‘Ask a Silly Queston’ by Donald E. Westlake
I’ve exercised my obsession with Caitlin R. Kiernan a great deal in the last few weeks. The other author I can’t stop going on about is Richard Stark, creator of Parker, crime fiction’s toughest professional thief. Stark’s appeal has always been something of a puzzle to me, as he depicts a society devoid of morality, populated by the weak and the venal. Against this grimy backdrop, a near sociopath like Parker seems virtuous, if only in contrast. Richard Stark is the most prolific pseudonym of Mystery Writers of America grandmaster Donald E. Westlake, a fact that seems unlikely to those who have read “both” authors. While Stark is the ultimate nihilist, much of Westlake’s work is gently humorous, even cosy.
Westlake’s antidote for Parker is John Dortmunder, a New York City thief who never seems to catch a break. In movie adaptations, Dortmunder has been played by actors a various as George C. Scott, Robert Redford, and even Martin Lawrence, but I always picture him looking a bit like Fred Ward (who has not played Dortmunder, but has played Hoke Moseley), a perpetually aggrieved schlub. Along with a cast of regular cronies, Dortmunder specializes in easy-seeming scores that invariably go sideways. Dortmunder confronts these setbacks, not with the brutality of Parker, but with an outside-the-box cleverness all his own. Of the fourteen Dormunder novels Westlake worte before his death, I have read the most recent five. All of them were entertaining, light and funny in way Richard Stark never is.
Originally published in Playboy Magazine, “Ask a Silly Question” has a more permanent home in Thieves’ Dozen, a collection of Dortmunder stories that seems unlikely to ever go out of print. (Westlake is a mainstay of public library mystery shelves as well.) In this particular story, Dortmunder is on his way to a planning session at the O.J. Bar and Grill when he is kidnapped by a very polite, very wealthy, older man. This unnamed individual has a problem, and he’s willing to pay Dortmunder to help him solve it. In his younger years, the elegant man purchased a genuine Rodin bronze. A recent divorce gave ownership to his ex-wife. Unable to part with this treasure, the elegant man commissioned a fake, made by taking a mold of the original. So far so good, but now the ex-wife is donating the fake to museum, an act which will certainly expose the fraud. Now the elegant man wants to steal the fake while his ex-wife is abroad. There’s just one problem. The bronze statue weights more than five-hundred pounds. Can Dortmunder pull off this heist without giving himself a hernia? Will he actually get paid? Will he ever make it to the backroom at the O.J.? There’s only one way to find out.
Blurbs frequently describe the Dortmunder novels as “Runyonesque,” an adjective that is all but meaningless to me. (Evidently it refers to Damon Runyon, who wrote humorous stories about NYC underworld characters in the days of Prohibition.) If forced to pick a single adjective, I would choose something simple, like “fun.” Though the Dortmunder novels and stories utilize the structure of grittier heist fiction, they contain a lot less violence and lot more dry humor and absurd situations. I’ve always enjoyed bad ass action, but in recent years, the straight stuff has become a little hard to take. I’m sure I’ll always be a Parker fan, but I’m becoming increasingly fond of Dortmunder.