First, the good news: John Dortmunder and his crew are back! And here's the better news: WHAT'S SO FUNNY? is one of the crown jewels in the caper series started by Donald E. Westlake 37 years ago.
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