Donald E. Westlake

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"Watch Your Back!"

(reviewed by Hagen Baye OCT 30, 2004)

Watch Your Back by Donald Westlake

Arnie Albright used to be such an obnoxious guy that no one liked him. In fact, he was so disgusted with himself that he would shave with his back to the mirror! Arnie was fortunate, however, to have a family that cared enough to intervene and send him off to a Club Med in the Caribbean for an attitude adjustment. There, his encounters with a Preston Fareweather result in a cure. While Arnie used to be plain obnoxious, Fareweather is obnoxiousness personified, “all narcissism all the time,” and he loves to hurt and embarrass whomever he encounters. Arnie swore he never wanted to be like Fareweather and that was all he needed to return home a new man.

True to form, Fareweather had retreated to the extra-territorial spa to render himself unreachable by process servers working on behalf of his four ex-wives and their attorneys. As he rejoiced in belittling Arnie with accounts of his great wealth, including a super luxury Fifth Avenue duplex penthouse, which housed a priceless collection of art and Spanish silver, Fareweather did not know that Arnie is a fence for stolen goods. And he also did not know that his degrading treatment of Arnie so alienates Arnie that Arnie anxiously seeks to avenge such treatment by planning to strip Fareweather’s penthouse to the proverbial bone when gets home again.

As obnoxious as he was before the intervention, Arnie stayed in business by paying a higher percent of the take than other fences. John Dortmunder and his merry crew of crooks were among his steady customers, and Arnie was so much more desirous of vengeance over profit with respect to Fareweather that he offered John and crew 70% of whatever Arnie got from Fareweather’s valuables. Thus, the stage is set for the main action of Watch Your Back!, the twelfth book of Donald E. Westlake’s John Dortmunder series. Dortmunder, the dour and droll master thief, is attracted by Arnie’s offer, and after he and his merry crew of crooks scope out the vacant penthouse with its private entrance and virtually non-existence security, agree to do Arnie—and themselves—a favor.

However, rather than proceed posthaste to make the move on Fareweather, Dortmunder is disturbed that the back room of the O.J. Bar and Grill is no longer available to him and his crew for their planning sessions. The OJ’s owner had recently retired to Florida and turned the reins of the business over to a nephew. The nephew is a ditz who hands over the OJ’s management to a guy who has his same probation officer -- a guy whose father owns a string of restaurants and bars throughout the metropolitan area. That fellow, Mikey Carbine, is the son of a Mafia capo, and he turns the OJ into a “bust out” joint, meaning the business’s established credit is used to buy all sorts of merchandise (cash registers, bar stools, liquor, etc.), with the intent of reselling them without paying anything to the original wholesalers for the items. Thus, the scheme would yield Mikey 100% profit and bleed the OJ dry. Thus the reason that the OJ’s back room was not available to Dortmunder et al, is because it is jammed with items Mikey bought pending their sale. Using his considerable wiles, Dortmunder realizes what is happening and travels down to Florida to inform the uncle. The uncle, a wizened guy himself, takes steps to take back control of the OJ and to settle accounts with the wholesalers.  For its part, Dortmunder’s gang intervene the night Mikey’s ill-gotten goods are to be moved and block him from selling them off. 

Saving the OJ and regaining the use of its cozy back room, Dortmunder and gang refocus on Fareweather and his valuable-packed penthouse. However, life (especially Dortmunder’s) is full of intervening, events not capable of being anticipated and unbeknownst to Dortmunder: (1) Fareweather had been tricked off the Caribbean island and forced back onto the continental US, where he manages to escape his captors (who are in his ex-wives’ employ) and decides to sneak back to his penthouse and is there asleep at the very moment that Dortmunder et al are emptying it out, and (2) Mikey learns that it was Dortmunder who interfered with his OJ operation, has his crew on Dortmunder’s tail, and is poised to take  whatever is stolen from Fareweather.  In typical Dortmunder fashion, nothing works as planned by anyone (Dortmunder and Mikey alike), and all of these forces collide yielding unpredictable, yet hilarious, results.

Watch Your Back! is another example of Westlake’s genius in creating clever plots and characters. He is a master craftsman of the written word, and the recognition given his extraordinary body of work over the years (including four Edgar awards and a lifetime achievement award from the Writers Guild of America) is reaffirmed by this most enjoyable book that will cement a smile on its readers’ faces at its end.
  • Amazon readers rating: from 13 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Watch Your Back! at author's website

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"The Road to Ruin"

(reviewed by Hagen Baye JUL 3, 2004)

The Road to Ruin by Donald E. Westlake

Monroe Hall’s principal talent is fleecing his fellow man. To all who know him, he is a pariah. Even his wife, the only person he treats with unfailing gentleness and concern, knows that he is “a selfish, infantile, coldhearted monster.” Although he is from a long line of rich men, born with multiple silver spoons in his mouth, he is a notorious cheat. His avarice is not satisfied by his inherited wealth; he must add to it, without regard of whom he screws in the process.

