Friday, December 20, 2013

What's the Worst That Could Happen? by Donald Westlake

This is the I Ching symbol that starts
the trouble for John Dortmunder.

What's the Worst That Could Happen? When John Dortmunder and his crew are involved, plenty. In the ninth caper starring the hapless professional thief Dortmunder, the tables are turned and the burglar gets robbed.

Here's the set up:

Trans-Global Universal Industries - TUI - is owned by wealthy, arrogant, I Ching-consulting Max Fairbanks. Max Fairbanks's Long Island home (one of his many residences) is burgled by John Dortmunder. Only Max catches John in the act. The police are called. Max accuses John of stealing his ring - a cheap thing that Dortmunder wears for good luck - and the police strip the ring from Dortmunder's hand and give it to Max, the not-rightful owner. The ring's signet, if you will, is the I Ching symbol of twee, the Joyous. It is TUI's logo and is what Fairbanks based his whole corporation on. So naturally, Max thinks he has a right to possess the ring.

The police shuffle Dortmunder off to jail, but he escapes. His mission in life now becomes Get the Ring Back. It's the principle of the thing, you know? 

He sets out tracking Max and the ring - a journey that takes him and his good friend Andy Kelp to Fairbanks's penthouse apartments in Manhattan and in the Watergate complex in Washington D.C. and eventually to Las Vegas. John is not a big fan of travel which makes his forays out of New York City all the more amusing. And as is the way in the life of The Dortmunder, the worst that could happen usually does and is always hilarious.

The following telling characterization of Earl Radner, chief of security for TUI mega-corporation, is why I love Donald Westlake: 

Anyway, Earl was not a man noted for much sense of humor. A compact, hard-muscled ex-marine probably in his fifties, he had a pouter pigeon's chest and walk -- or strut -- a sand-colored nailbrush mustache, and stiff orangey hair cropped so close to his tan scalp he looked like a drought. His clothing was usually tan and always clean, creased, starched, and worn like a layer of aluminum siding. If he had a home life nobody knew it, and if he had a sorrow in his existence it was probably that this job didn't come with a license to kill.

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