by Donald E. Westlake
In his classic caper novels, Donald E. Westlake turns the world of crime and criminals upside down. The bad get better, the good slide a bit, and Lord help anyone caught between a thief named John Dortmunder and the current object of his intentions. Now Westlake's seasoned but often scoreless crook must take on an impossible crime, one he doesn't want and doesn't believe in. But a little blackmail goes a long way in... WHAT'S SO FUNNY?
All it takes is a few underhanded moves by a tough ex-cop named Eppick to pull Dortmunder into a game he never wanted to play. With no choice, he musters his always-game gang and they set out on a perilous treasure hunt for a long-lost gold and jewel-studded chess set once intended as a birthday gift for the last Romanov czar, which unfortunately reached Russia after that party was over.
From the moment Dortmunder reaches for his first pawn, he faces insurmountable odds. The purloined past of this precious set is destined to confound any strategy he finds on the board. Success is not inevitable with John Dortmunder leading the attack, but he's nothing if not persistent, and some gambit or other might just stumble into a winning move.
This was a "shared read" with my husband. (When we choose a book to read together, we tend to select humor, which seems to contend best with the vagaries of the shared read, which are mainly delays between reading sessions and variations in the length of time spent reading, each time.)
This is only the second Dortmunder novel I've read, so far. The first was Drowned Hopes, which I seem to remember being better than this, though it felt a bit long. The handful of reviews I've glanced through suggest that this, one of the last novels in the Dortmunder series, is not one of Westlake's best, and that the early-to-middle novels of the series are better, in general, than the later books. I'll try to keep that in mind, the next time we're in the mood for a caper.
Positive: It's funny (at least in parts) and the gang's all here (which probably means more to you if you've read a few more of these novels than I have).
Negative: It felt like it took a while to really get going. Once it did, I enjoyed it, but the lead-up to any significant action was dragged out too long.
I'd give it 3.5 stars, but I'm not moved to round up to 4, this time.
Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--I was a little disappointed we didn't get a more definite ending for... what's-her-name, the grand-daughter. So, did Mrs. W. really run away with the young woman's boyfriend, or will she simply help him get a job? Even if the relationship between Mrs. W. and the cartoonist boyfriend is purely platonic, it seems tricky for the young woman to keep her great job with Mrs. W. and maintain a relationship with the boyfriend, if he gets a job in a distant city. It was an oddly open ending.
--The chess set's ending was funny and appropriate, I guess, though I found it frustrating. However, it doesn't seem especially realistic to me-- all because of Eppick's police connections. Dortmunder's crew could probably give Eppick a good description of the vehicle, if not the exact tag number.
There aren't that many fancy-schmancy giant Cadillacs with MD tags in NYC, surely, so it should have been easy enough for Eppick (with a little help from his buddies still on the force) to find out that the Cadillac had been recovered. A little more follow-up, and they'd find the chess set itself. Sure, they'd have to make up some story to get the set from the old-folks' home... Maybe just say it was stolen and has sentimental value, but they'd be happy to donate a nice set or two to replace it (or maybe just make a generous donation to the home). ...But I guess it's more entertaining to think of a solid-gold chess set being used by an unsuspecting bunch of old folks in their "golden years".