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.


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