Friday 6 August 2010

Dortmunder Daze: Bank Shot by Donald E. Westlake

Well, Westlake Week looked like it was juddering to a premature halt when I got home from work yesterday evening, as the book I was hoping would turn up so I could write the couple of posts I wanted to finish with, hadn't. Rats. But like Britain in the 1970s, Westlake Week was only ever destined for a three-day week anyway, and luckily, during the course of this truncated week, I reminded myself I was planning to write something on the second Dortmunder novel, Bank Shot, so all is not lost. Plus, you never know: if that missing book does turn up today or tomorrow, Westlake Week might stretch into the weekend. And if you're just joining us, previous posts in this run are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

So, to hard luck thief John Dortmunder, and the second book in Donald Westlake's fourteen-novel series. I wrote about the first book, The Hot Rock (1970), here and here, in a roundabout sort of way, but I didn't really post a proper review of it, mostly because I wasn't sure what I made of it and wanted to wait till I'd read another in the series. I'm glad I did, because although The Hot Rock was enjoyable enough – mostly for its elaborate plot, whereby Dortmunder and his crew have to keep trying to steal the same emerald from increasingly difficult locations and employing increasingly preposterous methods, including the use of a helicopter and a locomotive – Bank Shot (1972) is a whole lot better.

This time out, Dortmunder, Kelp and Murch – all of whom debuted in The Hot Rock – are joined by ex-FBI man Victor, black power activist/metrosexual/safe-cracker Herman and, latterly, Dortmunder's girlfriend May and Murch's Mom (invariably referred to throughout the story as "Murch's Mom") in a ludicrous scheme to rob a bank – as in steal an entire bank, a temporary bank housed in a mobile home. As with The Hot Rock, it's the cracked nature of the heist that provides the initial interest and occasional smiles, but whereas in the former novel I found the plot the most amusing part, here there are added charms.

For one, the characters are starting to come into their own. I liked Dortmunder and his crew in The Hot Rock, but some of the bickering and the misunderstandings that characterize their various relationships got a bit much after a while. It wasn't quite clicking for me. In Bank Shot, though, the existing interplay between Dortmunder, Kelp and Murch isn't so overdone, and the addition of Victor, Herman, and in particular the two ladies, brings an added dimension. They're starting to feel like real people to me, even though Dortmunder himself is slightly relegated in the pecking order.

For another, the closing stages of Bank Shot are where the book develops into something a cut above. There was some sense of this in The Hot Rock: probably the best part of that book is actually after all the heists, when Dortmunder inadvertently hijacks a plane to fly to, of all places, New Jersey. In Bank Shot, Westlake cranks up the post-robbery insanity even higher, as our hapless heroes hide the mobile bank in a trailer park and then right out in the open, disguising it as a diner. This is where the occasional smiles become outright laughs, as a police patrol car acting as a mobile headquarters takes up residence next to the 'diner' and an elaborate sequence of deadpan gags develop around the police captain's desire for coffee and danish.

Maybe with The Hot Rock it was as a consequence of my expectations that I wasn't bowled over by it – prior to that I'd mostly read Westlake's Richard Stark/Parker novels rather than his more comic capers, and I'd heard that the more humorous novels were side-splitting. But now, with Bank Shot, I'm beginning to get it. This is a very funny book, particularly towards the end, and I'm starting to fall for Westlake's cast of down-at-heel thieves and misfits. And with only The Hot Rock, Bank Shot, Jimmy the Kid (er, times two), Nobody's Perfect and Bad News in my collection, we all know what that means: a-collecting we will go...


  1. After you are done collecting the Dortmunder series, you may have some new Richard Price to consider:

  2. Ooh, interesting... Mind you, I still haven't read my copy of The Wanderers. Goddammit, too many books to read!