GUEST REVIEW: What’s So Funny by Donald E Westlake
Today’s guest review comes from author Jennifer Estep. Estep pens funny novelizations inspired by the comic book ouvre featuring Bigtime and the super heroes/heroines (Karma Girl and Fiera, for example) and ubervillians that inhabit the city.
Donald E. Westlake is the funniest writer you’re not reading.
Never heard of him? I probably wouldn’t have either, if I hadn’t taken a course on detective fiction in college. Every few weeks, we’d get a reading list from the professor and have to pick a book to read and discuss. I was able to get most of the books with no problem, until we got to one of the final lists.
My library only had one book on the list – “Bank Shot” by Donald E. Westlake – a comic crime caper about some guys trying to steal a bank. Sounded interesting enough, so I checked it out. Read it. And fell in love with John Dortmunder.
John Dortmunder is not your typical hero. He’s not tall or handsome or particularly brave. He and Noble live in two different time zones. Dortmunder doesn’t run from trouble – he sprints as fast as he can. Picture a basset hound. Droopy face, sad eyes, hangdog expression, general weariness with life. That’s John Dortmunder.
Here’s how one character describes Dortmunder in the latest book in the long-running series, 2007’s “What’s So Funny?”:
“He’s a thief when he wakes up in the morning, and he’s a thief when he goes to sleep at night. An honest thought has never crossed his brain. If he were any more crooked, you could open wine bottles with him … I guarantee him to be the least trustworthy, most criminal scalawag you’ll ever meet.”
“Well,” Dortmunder said, “that’s maybe a little overboard.”
“What’s So Funny?” features a typical Dortmunder caper – one that finds him. Retired cop Johnny Eppick has determined that Dortmunder is the finest and least violent thief not currently in jail, so Eppick blackmails him to retrieve a valuable chess set for Eppick’s client.
There’s never just one problem in a Dortmunder book – there’s about thirteen. First of all, the chess set is locked in an impregnable bank vault. This place makes Fort Knox look like an easy mark. A family is feuding over the chess set. There are lots of lawyers and security people involved. The guy Eppick is working for is old and could keel over at any time. And on, and on, and on.
Dortmunder is a thinker, the guy who can figure out how to get things, but this time, even he’s stumped. While he’s thinking about how to get the chess set, Dortmunder struggles through one situation after another, like getting up for morning appointments with Eppick and paying for taxi fare. The horror! Oh, the horror!
One of the best things about “What’s So Funny?” and the Dortmunder series in general are the guys who make up Dortmunder’s crew. What a motley bunch they are. There’s Andy Kelp, who prefers to steal cars with doctor plates because he figures doctors see enough death to want to be as comfortable as possible in life. Also in the mix is Stan Murch, a driver who’s always talking about routes and traffic and likes to put salt in his beer. Then, we have Tiny Bulcher, who’s built like a semi and has a way or persuading people to go along – or else.
Westlake writes some of the best descriptions around, including this one of Tiny in “What’s So Funny?”:
If people come in sizes, this guy was jumbo. Maybe even colossal. What he looked mostly like was the part of the rocket that gets jettisoned over the Indian Ocean, plus a black homburg. In addition to the homburg, he wore many yards of black wool topcoat over a black turtleneck sweater that made it seem as though his massive head were rising out of a hillside.
Hijinks, backfires, rip-offs, and more occur during the course of the book. Nothing ever goes in a straight line in a Westlake book, but somehow, all the crooked plot threads and kooky characters intersect and weave into a wonderful tapestry of clever laughs.
The Dortmunder series started back in the 1970s with “The Hot Rock.” (Some of you may have seen the movie with Robert Redford. Let me stress that Redford is NOT John Dortmunder. Dortmunder wouldn’t be caught dead with someone like Robert Redford, someone so shiny and suave and smooth. Dortmunder shudders at the mere thought of people like that.)
Like all series, the Dortmunder books have their high points (“What’s the Worst That Could Happen?”) and low points (“Jimmy the Kid”). But I can always count on them to make me laugh – usually several times.
Funny, witty, and brilliant. What more could you ask for in a series? It would be a crime to miss out on the comic capers of Donald E. Westlake.
P.S. If you’d rather read dark than funny crime, check out Westlake’s alter ego, Richard Stark. His Parker novels feature an anti-hero thief who’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done. The series began in the 1960s, and some of the books are a little dated. I’d start with 1997’s appropriately titled “Comeback” for the most modern version of Parker.
P.P.S. Again, some of you may have seen the movie “Payback” with Mel Gibson, which is based on a Parker novel. Once again, let me stress that Parker is NOT Mel Gibson. Parker would plug Mel in the forehead and walk away without a second glance.
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