The rewards of following two masters of the form.
Sep 1, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 47 • By STEVEN J. LENZNER
"There's no such thing as a deal," Parker told him. "There never was, anywhere. A deal is what people say is gonna happen. It isn't always what happens."
"You mean we didn't shake hands on it. We didn't do a paper on it."
"No, I mean so far it didn't happen. If it happens, fine. If it doesn't, I'll make a deal with somebody else, and it'll be the same story. It happens, or it doesn't happen."
"Jesus, Parker," Meany said, shaking his head. "I never thought I'd say this, but you're easier to put up with when you have a gun in your hand."
"A gun is just something that helps make things happen."
Admirable as the Parker novels may be, it is the Dortmunder novels that best display Westlake's genius. Whereas the former have spawned many imitators, the latter are simply inimitable. Moreover, the Dortmunder novels are the only extended series I know in which the later stories are at least as good as the early ones. The two finest--Don't Ask (1993) and What's the Worst that Could Happen? (1996)--were published more than 20 years after the series' debut.
Which brings us to Westlake's latest Dortmunder tale of woe narrowly and amusingly averted--What's So Funny?--which in no way disappoints. The problem confronting Dortmunder is an ex-cop looking to establish himself as a private detective, whose business card reads simply "Johnny Eppick, For Hire" ("I didn't want the clients to feel restricted"). Eppick possesses compromising photos of Dortmunder's after-hours computer acquisitions, which at a 100 percent discount, initially seem a real steal to Dortmunder. Eppick seeks to enlist Dortmunder's art of retrieval on behalf of his very first client, Mr. Hemlow, a wealthy and elderly invalid with a lifelong grievance. It is this grievance for which Dortmunder's professional skills are a means of redress, and Eppick prepares Dortmunder's recruitment by means that are presumably at odds with progressive corporate practice everywhere but Hollywood or Moscow:
"Listen, John," Eppick said, then paused to pretend he was polite, saying, "You don't mind if I call you John, do you?"
"That's good, John, the point is, if I wanted to turn some evidence on you to some former co-workers of mine "
The item to be retrieved is a 700-pound chess set with gold pieces adorned by precious gems--an undelivered gift to Czar Nicholas II--that fell into the hands of an American platoon in the aftermath of World War I, only to be appropriated by the sergeant entrusted with its conversion into cash. The sergeant had prudently disappeared, leaving Mr. Hemlow's father with nothing to hand down but a legacy of resentment, which the son skillfully nursed. Yet after more than eight decades off the radar, the chess set providentially turns up, offering Mr. Hemlow the prospect of one final satisfaction, and Dortmunder one less reason to resist the siren song of despair.
For the chess set is now at the center of a bitter lawsuit among the sergeant's 17 children and grandchildren, and Mr. Hemlow's granddaughter, Fiona, is a (very) junior associate at the firm entrusted with its safekeeping. Therein lies the rub: It is being held in a sub-basement vault "in a building owned by a bank that used to be called Capitalists and Immigrants, two groups of people with really no sense of humor." When Dortmunder--a man who, in Good Behavior, declared that "I don't like to believe there's a place I can't get in and back out again"--learns of its current housing, he immediately knows it would be impossible to get in and back out again.
He briefly considers flight: "He thought his best move now was to go straight over to Grand Central, take the first train out to Chicago. That's supposed to be an okay place, not that different from a city." But Eppik warns him that as technology ("the Internet and all") has advanced, so has interdepartmental police cooperation, and to such an extent that it's impossible to disappear. Dortmunder believes him. And that's just the beginning.