John Dortmunder

Created by Donald Westlake
(1933-2008)

Redford as Dortmunder (left) and his crew prep for the big caper in the film adaptation of The Hot Rock.

What’s so funny?

Dortmunder is.

Donald Westlake is the King of the Comic Caper Novel (any argument?) and JOHN ARCHIBALD DORTMUNDER, his prize creation, is the savvy professional thief whose plans always, for some strange reason, go spectacularly and hilariously awry.

No, he’s not a private eye, and he probably has no frickin’ business on this site, but come on, man! A guy’s gotta cleanse one’s palette every now and then, don’t he?

The thing about Dortmunder is that he’s a genius, a certifiable criminal mastermind. He’s also the world’s unluckiest crook–no matter how careful his schemes are worked out, no matter how brilliant and elaborate and intricately plotted, right down to the (almost) last detail, something always goes wrong. No wonder Dorrtmunder, already a two-time loser, is plagued by worry. And it doesn’t help that his usual co-horts are, uh, more than a little eccentric. And not exactly the brightest Crayolas in the box.

Supposedly, the first novel in the series, The Hot Rock, published in 1970, began as just another Parker novel (under the pen name of Richard Stark), with the idea of a thief having to steal the same thing over and over. Alas, it kept coming out funny, something one does not associate with the hard-boiled, grim, no-nonsense Parker novels.

And so a star was born. Dortmunder and his crew have had a long career, appearing in novels, short stories and films.

The stories and books are all great, but the quality of the films varies widely, from the delightful The Hot Rock (1972), one of my favourite heist flicks, starring Robert Redford and George Segal, to truly wretched crap like Jimmy the Kid (1983), which was turned into a “star” vehicle for kid actor Gary Coleman.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Donald Westlake, as well as writing the Parker series, is the creator of private eye Mitch Tobin (under the pen name of Tucker Coe) and smalltown gumshoe Tim Smith. Not to mention numerous non-series work.

TRIVIA

Westlake’s always been rather playful when it comes to his books. In Jimmy The Kid, the gang uses a Parker novel as a guideline for a caper. Needless to say, it doesn’t go quite as planned. The chapters alternate between the Dortmunder story and the Parker novel, entitled Child Heist. And Drowned Hopes shares a chapter with Joe Gores’ 1992 DKA novel 32 Cadillacs, with the gang stealing one of the Cadillacs of the title. And this isn’t the first time Gores and Westlake have high-fived each other. About 20 years ago, Dead Skip (1972), the first DKA novel, shared a chapter with Plunder Squad (1972), a Parker novel by Richard Stark (aka Westlake). And The Blackbird (1969), an Alan Grofield novel by Stark, shares a chapter with Slayground (1971), another Parker novel. Of course, these shared chapters are not exactly the same, but describe the same situations from different points of view (thanks to Jiro Kimura of The Gumshoe Site for the heads up on this one).

FROM THE PEANUT GALLERY

  • “(The film) Why Me? was released in France (in English though) in 1990, and is now available on tape in the US. Christopher Lambert plays the Dortmunder role, but is renamed “Gus Cardinale.” Christopher Lloyd plays “Bruno Daley,” i.e. Andy Kelp. It’s a fairly faithful adaptation. It’s not as good as The Hot Rock, but a damn sight better than Jimmy the Kid. Lambert is OK, but Lloyd, as usual, overplays. The late, great character actor John Hancock does a nice turn as Tiny. Directed by Gene Quintano, who also directed the truly abysmal Loaded Weapon 1 and several other terrible films. Looking over his oeuvre, I think Why Me? may be his best film. Yow!”
    John Heaton
  • “The movie version of Westlake’s Why Me? was indeed released–it’s available on video here. I honestly wouldn’t recommend it for fans–they’ve upscaled and high-teched the setting too much (May, who is now named June, works in a bank instead of a supermarket) and made some incomprehensible changes (Andy Kelp is now the father of the May/June character–though Christopher Lloyd was wonderfully cast as Kelp). There are some impressive moments, particularly when it comes to physical comedy, but it’s an unsuccessful adaptation overall and (according to my husband, who’s never read the book) kind of a so-so stand-alone action movie.”
    — Victoria Esposito-Shea

NOVELS

 

