder, a small-time burglar with
big-time plans. And while Parker is about as funny as a massive
heart attack --- and has given a few --- Dortmunder naturally finds
himself in funny situations.

We meet Dortmunder again on page one of GET REAL waiting on a
New York street corner for his getaway driver and crew mate, Stan
Murch, who has a lead on a job. Westlake describes Dortmunder:
“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.”

Stan’s mom, who drives a New York City cab, is, like any
mom, worrying about her son. Since we have entered some sort of
super security state now, where we’re being watched all the
time, she declares, “It is time, Stanley, you underwent a
career change.” For Dortmunder, it makes no difference, she
tells him, since he has no marketable skills anyway. Just what he
needs to hear. But he pays closer attention when he finds that she
recently had a fare who is a reality TV show producer looking to do
a new program based on real crooks.

There are not exactly a lot of things falling off the back of
trucks these days for either crooks or professional writers. So the
boys agree to meet with the producer, Doug, of Get Real
Productions, maker of such cultural classics as “The
One-Legged Race.”He takes one look at Dortmunder and sees
dollar signs. Imagine a series about a crew of burglars actually
planning and conducting a heist. It sounds like something out of
Paddy Chayefsky’s classic 1976 movie Network.

But the producer is serious. Westlake writes,
“‘These guys,’ Doug said, ‘have a certain
grungy kind of authenticity about them that will play well on the
small screen.’” Doug is as fake as his medium and now
has wandered into another, possibly dangerous, world. He finds it a
little disconcerting that whenever the burglars need to “take
a meeting” they simply break into his high-security
apartment, sit around and wait for him to get home from work, thus
foiling his amorous plans on one occasion.

The Dortmunder crew is quickly operational after meeting in
their usual joint, the backroom of the OJ Bar & Grill. There is
Andy Kelp, the hustler as upbeat as Dortmunder is dour. He is also
a master lock man. Westlake writes, “Andy Kelp liked locks
and locks like Andy Kelp.” And then there is Tiny, who nobody
but his closest friend dare call by that name. Tiny is described as
looking like “three or four” wrestlers “rolled
into one.” At one point, Tiny has to carry a ladder. Westlake
writes, “If the world wore a propeller beanie, this is what
it would look like.” And there is also Judson Blint, aka The
Kid, a new recruit and novice thief who joined the group a few
adventures back. He takes a much more prominent role here.

What ensues is a comical game of cat and mouse. The burglars
conceive of a plan to rip off the multinational corporation that
owns the reality TV show while using a small-time heist for the
cameras as a diversion. The corporation, which apparently has some
nasty secrets of its own, tries to outsmart the crew. After all,
these people work in TV, so they must be smart, right?

It is here where Westlake’s brilliance shines through.
This is not just a comic caper novel; it also delivers biting
social commentary. We learn, for example, exactly what the entire
phenomenon of reality TV is: a way for multinational corporations
to avoid hiring writers and actors and paying them livable union
wages. CBS and Disney aren’t much different from Walmart in
that regard.

And, like everything on television, reality TV is fake. The
producers have to “shape” the reality to “make it
entertainment.” Doug declares, “In the world of
reality, we do not have surprises.” When a young, naïve
PA loses her job, she asks if she has been fired. “Doug
answered. ‘Nobody’s fired, Marcy. It’s just that
none of those jobs exist anymore.’”

In that one simple sentence, a brilliant mystery writer captured
exactly what happened to millions of American workers in industries
from steel to autos to newspapers in the last 30 years. And it was
not the small-time crooks like Dortmunder and his friends who
committed that robbery. GET REAL is a wonderful coda to a terrific
series by one of America’s greatest mystery writers. And as
Dortmunder and his crew disappear into their city for the last
time, we can be happy that they have a few bucks in their pockets
and will live on in literary history.

But you get the sense here that they were never the real pros.
The greedy corporations and bankers and Wall Street thieves who
stole trillions and got rewarded with billions more from the
taxpayers were the real heisters all along. They were capable of
the schemes that John, Andy, Stan, Tiny and the Kid could never
dream up in a million lifetimes of crime. Donald E. Westlake will
be missed, but his work will live on forever. And we were all lucky
enough to be around, cheering, when he painted his masterpieces
with words. Thank you, Don.

Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 22, 2011

Get Real: A Dortmunder Novel
by Donald E. Westlake

  • Publication Date: July 17, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 0446178608
  • ISBN-13: 9780446178600