Thursday, February 27, 2014

What's So Funny?

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of What's So Funny? (Mysterious Press, 2007).

I'm broken-hearted that I will be saying goodbye to John Dortmunder in just a couple of weeks. I had meant to read Donald E. Westlake's Parker novels for years and years, finally got hold of and absorbed about nine of them, and then figured I'd give his other series of caper novels a try since I enjoyed his writing so much. To my considerable surprise, I have enjoyed Dortmunder's crimes and comedy even more than I did Parker's stories. What's So Funny? was the next-to-last in the series of fourteen. Only one more to go! *sob*

There is a sense of formula in the series, and some tropes that come up again and again as it progresses, and one reason that What's So Funny? is so striking is that Westlake really upended the structure and format. In this adventure, Dortmunder has been blackmailed by a former cop, now a PI, into assisting with the theft of a very old family heirloom. In 1917 - bizarrely, the back cover of the UK edition that I read claims it was 1944 - a company of American soldiers heisted a huge, jewel-encrusted chess set from Russia, only to have the sergeant betray his men and keep all the goods for himself. Decades later, the set has found its way into an impregnable high-security vault as the fractured, filthy rich family sues each other over it.

Astonishingly, there's a weird turn of events and, halfway through the book, the wealthy grandfather who has endorsed work to begin on the burglary abruptly calls it off. The blackmail is to stop, Dortmunder, who saw this as an impossible crime not worth trying in the first place, is to go about his own way. Bygones are mostly agreed to be bygones, and everybody goes back to their old ways.

And then, months later, a very curious second chance emerges. Somebody figures out a way to bring that chess set up for inspection. One of those pieces, documentation shows, is a phony. This isn't a case of Westlake writing himself into a corner. He plants seeds all in the beginning of this book that take many, many weeks and months to grow. This isn't among the funniest Dortmunder stories, although an incident with an armored van that was a little larger than planned had me in stitches, but it's among the most clever. The structure of this book is downright amazing. Darn near every word has a payoff elsewhere in the story. Highly recommended.

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