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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.

Jennifer Estep

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.

This book can be purchased in mass market or ebook format.


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Guest Reviewer


  1. Charlene Teglia
    Feb 18, 2008 @ 08:23:14

    For some reason, I’ve never read Westlake, although I love comic crime capers (Wodehouse, Lawrence Block). I will go searching for some Westlake!

  2. Jennifer Estep
    Feb 18, 2008 @ 08:57:17

    Charlene — I’ve only read a couple of Block’s books, mostly the Keller series about the hit man. If you like Block, I’d definitely check out Westlake. He’s too funny to miss! :-)

  3. Darlynne
    Feb 18, 2008 @ 12:19:33

    Jennifer, I’ve read Westlake for years, one of the benefits of working in a mystery bookstore. Many people assume, as they do with Hammett and Chandler, that, yeah, everyone says they’re good, but why bother to read them? Thanks for showing why they should.

  4. Sarah
    Feb 18, 2008 @ 12:39:31

    I’m so glad to see someone getting the word out about Westlake. He’s one of my favourite authors, and his sense of comedic timing is amazing. I just finished “God Bless the Mark,” which, while dated, is utterly hysterical.

    (Darlynne, I work for a mystery bookstore too… it’s a special kind of crazy, isn’t it?)

  5. Jennifer Estep
    Feb 18, 2008 @ 13:37:23

    Darlynne and Sarah — Yeah! Other Westlake fans. ;-)

    Actually, that detective fiction class I took in college was one of my favorites. It introduced me to several writers, including Westlake, and we got to read all the old classics like “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep.”

    I haven’t read “God Bless the Mark,” but “The Spy in the Ointment” (another non-Dortmunder book) was pretty funny.

  6. Janine
    Feb 18, 2008 @ 15:50:50

    This sounds really good. Jennifer, do you recommend starting the Dortmunder series with What’s So Funny, then?

  7. Jennifer Estep
    Feb 18, 2008 @ 16:10:30

    Janine — I always like to read a series in order, but some of the older titles like “The Hot Rock” and “Bank Shot” (the first two books) may be hard to find now.

    You could definitely start with “What’s So Funny?”. All the major characters are in that one, and you should be able to slip into the series pretty easily. The books stand-alone fairly well, although there are some in-jokes you might not get. I’d also recommend “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?” It’s a classic heist book, and I think it’s the best one in the whole series (so far). ;-)

  8. Susan/DC
    Feb 18, 2008 @ 18:00:09

    I read Westlake’s The Ax right after new management had taken over my employer and fired about one-quarter of the company, including me. The book is about a man who loses his job and then murders everyone with his specialized skill set to ensure that he gets the next available opening. Blacker than black humor, but at the time it definitely spoke to me. I considered sending the book anonymously to my former employer’s new CEO but then realized 1) it wasn’t worth the possible jail time and 2) he wouldn’t get it anyway.

  9. Janine
    Feb 18, 2008 @ 18:18:53

    Thanks, Jennifer. I tend to be anal about reading series in order but maybe I will make an exception in this case.

    Susan, that’s too funny!

  10. Edie Ramer
    Feb 18, 2008 @ 20:54:20

    For years I read all of Donald Westlake’s books, and then stopped. I can’t remember why. You reminded me how much I loved his books and what a good writer he is. I’m definitely picking up this one.

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