on July 3, 2009
First of all, RIP Donald E. Westlake. We will miss you and all your alter egos.
Initial QUICK REVIEW:
Now I must admit I just got this book yesterday and have only read the first page. But that first page is such a masterful description of John Dortmunder it deserves a review of its own. I will come back and update this review after I have read the whole book.
As I said, the description of Dortmunder is masterful. I will quote just a bit of it here:
"He looked liked a person loitering with intent. The particular intent, as any cop casting an eye over Dortmunder would immediately understand, was beside the point, and could be fine-tuned at the station."
OK -- back to the book, which, based on the first page alone, I expect to be a wonderful, if sad, farewell to John Dortmunder and the gang at the OJ Bar and Grill.
Now that I have read the book, here is a FULL REVIEW:
In case you don't know, John Dortmunder is a thief. That's his job and he's pretty good at it. He is the leader of an informal little gang. He comes up with clever schemes. He thinks on his feet and extracts himself and his friends from difficult situations.
Unfortunately Lady Luck seems to have it in for John. No matter how clever his scheme, now matter how carefully executed, things go wrong in, shall we say, "interesting" ways. Things have a way of working themselves out in the end but John and his friends never hit the big one despite coming *so* close so many times.
It's no wonder poor John has such such a pessimistic view of his chances. But being the professional that he is, he never gives up. At least not with a little prodding from his friends. OK, maybe lots of prodding. Well, it's a living. And an honest one at that when compared to the dealings of many of the characters he is up against in this and most of his other capers.
John Dortmunder first came to light in the novel _The Hot Rock_ in 1970. That's 39 years of mis-adventures for us to enjoy. If you haven't read any of the Dortmunder books that would be a good place to start. The books do stand alone and need not be read in order, but I think reading a few early ones first may help you develop a feel for the characters.
In those 39 years Dortmunder has not aged nor changed in any way. The world around him did go through 39 years of change -- Dortmunder would never call it progress -- and through it all Dortmunder remained as solid as a rock. His friends have mostly kept up with the times (but also remain ageless). They have cell phones and use Google to do research. But not our John. He had a wall phone in his kitchen in 1970 and it's still his only phone in 2009. Even an answering machine is too much of a modern gadget for him to let it intrude into his world.
Donald Westlake had a way of telling Dortmunder's stories that has been imitated but never equaled. Clever plots, clever dialog and wonderful characters. The premis of this tale is "reality television". A TV producer has the idea of following along with Dortminder's gang and filming them as they plan and execute a "heist", with various difficulties thrown their way to keep it interesting. How can Dortmunder take advantage of that to make a few bucks above the promised salary without getting busted? Well, read the book to find out!
So, goodbye John Dortmunder. I have faith that this is NOT your final caper and that you are still prowling the streets of New York with your crew even if we can't read about it anymore. And here's a wish that Lady Luck smiles on you for once, or, maybe even better, turns a blind eye.
on July 27, 2009
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
Dortmunder and his crew are thieves. They are zany, yet somehow believeable characters. The crew of five each has his specialties. Although veterans of the authors many books, this book stands alone just fine. In this episode, they get hitched up to do a reality show of them committing a crime. What makes this rather short mystery interesting beyond the quirkiness of the characters is the depiction of reality TV. Scripted, but not scripted, real but, not so real. Dortmunder and his crew must devise a way to pull off a heist to satisfy the show's executives, but still make a profit - a larger one than the show's producers expect.
By far, the best thing about Westlake's books is his cast of characters and the other people with whom he populates the book. The conversations overheard of a bar's regulars is worth the price of the book alone. The supporting cast in this one, primarily the reality show's producer and his assistant, is developed quickly and well. They are ironical in a way that brings humorous satire to the book.
This is a thoroughly amusing quick reading mystery - perfect for the beach.
on January 4, 2015
The thing I like most about Westlake's Dortmunder novels is the comedy. Distinct from the humor that lies beneath the plot, there are passages that catch me so off guard that I laugh out loud and my dog comes trotting into the room to see what's up. The story-line is up to Westlake's usual clever and engaging complexity and the characters of Dortmunder's gang have grown. They were never simply cardboard cut-outs, but they've developed more complexity and more dimension than in earlier stories. All in all, this book was harder to put down than a book on anti-gravity.
on August 3, 2015
If I reviewed a Dortmunder novel by Westlake a week ago I'd have stated my preference for Parker by Stark. But last week I read GET REAL (and What's So Funny) and Dortmunder's neck-and-neck with him now. I'd read the first 16 Parker titles before I was 25; rereading them half a lifetime later dimmed their luster a bit. I still treasure them but they weren't as good as the first time around. In the late 90s I discovered Dortmunder and read the first ten books. Except for Good Behavior and Drowned Hopes, I found the yarns tough sledding because of aggravatingly absurd plot complications. So I was impressed when GET REAL kept me up till the middle of the night finishing it. Immediately I started another Dortmunder novel, that leaves only one more to go, and six or seven short stories. I don't know why the change of heart about Dortmunder & co. but I'm enjoying the series more than ever and intend to read every last word.