He uses his company’s coffers as his personal piggy bank. However, in this age of Enron and WorldCom, his excesses eventually come to the attention of the feds who put a stop to it. Nevertheless, Hall manages to stay out of jail, thanks to his high priced, extremely clever attorneys. And, although he is put out of business and his every move monitored by the authorities, untraceable offshore investments permit him to continue to live in the manner he is accustomed.

Monroe Hall is just the kind of guy that John Dortmunder, loves to hate. Dortmunder, Westlake's world-weary thief, is enticed by the plight of Chester Fallon, an acquaintance of his frequent partner in crime, Andy Kelp. Chester has suffered in a number of ways with which Dortmunder could empathize. Chester’s successful career as a stunt car driver was rendered obsolete by computers. He just can’t maintain his standard of living driving car service running passengers to and from to airports; besides, that’s beneath him, having been in the movies. He has to turn to driving get-away for bank robbers. However, the get-away work eventually gets him sent up the river for a while, after which he goes to work for Monroe Hall, where he excels as the caretaker and driver of Hall’s extensive and valuable antique car collection. Then, the feds intervene in Hall’s activities and Hall can no longer associate himself with felons. This puts Chester out of work. In Dortmunder’s mind, it is an outrage that a real crook like Hall could continue to live the high life, even keep his valuable car collection through the connivance of some foundation, and a rehabilitated felon like Chester can not keep an honest job.

Westlake’s latest Dortmunder book, Road to Ruin, is all about Dortmunder’s scheme to take revenge against Hall on Chester’s behalf. Chester's plan is to steal a number of Hall’s antique cars and then make a nice killing selling them back to Hall’s insurance company. If nothing else, the Hall job has better potential than the job that Kelp was trying to sell Dortmunder just before Chester’s entrance, the heist that would have involved supplying “Honest Irving’s,” a discount electronics store, with the inventory for its latest “off the truck” special.

So, Dortmunder assembles his usual collection of merry thieves (Robin Hood comes to mind), and they devise their assault on Hall’s cars. This requires overcoming airtight security. Hall’s compound, they learn from Chester and see for themselves, is virtually impenetrable, as it is surrounded on all sides by electrified fences, supplemented by motion detectors and security guards. Dortmunder devises a clever scheme which takes advantage of Hall’s desperate need for help (he is so detested that no one wants to work for him) and of Kelp’s lady friend’s connections with getting new identities for Dortmunder and cohorts that permit these ex-cons to successfully circumvent the rigorous background check required of all of Hall’s hires. Dortmunder and company gain access to the compound, and the small fortune the insurance company will pay for the return of the antique cars, once stolen, is within their grasp.

However, unbeknownst to Dortmunder et al, Chester is not the only victim of Hall’s greed who is taking action to extract revenge and restitution from Hall. A couple of venture capitalist screwed out of a sizeable investment in Hall’s company and three labor guys, on behalf of their union and its members who used to work for Hall and who have been screwed out of wages and benefits by Hall, also plan to wreak their revenge against Hall. These latter forces form an alliance, successfully gain access to Hall’s compound and are also poised to strike.

As can be expected, all hell breaks loose when both groups attempt to execute their respective plans at the same time. In typical Westlake fashion, and as Dortmunder’s luck would have it, nothing works as planned—except the reader is greatly entertained once again by Westlake’s tremendous wit and brilliant comic style.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 12 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Road to Ruin at author's website



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Hard Case Crime reprints:

The John Dortmunger Series

Writing as Samuel Holt (republished 2006):

Writing as Tucker Coe:

Written as Donald and Abby Westlake:

See Richard Stark for more on Donald Westlake

Nonfiction:

Movies from Books:

  • The Jugger (1966)
  • Point Blank (1967)
  • The Busy Body (1967)
  • The Score (1967)
  • The Seventh Split (1968)
  • The Hot Rock (1972)
  • Cops and Robbers (1973)
  • Bank Shot (1974)
  • The Outfit (1974)
  • Jimmy the Kid (1983)
  • Two Much (1984)
  • Slayground (1984)
  • Why Me (1990)
  • Dancing Aztecs (1996)
  • A Travesty (1999)
  • What's the Worst That Could Happen? (2001)

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Donald WestlakeDonald E. Westlake was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1933. After serving in the U.S. Air Force he began his writing career with The Mercenaries in 1960. He has written at least a hundred novels over the past fifty years, under his own name and a rainbow of pseudonyms (including Richard Stark), and has more than a million copies of his Mysterious Press books in print, as well as more than a million copies of his many titles in print around the world. Westlake has been named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, has been a recipient of the Bouchercon Lifetime Achievement Award, and was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay of The Grifters.

He lived with his wife, the writer Abby Adams, in rural New York State. He died December 31, 2008 of a heart attack while vacationing in Mexico. He was 75 years old.

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