What's So Funny? Mass Market Paperback – Mar 1 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
In Westlake's diverting 13th John Dortmunder novel (after 2004's Watch Your Back!), the hapless crook gets blackmailed into trying to pull off an impossible heist—stealing a gold chess set originally intended as a gift for the last czar of Russia, but picked up by some U.S. soldiers who were part of an anti-Soviet expeditionary force in 1919–1920 and now kept secure in a midtown Manhattan basement vault while various parties dispute its ownership. Dortmunder makes little progress in the book's first half, until he figures out a way to prompt an inquiry that leads to the chess set's being transported downtown—to a location that proves far from secure. As usual, Westlake provides amusing, at times dim-witted dialogue, particularly among the regulars at O.J.'s Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue, and a cast of appealing if often inept cops and robbers. Not every loose end may be tied up, but the ironic resolution will leave both series fans and newcomers satisfied. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
*Starred Review* Perennially star-crossed thief John Dortmunder is blackmailed by Johnny Eppick, a retired New York City cop. After careful study, Eppick has concluded that Dortmunder is the finest thief not already in jail. So, unless Dortmunder steals an 800-pound gold-and-jewel-encrusted chess set intended for Russia's last czar, he's off to prison again. But the job, in Dortmunder's very professional opinion, is impossible. The chess set is in the basement vault of a Manhattan bank building, and it's been there--safe--for 60 years. Between a rock and a hard place, Dortmunder is even more hangdog and dour than usual, and that translates to especially fertile ground for the fourteenth caper-gone-wrong novel in this delightful series. Fans of the fatalistic crook will be happy to see Dortmunder's quirky crew back again and will revel in their pre-Copernican view of a Manhattan-based solar system. Readers new to the Dortmunder series will simply laugh, then head to the library for more. Westlake is a national literary treasure, and his latest effort only enhances his value. Neocon pundit William Kristol recently wrote that Westlake deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature. The neocons haven't been right about much lately, but Kristol just may be on to something this time. Thomas Gaughan
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Top Customer Reviews
What's So Funny? starts instead with an ex-cop, Johnny Eppick who advertises he's "For Hire," blackmailing Dortmunder inside the OJ Bar & Grill. It seems Eppick has a photograph of Dortmunder in felonious possession of stolen merchandise. What's more, Eppick seems to know way too much about Dortmunder for Dortmunder's comfort.
The blackmail effort is for an elderly retired inventor, Mr. Hemlow, who wants to recover a stolen chess set worth millions that had once been intended for the last czar, but the Russian Revolution countered that option before the chess set was delivered. Hemlow's father and some fellow army and navy personnel sneaked the set out of the USSR during the anti-Soviet battles just after World War I. Their sergeant retrieved the set from his squad after they returned to the U.S. and disappeared with the chess set. Now, Hemlow's granddaughter, an apprentice lawyer who fancies herself an amateur historian, has located the set. Hemlow wants Dortmunder to liberate the valuable prize.
Dortmunder is stymied when he learns that the chess set is locked up in a very secure bank vault in the very building where four law firms are fighting over the set. But Hemlow and Eppick don't want to let Dortmunder off the hook.
Eventually, Dortmunder thinks of an angle and the story proceeds in normal Donald E. Westlake fashion. The main outlines of how the story will proceed are obvious in advance, but the humorous mix-ups aren't.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The plot of the story revolves around an ex-cop private detective blackmailing Dortmunder into stealing a bejeweled, golden chess set meant for Czar Nicolas II. But it's hidden away in the vault of a bank, and it never comes up for air. The heirs to the chess set are locked in a legal struggle to see who inherits and it's Dortmunder's job to convince them its authenticity is suspect. They will have to bring the chess set out into the open to have experts check it out, and that's when Dortmunder and crew will pounce.
WHAT'S SO FUNNY? isn't as hilarious as the blurbs on the cover say, but it has its moments. Dortmunder (think Walter Matthau) is a sad sack who can't win for losing. At one point he's mistaken for a homeless person. Also, the rest rooms in Dortmunder's favorite hangout are labeled "The Pointers" and "The Setters."
One of the drawbacks of the novel is that you can predict the ending. Dortmunder will remind you of Charlie Brown. He will never get to kick the football, he will never win the ballgame, he will never win the hand of the little red-headed girl.
So far I've read only two of the Dortmunder capers, plus a couple of Westlake's other novels, but I'm rapidly becoming a fan. As the scene at the beginning of this review indicates, this author of the screenplay for "The Grifters" is a true Grand Master.
Westlake is one of America's greatest mystery writers. Nobody is better at writing hard-boiled, noir fiction. Under his own name he has penned terrifyingly dark novels, such as THE AX and THE HOOK. And under the pseudonym Richard Stark, Westlake writes the very dark series about the ruthless, amoral criminal known only as Parker.
But Westlake can also make crime funny, as he has done in the series featuring John Dortmunder. In WHAT'S SO FUNNY? a shady former New York City cop describes Dortmunder this way: "If he were any more crooked, you could open wine bottles with him."
Dortmunder is also a hard-working, decent enough if somewhat gloomy fellow not known for his physical prowess or bravery. After being forced to meet with the ex-cop who's blackmailing him, Dortmunder is left sitting in the bar "a sopping dishrag where there once had been a man."
