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Quirky Characters and Karmic Mishaps: The Comic Crime Novels of Donald E. Westlake

31 Oct

Thieves' Dozen

Last year, for the very first time, I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Inspired by some books I love very dearly, I hammered out a first draft of a heist novel in sixteen days. Whilst I don’t know if I’ll have the time to do NaNoWriMo again this year now that I work full-time, I do want to share those books I adore so much with all of you!

The author of the books in question is mystery novelist Donald E. Westlake, who was incredibly prolific and wrote a number of different series and stand-alone novels, often under pseudonyms (the most notable of these being Richard Stark). You can borrow many of Westlake’s books as ebooks or digital audiobooks from Hoopla. His books vary in tone, but the genre Westlake had the best handle on was the comic crime novel, and that’s where the books I’m talking about fall. Whilst he’s probably best known for writing (as Stark) about hardened criminal Parker, his most genius works, at least in my opinion, come from a completely different take on that character. Westlake came up with a scenario involving Parker having to steal the same object multiple times, but decided it was too silly to throw Parker into and thus created a new character to take on the job instead.

Thus, in 1970, the world was introduced to John Archibald Dortmunder and his equally endearing but incompetent partners in crime, and in my opinion the literary world is a much better place for it. These are seriously some of the single funniest books I’ve ever read in my life, and I’m a noted comedy enthusiast. The premise is relatively simple: the Dortmunder novels are 14 books about the world’s unluckiest criminal mastermind, John Dortmunder, and his weird compatriots (who are really more like friends) as they attempt to steal things and generally fail miserably or have some sort of misadventures along the way. The NYC-based crew generally targets people who deserve it, so you’ll be firmly on their side, especially since they never use weapons (it’d be a heavier charge if caught, and they’re just not violent people). Dortmunder’s plans are brilliant, and they’d work just fine if he wasn’t incredibly unlucky. Usually by the end of the book things have worked out in some way or another and the crew is safe and ready to heist another day and their enemies have suffered some sort of karmic mishap (either at their hands or fate’s hands). You’ll meet all sorts of odd people in these books because they’re set in and around New York City and that’s just how things are here.

For a general idea of how these books work, in the first one, The Hot Rock, the gang is tasked with stealing a valuable emerald belonging to one country back from another. There are five attempts to steal the emerald in the 287-page book, only one of which is permanently successful, and at the end, the government stiffs the team when they return the emerald, so they steal it back and swap it with a fake. That’s basically how these books tend to go. There are fourteen full books in total, as well as a bunch of short stories, many of which are collected in an anthology called Thieves’ Dozen. I can’t recommend these books highly enough right now since they’re the sort of thing so sorely needed in these times – funny books that involve awful people often receiving their comeuppance at the hands of a bunch of competent but horribly unlucky thieves who are as quirky as they are lovable.

Hoboken and other NJ state library card holders can access biographical information, reviews, and career overviews about Westlake from Literary Reference Center. If you’re into crime novels on any level, there’s probably a Westlake book that fits your style perfectly since he wrote in so many varying styles, but the Dortmunder novels are such a delight that I have to recommend them specifically. Definitely give them a go if you need something lighter in trying times!  If you want more books featuring charismatic criminals check out this previous Staff Picks post.

If you are working on writing your own novel check out the Hoboken Public Library’s monthly writers group where you can get helpful input from other writers on your work.  This month’s meeting is Monday, November 12 at 6:30 PM.  Email hplwriters @ gmail.com for more information.

Written by
Steph Diorio
Local History Librarian
When she’s not obsessing over comedy, she’s probably watching baseball, playing video games, or serving the every whim of her 22-lb cat Murphy. An earlier version of this blog post appeared on her personal Tumblr account in August 2017.

September Selections – Best reads of the month

26 Sep

The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
by Stuart Turton
DeathsofEvelynHardcastle
Evelyn Hardcastle will be murdered at 11:00 p.m., every day until Aiden Bishop can identify her killer and break the cycle. But every time the day begins again, Aiden wakes up in the body of a different guest. And some of his hosts are more helpful than others…The twists and turns of this inventive debut make it an instant must read.

The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is the book that I plan to spend the first true Autumnal weekend reading. When the temperature dips nice and low, a cup of tea, a cozy blanket and my black lab Duchess. Bliss!

This title was released on Sept. 18th. The library will have this available in Hardcover, Large Print and Audiobook formats.  Hoboken Residents can borrow it as an ebook and a digital audiobook from Hoopla and as an ebook from eBCCLS.

The Dinner List
by Rebecca Serle
TheDinnerList
Years ago, Sabrina did that old thing of imagining whom she’d invite to a birthday dinner if she could have any five guests, dead or alive. She never thought her fantasy dinner would really happen, much less turn into the most efficient therapy session of her life. Guest No. 1 is, of course, her best friend, Jessica. Guest No. 2, is Tobias, a former flame, it’s clear he still loves Sabrina. Guest No. 3 is Conrad, her former philosophy professor—the man whose field trip set Sabrina and Tobias’ fate in motion. Guest No. 4 is Robert, her father, who left her in the lurch to start a new family. Guest No. 5: Audrey Hepburn, idolized by everyone at the table except perhaps Jessica. It’s Audrey who makes the impossible seem possible. A bittersweet tale of love, loss, and living with the memories. (Kirkus)

I wasn’t sure I’d like The Dinner List, magical-realism can so easily go pear-shaped in a novel. It was the inclusion of Audrey Hepburn (my favorite actress) that decided it for me. It’s an interesting look at finally resolving your past and moving forward. Leaving us ultimately with the question, who’s on your dinner list?

This title was released in Sept. 11th. The library will have this available in Hardcover, Large Print (available October 11th) and Audiobook on CD.  It is available from eBCCLS as an audiobook and ebook.

Sea Prayer
by Khaled Hosseini
SeaPrayer
The Sea Prayer, a slight graphic novel, only 48 pages, was inspired by all too tragic real-life events. Who can forget the haunting images of 3 year old Alan Kurdi, whose body, washed up on the Turkish shore in September 2015. Told in the form of a “poignant letter written by a fearful Syrian father to his son on the eve of a treacherous sea crossing to Europe.” (Kirkus). Hosseini’s lyrical prose and evocative artwork provided by Dan Williams bring us a story of love and hope that we wish for all of our loved one. This novel was beautiful, gut-wrenching and inspiring all at once, it’s worth the tears that will come freely.

This title was released in Sept. 18th. The library will have this available in Hardcover format.  It is available as an ebook from eBCCLS.

The Stylist
by Rosie Nixon
Stylist
So, to end on a lighter note, if you liked The Devil wears PradaThe Stylist is for you.

“Amber Green works at Smith’s, an upscale London boutique. When stylist to the stars Mona Armstrong comes in for a private showing, a mishap on Amber’s part, seen as a genius idea by Mona, results in Amber’s going to work as Mona’s assistant during awards season.” (Kirkus)          A celebrity-filled, jet-setting adventure follows. This a perfect escapist read for an all-too brief weekend and I had a lot of fun trying to figure out the celebrities’ real-life counterparts. Fun, fun, fun!

This title was released in Sept. 4th. The library will have this available in Trade Paperback and Audiobook format.

Written by Rosary Van Ingen
Head of Adult Circulation

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