So Long, Dortmunder


This week, Donald E. Westlake’s last novel, Get Real, was published. I’m only a few chapters in, and it’s fine and funny and entertaining, but I’m finding it impossible to read it without a bittersweet knowledge that this is The End. This is the last caper of the Dortmunder Gang, the largely-competent-but-ill-starred group of low-level thieves who nonetheless often find themselves in high-level trouble who’ve been entertaining us since The Hot Rock in 1970, and who now find themselves contending with reality television. And of course, the last caper of Westlake himself, who’d been publishing novels under his own name as long as I’ve been alive (and short fiction for longer).
This is the last time Andy Kelp will cheerfully explain common items of modern technology to a baffled and suspicious Dortmunder. The last time the long-suffering May will liberate groceries from the supermarket she works in as part of her self-appointed benefits. The last time Murch (and Murch’s Mom) will brave New York traffic, the last time (presumably; he hasn’t shown up yet, but I expect he will) Tiny Bulcher will make an entrance that makes him sound rather larger than The Incredible Hulk, or possibly Connecticut, and the last time Rollo will identify gang members by their drink orders and the regulars at the Amsterdam Avenue Bar & Grill get into a confused and hazily-belligerent argument about trivia as Dortmunder and company head for the back room.
I find myself hoping that Dortmunder and friends make a fabulous haul and get away clean, ringing down their career with one great victory, though I know they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves in the wake of such success. [One novel, though I don’t recall which one, ends with Dortmunder, having wound up with a decent payoff at last, in Bermuda, or somewhere like it, standing calf-deep in brilliant blue water under a bright Atlantic sun and feeling terribly, terribly out of place.] I’d even like to see a lot of the tertiary characters, like Francis X. Mologna, turn up one more time for a curtain call.
But I don’t think Westlake knew this was The End, when he wrote it, so I’m not expecting a grand finalĂ©, just another beautifully-plotted, wittily told ending. Which will make a fine coda for John Dortmunder and his circle of felonious acquaintances. The knowledge that this is the last time adds weight and poignance even without all that stuff.
But man, I’m going to miss it, the feeling you get when you’ve got a new Westlake in front of you, as well-built as an expensive German automobile, with that new book smell, ready to be taken out for a spin.
And I find myself reflecting on the fact that when I started reading Westlake, it was via battered paperbacks of The Fugitive Pigeon and The Spy in the Ointment that belonged to my mother, and went on to library copies, and then hardcovers of my own (wait for paperback? for a Westlake? geddoudaheah!). And now this latest arrived with an e-mail at midnight last night from, telling me that the next time I turned on my Kindle’s wireless link, the book would simply appear, like magic. [And what would Dortmunder think of that, I wonder? And how would Kelp explain it to him?]
A lot has changed over all that time, even if Dortmunder, at his core, never did.
In a fitting bit of every-ending-is-a-new-beginning synchronicity, this week also sees the publication by IDW of Richard Stark’s The Hunter, the first in a series of graphic novels adapting Westlake’s tales (written as ‘Richard Stark’) of his other long-running lead character, the hard-bitten, expert and admirably-efficient thief named Parker. I don’t have my copy yet, and it won’t appear by electronic magic, but what I’ve seen of it so far looks wonderful. It’s by the staggeringly-talented Darwyn Cooke, and is stunningly drawn and paced, capturing Parker in a way I wasn’t sure could be accomplished.
So Dortmunder heads off into the shadows of a downscale Manhattan night, and Parker finds new life in a new medium. And Westlake isn’t here for either, he’s been gone since New Year’s Eve, 2008. But none of it would exist without him, and five decades of pleasure brought to countless readers, moviegoers and more (pleasure that will live on, for new audiences to discover) is no small legacy.
One more time, Dortmunder. Let’s see how much trouble you can get into, one more time.

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