Bad News: A Dortmunder Novel

by Donald E. Westlake

Published by Mysterious Press

352 pages, 2001

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Not Bad, At All

Reviewed by Spider Robinson


It's nothing of the kind.

Bad News, I mean. It isn't. But you probably knew that, of course.

And if you didn't, you are one lucky sonofabitch, or bitch as the case may be. If you don't already know for gospel fact that a new Dortmunder novel from Donald E. Westlake has to be not only good news but the best news of the year, then you have the discovery of a lifetime still ahead and the bad times are nearly over.

The rest of you will know what I mean when I say that Bad News is up to Westlake's usual standard and will already have stopped reading this review in order to race to your preferred hardcover outlet. You won't be back, if ever, until you've finished the book. So it's you enviable ones for whom Bad News can still be your first flat of heroin, then, that I'm addressing here.

Don't worry, you're not late. Yes, this is Westlake's 10th book about John Dortmunder and his slightly bent friends. But there is no elaborate What Has Gone Before to absorb before you can begin: you haven't missed a thing you won't be able to pick up as you go.

Dortmunder is a professional thief of long experience, and pretty much everything you need to know about him going in is masterfully summarized in the opening sentence of Bad News:

John Dortmunder was a man on whom the sun shone only when he needed darkness.

He happens to be a genuinely gifted criminal mastermind... cursed with the worst luck in the universe. That he understands this, and still stubbornly persists, is what makes him magnificent. The word "fatalistic" was invented for him. His adventures typically have titles like Why Me, Don't Ask, or What's the Worst that Could Happen? (This was one originally announced last year under the title Plan B; I don't know why it was changed.)

You may have seen William Goldman's film adaptation of the very first book in the series, The Hot Rock (with Robert Redford wildly miscast as Dortmunder), in which mischance keeps forcing Dortmunder and his friends to steal the same superjewel -- over and over and over and over; or perhaps you recall another movie called Bank Shot (with an equally preposterous George C. Scott as Dortmunder) in which he and his zany crew successfully steal a bank -- no, they don't rob the bank, they steal the bank -- and still end up broke. Then there's Drowned Hopes, in which the swag must be literally lifted... from a bus stop at the bottom of a rather deep lake. Or Good Behavior, in which circumstances compel Dortmunder to steal a nun. From a tower. Full of heavily armed mercenaries. In midtown Manhattan.

You get the idea: comic crime capers -- the very best ever written, bar none. If that opening sentence quoted above doesn't tip you, you should begin to sense you're in good hands only a few sentences deeper into Bad News, when Westlake mentions that, at the moment, Dortmunder is " deepest New Jersey, very near Mordor..." I try not to begin a new Westlake without strapping on one of those adult diapers first, because I know I'll be pissing myself laughing before long -- and so it proved with this one.

This time, Dortmunder and his friend Andy Kelp find themselves compelled to steal a dead Indian... and spend the next week trying to figure out why. Maybe I should halt the synopsis right there -- at the end of the first chapter -- because after that, things start to get weird...

I'll say only that once again -- for the 10th consecutive time in this remarkable series -- Westlake has come up with a scam so ingenious and so twisted that nobody else but him could have dreamed it up in a million years... and made it seem inevitable in retrospect. Once again, Dortmunder performs brilliantly under extreme pressure, works miracles of felonious improvisation with the world's most eccentric army and ends up with a pie in the face for his trouble.

Along the way you'll meet colorful-yet-real characters like the treacherous grifter Fitzroy Guilderpost and lovely Little Feather Redcorn, the Last of the Pottaknobbees (or is she?), mastodon Tiny Bulcher, who "mostly looked like a fairy tale character that eats villages" and Arnie Albright, the fence who's so repulsive he himself admits, indeed insists on telling you, that "I'm so hard to be around I sometimes shave with my back to the mirror."

If you don't laugh out loud, hard, at least five times before you finish this book, I'll... well, I'll feel sorry for you. Don't miss it: it's prescription-strength medicine for melancholy, a treat you deserve, a reward you've earned. And also the perfect gift for that friend who badly needs cheering up -- and who among us doesn't have at least one of those?

Take it from me: this is the kind of Bad News you want to get. | March 2001


British Columbia science fiction writer Spider Robinson's 30 books include the new novel Callahan's Key (Bantam) and the reprint story collection By Any Other Name (Baen). A new CD featuring his original songs recorded with legendary guitarist Amos Garrett has just been released: visit for details and MP3 samples.