GET REAL is shorter than most Dortmunders and its compact length makes for a quick suspenseful read. When a Dortmunder caper runs much longer than 300 pages the books can drag some. This series is plot driven, there's been minimal character development over the course of 39 years, 14 novels, ten short stories (if you count Rumsey) and one short-short. Fictional character growth doesn't count for much in the realm of Dortmunder, that's not to say GET REAL has flat uninteresting characters, the usual suspects are well-drawn and the ancillary players are original and compelling enough to keep the plot hurtling forward.
In GET REAL the reader learns a probable truth or two about reality TV programming. I was caught off guard by an act of violence in the book, even though it was in self defense. Violence showing its brutal face is common in Parker's world (a post-apocalyptic hellhole?) but it came as a shock in a Dortmunder book. This is an unimportant spoiler but you may want to skip down to the next paragraph if you think it will ruin anything for you. A character gets knocked out with a cast iron skillet in GET REAL, not once but three times, and appears 12 hours later wearing a turban-like bandage. In reality if a person is hit hard enough in the head with a skillet to lose consciousness that person will need a body bag instead of a bandage because he'll have a crushed skull, not a 3 Stooges headache.
I'm not docking GET REAL a star because of that, as entertaining as the Dortmunder bunch is, the books are too lightweight to qualify as five star material, especially if other more important, challenging and significant fiction is there for me to read. The books are fine but they are a dying breed: the farce, like a Jeeves or Blandings Castle story by Wodehouse. A farce's sheer absurdity is part of its humor, in theory anyway. I don't find Dortmunder's antics or those of his crew hilarious like many do. To me the books are more amusing than funny. If I want to howl out loud with laughter and dab tears from my eyes, I'll read a Parker book. Those really are funny, and readers can be sure that's not unintentional.
on June 30, 2011
The doleful John Dortmunder and his band of merry men make their last comic foray into the world of crime in this delightful story, the last of Donald Westlake's more than 100 novels before he passed away in 2008 at the age of 75.
Writing under 17 pseudonyms as well as his own name, Donald Westlake began his writing career in his teens in the 1940s. His first published story appeared in 1954 when he was 21. He was writing full-time by 1959. (Let's hear it for persistence!) Westlake's understated writing style and the devilish complexity of the capers he devised for Dortmunder and company are always good for hours of smiles, occasional out-loud laughter, and one or two hysterical laughing fits in every book.
In Get Real, Dortmunder's gang is approached by a reality-television producer-the company is called Get Real-and asked to carry out a robbery on film, with their faces obscured. This loopy proposition isn't even the most over-the-top twist in the story -- but I won't spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that the gang's all here: master getaway driver Stan Murch and his mother, conveniently called Murch's mom, who drives a taxi; Andy Kelp, who can break into anything, usually without leaving a trace; Tiny Bulcher, who isn't, and whose sheer bulk makes it possible for the gang to avoid carrying weapons; and The Kid, Judson Blint, a latecomer to the gang who understands such modern annoyances as cell phones, computers, and answering machines. When this motley crew accepts the TV producer's generous offer to make them the subjects of a new show, additional characters come onto the scene and confusion breaks out. In the end, of course, nothing turns out as planned.
If you want to know more, read Get Real. You'll find that any of Donald Westlake's many Dortmunder novels will be a delight. This is crime without violence or victims -- a rare opportunity to laugh without a trace of guilt.
on July 7, 2015
Classic Westlake with all the vintage aphorisms that typify his writing. He even includes a section from "Murders in the Rue Morgue" by Edgar Allan Poe that will challenge even the brightest intellect. But most of the book reads at about the 4th grade level; the same level as what Hemmingway wrote -- one of the reasons he (Hemmingway) was so successful.
There's no denying it, for humor, twists and turns like no other, this is it. In the immortal words of Yossi Dina of Beverly Hills Pawn, "Don't think about it, just buy it."
GET REAL is the final book in Donald E. Westlake's Dortmunder series. Mr. Westlake ticked our funny bones for many years and his legions of fans will miss the engaging writer who had no equal.
The gang agree to stage a heist for reality television and the fun begins when they develop plans of their own to assist their income. John, Stan, Tiny, Kelp and the Kid are at first bewildered by the TV people who supervise their words and actions while developing on the spot story lines, there isn't anything real about it. As the show progresses they fall under the spell of the lights and want to see themselves on TV.
An excellent read for a treasure of laughs, even if you've never seen a reality TV program like me.
Nash Black, author of Indie finalists WRITING AS A SMALL BUSINESS and HAINTS.
on November 28, 2015
If words were the keys on a piano, Donald Westlake would be a virtuoso performer. What am I saying? He is (or rather was) a virtuoso. He is a master story-teller, an innovative plot-mapper and a genuinely funny humorist. His creations, Dortmunder and his gang, live and breathe. You just can't get much better than that.
on April 22, 2015
This is the last of Westlake's "Dortmunder" capers, and I think one of the better ones. It also unfortunately is this prolific author's last book, published the year after his death. I liked all the Dortmunder novels, but some of his older novels in the series are a bit dated. This last novel has all the attributes one finds in the earlier books in the series (comic and interesting characters; quirky situations; moral twists) and in addition some trenchant observations about the current mania for "reality television."