First, the good news: John Dortmunder and his crew are back!
And here's the better news: WHAT'S SO FUNNY? is one of the crown
jewels in the caper series started by Donald E. Westlake 37 years
Westlake is one of America's greatest mystery writers. Nobody is
better at writing hard-boiled, noir fiction. Under his own name he
has penned terrifyingly dark novels, such as THE AX and THE HOOK.
And under the pseudonym Richard Stark, Westlake writes the very
dark series about the ruthless, amoral criminal known only as
But Westlake can also make crime funny, as he has done in the
series featuring John Dortmunder. In WHAT'S SO FUNNY? a shady
former New York City cop describes Dortmunder this way: "If he were
any more crooked, you could open wine bottles with him."
Dortmunder is also a hard-working, decent enough if somewhat gloomy
fellow not known for his physical prowess or bravery. After being
forced to meet with the ex-cop who's blackmailing him, Dortmunder
is left sitting in the bar "a sopping dishrag where there once had
been a man."
Longtime fans of the series would be disappointed if Dortmunder's
partners in crime --- "the gang of five" --- did not help him out.
And they are all here in their usual amusing ways. There is Andy
Kelp, Dortmunder's righthand man and fellow professional burglar.
When he needs a ride, Andy only steals the cars of doctors,
figuring they see so much pain in life that they will treat
themselves well in their choice of car.
And again we encounter Stan Murch, the wheelman extraordinaire who
can tell you exactly why it's better to head east into Queens first
if you want to leave New York City and go upstate. This book also
includes the "new guy" and apprentice crook, Judson Bliet, who we
first met in the last installment of the series, WATCH YOUR
No Dortmunder adventure would be complete without having Tiny
around for the heavy lifting and persuasion work. Westlake
describes Tiny: "Yes, there he stood, midblock, looking from a
distance like a grand piano about to be hoisted through an
In this book, Dortmunder and the boys are forced to do a job for a
dying millionaire who wants back the chess set stolen from his
grandfather. But this is no ordinary chess set. It was designed as
a birthday gift for the Czar of Russia who, unfortunately for him,
was all out of birthday celebrations. The chess pieces are solid
gold, studded with pearls and rubies. The entire set weighs 680
It seems that the set got lost in the mail during the Russian
Revolution and ended up in the possession of 10 greedy American
soldiers, nine of whom were cheated out of their share of the
fortune after they returned to America. Now the set resides
securely in the basement vault of a New York City bank. For
Dortmunder, the mission is simple and quite impossible: steal the
chess set or be sent back to prison by the ex-cop.
As with all books in this series, New York City is a main
character. These nonviolent criminals sound like the streets of the
city. They are the type of happy-go-lucky fellows you might meet in
a dingy Eighth Avenue bar late at night but know well enough never
to inquire what they do for a living.
And the true joy of these stories is to ride shotgun with these
guys as Westlake puts them in impossible situations, such as when
poor Dortmunder finds himself trapped in a windowless bathroom with
a leaky shower. How do you get out of there? Westlake puts us in
Dortmunder's soggy shoes
"He was still stuck in here with a guy outside to whom he would be
unable to offer any conceivable explanation as to why this person
he'd never seen before was suddenly walking out of his bathroom.
'It must be a space-warp kinda thing, I was just coming out of a
bar in Cleveland.' No."
WHAT'S SO FUNNY? offers plot twists upon plot twists and everybody
is playing an angle. In a Dortmunder story nothing works out quite
the way you think it will. And while Dortmunder and his "skuzzy
band of crooks" --- in the words of the ex-cop --- might indeed be
crooks, Westlake is not above pointing out the historical fact that
many of the richest members of society got their money the
old-fashioned way: their ancestors stole it.
The rich lady whose grandfather used a five-finger discount to
obtain the doomed Czar's property only eats in the trendiest New
York restaurants. We accompany her to one such eatery "where the
vulture wings, when a shipment had come in, were the specialite
de la maison." So here Westlake treats us to a hilarious scene
where the vultures are dining on the vultures.
Maybe in the end, the point is that crime does pay in America, but
not as much as John Dortmunder would like. But for Dortmunder and
his crew, they manage to get by and not get caught. And that is
great news for us readers. There will always be something falling
off the back of the truck for these guys. And there will always be
more capers to plan and try to execute.
Nobody writes comic capers as brilliantly as Donald E. Westlake.
WHAT'S SO FUNNY? is one of the best entries in this delightful
series and among the best books released in 2007 so far. If you
have never read a Dortmunder book, treat yourself. You will
immediately seek out the rest of the series while anxiously
awaiting Dortmunder's next adventure.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 24, 2011