SHORT STORIES

  • “Ask a Silly Question” (1981, Playboy)
  • “Horse Laugh” ( June 1986, Playboy)
  • “Too Many Crooks” (August 1989, Playboy)
  • “The Dortmunder Workout, or Criminal Exercise” (April 29, 1990, The New York Times Magazine)
  • “A Midsummer Daydream” (May 1990, Playboy)
  • “Party Animal” (December 1992, Playboy)
  • “Jumble Sale” (Summer 1994, The Armchair Detective)
  • “Now What?” (December 1999, Playboy)
  • “Art & Craft” (August 2000, Playboy)
  • “Spectacles” (May 2001, Playboy; an excerpt from the novel  Bad News)
  • “Walking Around Money” (2005, Transgressions)

COLLECTIONS

GRAPHIC NOVELS

  • THE HOT ROCK | Buy this book
    (2010, SelfMadeHero)
    Based on the novel by Donald Westlake
    Adapted and drawn by Christian Lacroix (Lax)
    A lightly cartoonish approach that captures the wit–without losing the grit–of the source material. Recommended.

FILMS

   

  • THE HOT ROCK | Buy the DVD
    (1972, Fox)
    Based on the novel by Donald Westlake
    Screenplay by William Goldman
    Directed by Peter Yates
    Score by Quincy Jones
    Starring Robert Redford as DORTMUNDER
    Also Starring George Segal, Paul Sand, Ron Liebman, Zero Mostel, Moses Gunn
    There’s a charm in this one that perfectly captures the tone of the novels.
  • BANK SHOT | Buy the DVD  | Buy the Blu-Ray Watch it now!
    (1974, United Artists)
    Based on the novel by Donald Westlake
    Directed by Gower Champion
    Starring George C. Scott as WALTER UPJOHN BALLANTINE (Dortmunder in the book)
    Also starring Joanna Cassidy
  • JIMMY THE KID | Buy the VHS
    (1983, United Artists)
    Based on the novel by Donald Westlake
    Directed by Gary Nelson
    Starring Paul leMat as DORTMUNDER
    Also starring Gary Coleman, Dee Wallace, Walter Olkewicz, Ruth Gordon, Cleavon Little
  • WHY ME?
    (1990, Epic)
    Released in France, but in English!
    96 minutes
    Based on the novel by Donald Westlake
    Directed by Gene Quintano
    Starring Christopher Lambert as GUS CARDINALE (Dortmunder in the book)
    with Christopher Lloyd as “Bruno Daley” (i.e. Andy Kelp)
    Also starring Kim Greist, J.T. Walsh, Michael J. Pollard, Tony Plana, Lawrence Tierney, John Hancock
  • WHAT’S THE WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN? Buy the DVD Buy the Blu-Ray Watch it now!
    (2001, MGM)
    97 minutes
    Based on the novel by Donald Westlake
    Screenplay by Matthew Chapman
    Directed by Sam Weisman
    Produced by Ashok Amritraj, Wendy Dytman
    Co-producer: Peaches Davis
    Associate producer: Carol Kelson
    Executive producers: Lawrence Turman, David Nicksay, John Morrissey, Martin Lawrence, Michael Green, David Hoberman
    Starring Martin Lawrence as KEVIN CAFFREY (Dortmunder in the book)
    Also starring Danny DeVito, John Leguizamo, Glenne Headly, Carmen Ejogo, Bernie Mac, Larry Miller, Nora Dunn, Richard Schiff, William Fichtner, Ana Gasteyer, Sascha Knopf, Siobhan Fallon, GQ, Lenny Clarke, Robin Brown
    Some great performances, particularly by DeVito as the greedy media tycoon who steals Dortmunder’s (oops, Caffrey’s) ring during a botched burglary attempt. But the film is tremendously marred by the fact Lawrence is spectacularly miscast. Much of the real humour in this series is that Dortmunder is the perpetual sane straight man in a world of fools–he shouldn’t be as wonky as everyone else. One critic suggested the worst thing that could happen would be a sequel.
  • BAD NEWS
    (2001, Phoenix Pictures)
    Based on the novel by Donald Westlake
    Screenplay by Doug Wright
    Directed by Milos Forman
    An intriguing movie deal floated around back in 2001, but according to Forman, “A script exists, but I can’t reach agreement with the studios about the cast.”

FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to John Heaton and Victoria Esposito-Shea for their reviews of the film Why Me?, and to Maggie for the heads up.

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