Aug 23 2009 12:30pm

Goodbye, Dortmunder: Donald Westlake's Get Real

Get Real is the fifteenth and last Dortmunder book. It came out in July, I’ve just read it, and while it’s not the best in the series, it’s clever and funny and definitely not a weak book.

If you know who Dortmunder is, this is probably enough to get your ordering fingers clicking.

If you don’t know, well, he’s a small time New York crook who features in a series of comic crime novels written by Donald Westlake, beginning with The Hot Rock (1970) and culminating in Get Real (2009). There won't be any more because Mr. Westlake died last New Year’s Eve. The Dortmunder books aren’t science fiction, though the experience of re-reading them all together is a very science fictional one. The characters haven’t aged at all between 1970 and now, while technology has moved on all around them. Whether it’s answering machines or the internet, Andy Kelp knows all about it and Dortmunder doesn’t want to. The books are generally set in and around New York, and when they’re not part of the gag is the way Dortmunder and his friends stand out and wish they were at home. All of the books have some gimmick. All of them are funny. You really get to know the characters. A lot of the joy of reading them is seeing the characters behaving characteristically with a twist. My very favourite is What’s the Worst that Could Happen, in which a thoroughly unpleasant rich guy steals Dortmunder’s ring and they spend the whole book trying to steal it back. That’s a book about criminals even the most law abiding can enjoy—and really, they’re very gentle books. They’re very light too—if I could make a sponge this light it would float away.

In Get Real the gimmick is that a producer meets Murch’s mom in her taxi and she mentions what her son does, and he wants to make a reality show about them pulling off a heist. They go along with it because they see the chance to really make a heist. The plot runs with that, and plays with it, and winds it up and turns it into a pretzel. I laughed out loud a couple of times and smiled almost all the time I was reading it. Unfortunately it isn’t a conclusion to the series; there’s nothing final or climactic, it’s just another episode. But then, it would be. Kelp finds a lock he can’t open. Stan drinks a beer without salt and explains in detail how traffic made him late. The reality people build a model of the OJ and turn into the regulars while standing in it. Dortmunder smiles twice in one day.

And I suppose that’s a good enough place to end. There couldn’t really be a conclusion to these books -- what could it possibly be? The gang will just keep on forever looking for one more job to keep them going. The regulars in OJs will keep on having their senseless conversations. Dortmunder hasn’t aged and now he will never die, because the one person who could have killed him chose to spare him. Dortmunder is immortal now, and in this last adventure, he smiles twice in one day.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Rob T.
1. Rob T.
I discovered the Dortmunder books about eight years ago, raced through all the ones that had been printed up to that time, then read the rest of the books as they were published. Count me among the many readers unhappy that there won't be any more. (Other funny Westlake novels I like a lot are God Save the Mark, Dancing Aztecs (which really should have been called "Do the Hustle"), A Likely Story, Trust Me on This and Baby, Would I Lie?.)

One Dortmunder title of moderate sf-nal interest is Drowned Hopes, in which the gang has to recover robbery loot buried years ago in an area now at the bottom of an artificial lake, preferably without blowing up the dam (which the original robber wants to do). Some of the more creative approaches to the problem read a little like hard sf, and as a bonus there's some old-school computer hacking ("old school" = 1990, in this instance).

I've been enjoying your retro-reviews, and if you intend to cover more funny crime fiction then I'd love to see your take on Carl Hiaasen, or maybe Sharyn McCrumb's "Jay Omega" books (if you're trying to maintain a connection to sf here).
Rob T.
2. EmmetAOBrien
I really liked Get Real, but I disagree with you on it not being a conclusion at some levels - at the only level that series can have a conclusion, you're absolutely right that there will always be one more job. But Dortmunder smiling twice in one day, and the line to the effect that he feels a jinx that's been hanging over him for a long long time has finally lifted, reads to me as a phase change; that wherever they go from there has the potential to be qualitatively different, and that Westlake knew that and intended it as a goodbye.
Rob T.
3. BearMountainBooks
My favorite Westlake is actually one of his stand alones: Put a Lid on It. What an absolutely delightful read. If you haven't read it yet, you've a treat ahead!
Mitch Wagner
4. MitchWagner
It's a shame that sf and fantasy has produced only one comic novel in the stature of Westlake's work, and that's Frederik Pohl's "Narabedla, Ltd."
Adam Lipkin
5. yendi
I adore Westlake's work. Dancing Aztecs and God Save the Mark are still my favorites, but I'm a huge fan of the Dortmunder novels, too. I hadn't realized the last one (*sob*) had come out. Time to hit the library.

Mitch, I'm not sure I'd agree with you. Mind you, no one's works could be compared to Westlake's (any more than any distinctive voice), but there are plenty of folks -- from Harry Harrison to John Scalzi -- who've written comic novels that are as re-readable and fun.

(And that's not even counting Pratchett and Adams, whose comic style tends to start more over-the-top than Westlake's.)
Rob T.
6. James Davis Nicoll
There won't be any more Dortmunder books but there will be at least one more previously unpublished Westlake novel released: Memory (April 2010) from Hard Case.
Liza .
7. aedifica
Stan drank a beer without salt?? What's the world coming to?

I haven't read all the Dortmunder books--I gather them as I happen across them in used bookstores and then re-read them from time to time. Of the ones I've read so far, I think my favorite is Why Me? because of the phones, though Bank Shot is a lot of fun too. I just found out recently that some of the books have been turned into movies, and I'm cautiously looking forward to seeing one.

I'm not sure when or whether I would have discovered Westlake's books if not for my uncle, who gave me The Spy in the Ointment and The Hot Rock one summer when we visited him in my high school years.
Mitch Wagner
8. MitchWagner
Just downloaded "Get Real" unabridged audiobook, looking forward to listening to it. ("Looking"? "Listening"?)
Kate Nepveu
9. katenepveu
aedifica @ #7, I suspect Dortmunder is unfilmable (I found _The Hot Rock_ weird--Robert Redford?!--and cringe every time I see mention of the _What's the Worst_ adaptation), but I hope you find otherwise.

I had meant to read this one really slowly, a chapter at a time before bed to draw it out . . . and then I found myself staying up too late and reading all the rest in one go.
Rob T.
10. chrissie
Sadly, Westlake's death also means no more Parker novels, written under one of Westlake's pseudonyms, Richard Stark. Westlake said in interviews that The Hot Rock was supposed to be a Parker novel, but he realized that Parker would never put up with such misadventure and thus Dortmunder was born. The Parker novels are decidely not humorous but rather hard and mean. Luckily, the University of Chicago is reprinting the Parker novels at the rate of three a year, and this year brings several that have been out of print for as long as I can remember.
Liza .
11. aedifica
Kate @ 9, I'm afraid I'll feel the same way, but I'm determined to try it anyway. But maybe I'll start with one that's not one of my favorites among the books, in case it ruins the book for me.

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