Before Janet Evanovich brought us Stephanie Plum, Don Westlake was the Grand Master of Criminal Laughs with his hilarious novels about professional thief John Dortmunder. "Get Real" is the 14th Dortmunder novel and proves again that Westlake is the King of Clever.
Here's the premise: Reality TV producer Doug Fairkeep of Get Real Productions wants to film Dortmunder and his crew planning and committing a major crime. Fairkeep doesn't care so much what this professional burglary crew does; he just wants them to commit a crime -- preferably a felony -- and he wants to broadcast it on national television as his latest reality show. (Working title: "The Gang's All Here." Canyoudigit?)
Now waitaminute. Let's, um, get real.
When Fairkeep makes his pitch, Dortmunder has the same reaction as I did -- this is mad crazy absurd! After all, these people are professional thieves -- they make their living breaking the law, and the one thing they don't want is reality (and a television audience as witnesses). Does Westlake really expect me to believe Dortmunder and his crew would allow a crew to film them committing a felony?!?!
Forgive me if I threw in a few extra question marks and exclamation points for emphasis because I momentarily forgot that Westlake is the King of Clever, and Donald Westlake will not leave you hanging, my friends. Part of the great fun of these novels is watching Dortmunder (and Westlake) outsmart the people who think they're smarter than he is -- including readers like me. So, trust me, Dortmunder comes up with exactly the play to make this outrageous concept believable. (Working title: "Burglars Burgling.")
The absurdity of reality television is a perfect backdrop for Westlake's sharp wit and commentary. As Fairkeep explains to the show's writer (who isn't a writer because reality shows can't have writers -- they cost too much), "This isn't writing. It's suggestions. We shape reality into entertainment."
At a time when a depressing number of people buy into the so-called "reality" of dubious competitions (Does anyone really believe Simon didn't know Susan Boyle had a killer voice before she walked out on stage?), self-destructing freak-show families and wannabe actresses and actors who cuddle up on national television while pretending they're "only here to find true love," the concept of following a gang of criminals makes perfect sense, and will likely be ripped off, produced and aired during an upcoming sweeps week. (Working title: "The Roscoe Gang.")
After all, reality is in the eye of the beholder, and Dortmunder can sniff out an ill-gotten haul as well as anyone. It turns out that -- much like NBC is owned by GE -- Get Real is owned by other companies, which are owned by still more companies, and -- like reality television itself -- not all of those companies are what they pretend to be. So when Dortmunder and his crew discover that something valuable is hidden in Get Real's corporate building, they become much more agreeable to signing on as American's Next Top TV stars. (Working title: "The Heist.")
The difficulty in reviewing a Dortmunder novel is in describing the book without giving away the surprises, and surprises are Westlake's stock in trade. So I won't, except to hint that the story includes large amounts of illicit cash; breaking, entering and other felonious acts; desperate television executives; even more desperate television producers (if the title of the series keeps changing, it's because they don't know what they want); corporate intrigue; international crime; and dangerous Asian assassins. In short, Westlake delivers the goods for which he is justifiably famous -- nothing is what it seems, everything that can go wrong does, and the complexity of the heist increases until there is no possible way for Dortmunder to pull off the caper, which is when Westlake surprises us yet again with moves so smart and funny they leave us gasping. (Working title: "The Crime Show.")
Dortmunder's usual crew are all here, including getaway driver Stan Murch (and his mother, Mom), safe-cracker Andy Kelp, golden-tongued ladies' man Judson Blint (a.k.a. the Kid) and their man-mountain cohort, Tiny (a.k.a. Tiny). But the star, as always, is John Dortmunder, the everyman crook we love to love.
Dortmunder is so appealing, I think, because he is not a criminal genius and not even close to what anyone would describe as dashing and debonair. In Dortmunder's working-class world, he is simply an ordinary guy trying to make a living, and Westlake is wise enough to make sure Dortmunder's victims are way worse than his hero-thief. Guns? Fuggedaboutit. A frying pan is a dangerous weapon, and way more funny. And if Dortmunder is known for his gloomy disposition, it's because his plans never quite work out the way they should -- to great comic effect.
Proof of Dortmunder's appeal can be found in Hollywood, which has, to date, filmed five Dortmunder novels -- "What's the Worst That Could Happen?," "Jimmy the Kid," "Why Me?," "Bank Shot" and "The Hot Rock." The character himself (renamed several times, perhaps due to the vagaries of copyright law and studio politics) has been portrayed by actors as diverse as Martin Lawrence, Paul Le Mat, Christopher Lambert, George C. Scott and Robert Redford, the last of whom (in "The Hot Rock") carried himself throughout the production with his body clenched as if waiting for the sky to fall, which, in this writer's opinion, captured the character perfectly, and was the best of the Dortmunders.
"Get Real" is the last John Dortmunder novel. Donald E. Westlake died on New Year's Eve 2008 while vacationing in Mexico. Our loss is enormous.
Good night, John.
Good night, Don.
Your last heist is a winner.
Crais is the author of, most recently, "Chasing Darkness."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun