Many years ago, Donald Westlake made himself a promise that he would never write two novels in a row starring his bad luck burglar, John Dortmunder. Well, now he's broken that promise with WATCH YOUR BACK! which follows on the heels of last year's Dortmunder tale THE ROAD TO RUIN.
And it is great news for mystery fans that he did.
Westlake, along with Ed McBain, Elmore Leonard and Lawrence Block, has rightfully earned a place as one of the greatest American mystery writers of all time. Author of more than 50 books and a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master, Westlake knows crime. His Parker novels, written under the pseudonym Richard Stark, are pure hard-boiled noir. His stand-alone novels, like THE AX and THE HOOK, are masterful literary works of darkness, desperation and suspense.
Then there is John Dortmunder, described in a Westlake short story many years ago as "a guy who just keep slipping the mind of Lady Luck." What delights fans of the series is not the crime, but the remarkable bad luck that follows Dortmunder and his crew of lovable rogues. Besides being funny and lighthearted, the Dortmunder series is the literary equivalent of the Hollywood "road trip" movies. We can't wait to go along with these guys and see how they pull off the perfect heist, which, of course, ends up being far from perfect in the end.
WATCH YOUR BACK! is the 12th novel in the series and one of the best. Early on, we are reintroduced to Dortmunder's men. There is Stan Murch, socially responsible car thief who, since he is driving, will always pour salt into his beer to revive the head and limit his alcohol intake. Then there is Andy Kelp, the upbeat and easygoing lock man, able to breeze past any alarm or safe.
And no Dortmunder story would be complete without Tiny, whose "body appeared to be the size and softness of a Hummer, in broad brown slacks and a green polo shirt, as though he was trying to disguise himself as a golf course." Tiny is needed for "heavy lifting" and in case anybody has to be "rolled off a roof."
This time around the boys are given a sure thing by another series regular, Arnie Albright, the fence. Arnie is a recovering obnoxious person just back from rehab in Club Med, where he met an ever more obnoxious rich guy, Preston Fareweather. Fareweather is in exile at Club Med, hiding from numerous ex-wives seeking his fortune. Needing to avoid U.S. process servers and courts, Fareweather leaves his luxury penthouse apartment on New York's Fifth Avenue empty. And it just happens to be filled with priceless art.
Could it be any simpler for a crew of professional thieves? But, alas, Lady Luck once again has other things on her mind when it comes to the dour and sober Dortmunder.
When Dortmunder calls a meet to "get the string together" at their usual place, the backroom of the O.J. Bar and Grill on Amsterdam Avenue, he receives a bad shock when he discovers that another bunch of dangerous thieves --- mob guys from Tony Soprano's New Jersey --- are trying to "bust out the joint," meaning they plan on stealing everything from the bar and drive it out of business.
Westlake describes one mobster as "a cocky bantamweight featuring so much lush, oiled, wavy black hair lifting over his ears to undulate back around his head that he looked like he was wearing Mercury's winged helmet."
Westlake proves over and over again in his descriptions and dialogue that he is not only a grand master of mystery, but also can write hilarious comedy.
Rollo, the faithful bartender, informs Dortmunder: "there are people around here right now, what they are, they're criminals." Dortmunder reminds Rollo that "we're criminals" as well. "Yeah, John, I know," Rollo says. "But they're organized."
Of course, Dortmunder is nothing if not a creature of habit, and how can you be expected to get the string together if you can't meet in your regular joint? So before Fareweather can be liberated of his treasures, the O.J. must be liberated from the mob.
What ensues is comic mayhem on both fronts.
Westlake captures perfectly here the way New Yorkers talk. If you walk the streets of the city, you can hear these guys. For example, in one brilliant scene, Stan steals a big semi rig, just minutes after the driver climbs down after a long trip. The driver is standing on the sidewalk. "Say, pal," one of the locals said, "you truck is movin." That's exactly what you might hear on Canal Street at least a few times a day.
This is a comic series where you always want to go along with these guys for the ride, even if Stan has to steal a few vehicles along the way. Crime has never been so much fun or funny; even if it doesn't exactly pay the way it should for John Dortmunder and his crew.
WATCH YOUR BACK! is a wonderful book. Read it, relax and enjoy.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 24, 2011