Longtime fans of the series would be disappointed if Dortmunder's partners in crime --- "the gang of five" --- did not help him out. And they are all here in their usual amusing ways. There is Andy Kelp, Dortmunder's righthand man and fellow professional burglar. When he needs a ride, Andy only steals the cars of doctors, figuring they see so much pain in life that they will treat themselves well in their choice of car.
And again we encounter Stan Murch, the wheelman extraordinaire who can tell you exactly why it's better to head east into Queens first if you want to leave New York City and go upstate. This book also includes the "new guy" and apprentice crook, Judson Bliet, who we first met in the last installment of the series, WATCH YOUR BACK!
No Dortmunder adventure would be complete without having Tiny around for the heavy lifting and persuasion work. Westlake describes Tiny: "Yes, there he stood, midblock, looking from a distance like a grand piano about to be hoisted through an upper-floor window."
In this book, Dortmunder and the boys are forced to do a job for a dying millionaire who wants back the chess set stolen from his grandfather. But this is no ordinary chess set. It was designed as a birthday gift for the Czar of Russia who, unfortunately for him, was all out of birthday celebrations. The chess pieces are solid gold, studded with pearls and rubies. The entire set weighs 680 pounds.
It seems that the set got lost in the mail during the Russian Revolution and ended up in the possession of 10 greedy American soldiers, nine of whom were cheated out of their share of the fortune after they returned to America. Now the set resides securely in the basement vault of a New York City bank. For Dortmunder, the mission is simple and quite impossible: steal the chess set or be sent back to prison by the ex-cop.
As with all books in this series, New York City is a main character. These nonviolent criminals sound like the streets of the city. They are the type of happy-go-lucky fellows you might meet in a dingy Eighth Avenue bar late at night but know well enough never to inquire what they do for a living.
And the true joy of these stories is to ride shotgun with these guys as Westlake puts them in impossible situations, such as when poor Dortmunder finds himself trapped in a windowless bathroom with a leaky shower. How do you get out of there? Westlake puts us in Dortmunder's soggy shoes
"He was still stuck in here with a guy outside to whom he would be unable to offer any conceivable explanation as to why this person he'd never seen before was suddenly walking out of his bathroom. 'It must be a space-warp kinda thing, I was just coming out of a bar in Cleveland.' No."
WHAT'S SO FUNNY? offers plot twists upon plot twists and everybody is playing an angle. In a Dortmunder story nothing works out quite the way you think it will. And while Dortmunder and his "skuzzy band of crooks" --- in the words of the ex-cop --- might indeed be crooks, Westlake is not above pointing out the historical fact that many of the richest members of society got their money the old-fashioned way: their ancestors stole it.
The rich lady whose grandfather used a five-finger discount to obtain the doomed Czar's property only eats in the trendiest New York restaurants. We accompany her to one such eatery "where the vulture wings, when a shipment had come in, were the specialite de la maison." So here Westlake treats us to a hilarious scene where the vultures are dining on the vultures.
Maybe in the end, the point is that crime does pay in America, but not as much as John Dortmunder would like. But for Dortmunder and his crew, they manage to get by and not get caught. And that is great news for us readers. There will always be something falling off the back of the truck for these guys. And there will always be more capers to plan and try to execute.
Nobody writes comic capers as brilliantly as Donald E. Westlake. WHAT'S SO FUNNY? is one of the best entries in this delightful series and among the best books released in 2007 so far. If you have never read a Dortmunder book, treat yourself. You will immediately seek out the rest of the series while anxiously awaiting Dortmunder's next adventure.
--- Reviewed by Tom Callahan
And he's as entertaining as ever. In this book, Dortmunder has a bad problem: a former policeman named Johnny Eppick is blackmailing him to force him to steal one of the most untouchable artifacts in the world, a bejeweled golden chess set smuggled out of Russia after World War II. One of the GIs who originally stole it spirited it away from his buddies and hid it. Now it lies deep in an underground vault surrounded by impenetrable security. And if Dortmunder and his cohorts can't get it out, the woeful thief is going to jail.
The book is delightful, funny and full of memorable characters. You find yourself on the side of the beleaguered crooks, hoping for revenge against the crooked cop, and sniffing along to catch up on false leads all the way. The author puts in several adept twists and the ending is an ironic surprise.
Armchair Interviews says: This one is right up there with the previous novels.
The chess set is inside a secure Manhattan subterranean vault under a bank that has lawyers' offices above it. In the attorneys' offices the Northwood family argues vehemently over who rightfully not necessarily legally owns the chess set although the claims of ownership ties to the looter who took it from Russia and not to the Czar. Dortmunder realizes he has limited access to the bank or office spaces above and that the vault has more security guards than the Green Zone contains. Thus if he can't go to the mountain he must find a way to move the mountain to give him easier access.
Proving that a baker's dozen retains a humorous freshness, the latest Dortmunder crime caper is a delightful amusing tale with a cast of a zillion seemingly playing chess with one another on the same board. Readers will wonder how Dortmunder will pull off the theft as he spends much of the first half of the droll story line feeling checked with every move he makes. Fans of the series will appreciate his escapades as he struggles to checkmate a horde of adversaries including the sleuth blackmailing him.