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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.

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