What's So Funny? is the latest Dortmunder novel by Donald E. Westlake, and it's just as good as my first one, Watch Your Back!, if not a little better. Many of my problems with that book disappear in this one, and the book itself is much tighter with fewer tangents that Westlake must tie together – then even the tangents that Westlake does give us all actually have something to do with the caper, at least in some fashion. The ending makes it all worthwhile, bringing together what may not be a perfect book but is still a very good one.
Poor John Dortmunder, a master thief who just wants to lead a simple life of crimes that don't hurt anybody (much). One night, after walking into the O.J. Bar & Grill where he and his buddies hang out, he's approached by an ex-cop who's now a private detective (retired seventeen months). It seems one of Eppick's first clients is a rich man named Hemlow who wants to have a valuable object retrieved. Right after U.S. involvement in the Russian revolution ended in 1920, a valuable chess set that was to be a present to the Tsar was taken from St. Petersburg by the American unit stationed there. The pieces, covered in precious gems, were smuggled out by Hemlow's ancestor's unit piece by piece, to be assembled later once they returned to the States. But their commanding officer who was supposed to put the set together, ended up disappearing with it. Now one of Hemlow's granddaughters thinks she's found it, and Hemlow wants it retrieved. Eppick holds incriminating evidence against Dortmunder, and John is trapped in a situation that he doesn't want to be in, told to commit a crime with no chance of succeeding, or he'll be going to prison. Hijinks ensue.
It’s a treat watching Dortmunder become ensnared in this web, unable to get himself out of it and knowing that he has to figure out how to do the impossible. Westlake's dialogue is a gem; it's hilarious whenever John gets dragged one more step toward the abyss (even though I doubt he would even know what the abyss is). This caper gets even more outlandish than the last one, especially when he's told that the chess set is secured in a bank vault deep below one of the taller buildings in New York City with state-of-the-art security. Even step of the way, John's beaten down further and further, almost resigning himself to the orange jumpsuit he's going to be wearing when he either gets busted for this crime or goes to prison because Eppick has provided the evidence he has to the police. And the poor guy has to keep taking a taxi all over the city!
Westlake's characters are done brilliantly as well, though not as well-defined as in Watch Your Back!, perhaps because this one is less an ensemble piece than that book was. This one is Dortmunder's all the way, with some supporting work by the wonderful Andy Kelp. The rest of the gang is definitely there, but they are mostly included because John needs a crew to be able to pull this off, and to provide additional comic relief. Everything about Dortmunder is perfect, though, from his gathering gloom to his watching the television without turning it on because he's so depressed to his quick thinking to take advantage of a changing situation.
Some of the other characters aren't quite as good, and they do dilute the book a little bit. We not only get Eppick and Hemlow (who aren't too bad themselves, though nothing special) but also Hemlow's lawyer granddaughter, Fiona, and her new boss (and descendent of the original commanding officer), Mrs. W. We see quite a bit of Fiona's personal life with both her boyfriend and Mrs. W. While it is important that we get to know them somewhat due to a later plot point, too much time is spent on them. They slow the book down greatly when they were on the page, especially Brian and Fiona's domestic life (or lack thereof) and how Fiona is fretting about going to Brian's work party.
Thankfully, that's the only slow part, and the other side characters do end up being important to either the plot or the twist at the end. Everybody from the private detective hired by Mrs. W's lawyer to the young people who are staying unannounced at the hideout where Dortmunder's planning on bringing the chess set are important, even if they don't seem to be at the time.
It's nice to see a caper that doesn't go off quite as planned, and it's fun to watch the improvisation involved when things go wrong from the start because somebody wanted to get an early jump and went ahead of schedule. The last sixty or so pages are a blast as the crime begins in earnest and the characters react to the events happening around them. Dortmunder and Crew’s final gambit is utter brilliance, a masterpiece of a crime that goes off without any violence whatsoever (which is another good thing about these books: there isn't a lot of bloodshed in them). The final twist at the end is even better, predictable in a way, but only if you think Westlake will honestly go that way (he does).
What's So Funny? (A Dortmunder Novel) continues Westlake’s punctuation-marks-in-the-title of books. It also answers the question posed by the title by declaring itself to be a rollicking good ride. With almost perfect characterization and humor throughout the book, this is yet another Dortmunder winner. It's too bad the poor guy himself can't catch a break, because his books are wonderful. Maybe that's why.