The career of John Dortmunder came to an unexpected end with the sudden death of Donald E. Westlake on December 31, 2008. The final novel in the series, Get Real, was published the following year, and it hits a fitting final note. Get Real’s premise, which is both silly and inspired (always a delicate balance in Westlake’s world), finds Dortmunder and crew as stars of a fledgling reality TV show. The novel’s ending (no real spoilers here) has Dortmunder and Andy Kelp walking off into a New York City sunset. Admittedly, I may have imagined the sunset, but having come to the end of this wonderful series, can you blame me? Grade: A-
Beware . . . spoilers of the ending ensue.Before I began Lionel White’s debut novel, I had two expectations: I expected a successful kidnapping, and I expected a gratuitous rape. I expected the rape because I once read an interview with Charles Ardai in which he explained that Hard Case Crime has not reprinted any Lionel White because his novels tend to feature rapes that (in Ardai’s estimation) are included to thrill male readers. Does such a rape occur in The Snatchers? Yes. But I was reading the novel for the story of the kidnapping. White is an important figure in the history of noirboiled as a pioneer of the criminal procedural; you can draw a direct line from White’s work to Donald E. Westlake’s Parker novels—which brings us to why I was expecting a successful kidnapping. This comes from “True Lies, or True-to-Life?,” an article from the March 24, 1995, Baltimore Sun by Jean Marbella: “[Westlake] had been tickled by a case in which a 1953 mystery novel, The Snatchers by Lionel White, was used as a blueprint for a real-life kidnapping of a baby in France. The kidnapping went exactly as plotted, but the criminals did themselves in, running through the ransom money and blabbing too loudly about their escapade. ‘They ran out of book,’ Mr. Westlake said with a laugh. ‘I always thought they should have taken the money and hired Lionel White to write them a sequel.’” So the kidnappers in The Snatchers must have gotten away with the money too, right? Wrong! The kidnapping in White’s novel goes totally to hell, and the book ends with the criminal gang’s leader dying in a barrage of gunfire. So did Westlake not remember how The Snatchers actually ends? And why would real-life kidnappers use this as their blueprint? I would really love to know! Grade: C
First, a word to the wise about which edition of No Orchids for Miss Blandish to read: You want the original 1939 version of the book, not the rewritten, “updated” version of 1962. The quickest way to be certain that you have the 1939 text is to check the second paragraph and confirm that “Old Sam [is] asleep in the Packard.” (In 1962, the car becomes a Lincoln.) But in either version, No Orchids for Miss Blandishis perhaps more interesting than it is good. It is the first (and most popular) attempt by British writer James Hadley Chase (born René Lodge Brabazon Raymon) to write in the Amecian noirboiled vein. Published early enough that it interesting almost by definition to anyone interested in the history of genre, No Orchids for Miss Blandish has the additional historical significance of having plagiarized from William Faulkner’s Sanctuary (1931) and of having drawn the attention of George Orwell in his 1944 essay “The Ethics of the Detective Story from Raffles to Miss Blandish” (a.k.a. “Raffles and Miss Blandish”). The novel is about as brutal as a novel could be in 1939, but also a wee bit comedic for the occasional false notes of a Brit trying to write hardboiled American dialogue. I cracked a smile every time one the gangsters let drop a “shall.” Grade: C+
The reviews I have seen of The Getaway Car tend to overpraise it, as the reviewers’ (understandable) love of Westlake the Fiction Writer tends to cloud their perceptions of Westlake the Nonfiction Writer. As a fiction writer, Westlake was a genius, no doubt about it. As a nonfiction writer, Westlake was at least competent, but he never really tried to be more than that. As editor Levi Stahl notes, Westlake wrote so little nonfiction that Stahl, had he chosen, could have collected all of it in a volume. Instead, Stahl decided to pick and choose, and it’s a decidedly mixed bag (which suggests that Stahl was right not to simply collect all of it). Perhaps the most disappointing item is the roundtable discussion among Donald E. Westlake and his pseudonyms Tucker Coe, Timothy J. Culver, and Richard Stark—what seems like a brilliant idea in abstract quickly turns into a lame joke. As Stahl is quick to note in his introduction, this is really a collection for hardcore Westlake fans only. If you haven’t read much Westlake, don’t read The Getaway Car. First read at least the Parker novels, the Dortmunder novels, and The Ax. (And even if you’ve read all those, beware—spoilers abound!) Once you have immersed yourself in the Westlake canon, you will find The Getaway Car to be very, very interesting. Not great, but very, very interesting.
A: Excellent. I intend to read it again. B: Good. I might read it again. C: So-so. I didn't mind reading it. D: Bad. I resented reading it. F: Atrocious. I finished it only because I'm compulsive that way.