In the course of his 75 years, Donald E. Westlake (1933-2008) published more than 100 novels and nonfiction books. He’s best known for his comic stories about crime capers, especially the fourteen books in the Dortmunder series about (to crib a phrase from Jimmy Breslin) a “gang that couldn’t shoot straight.” He wrote under numerous pen names, but the Dortmunder novels published from 1970 to 2009 all appeared under his own. They’re all funny, sometimes hilarious, but are otherwise typically straightforward caper novels about burglaries. However, in the third book in that series, Jimmy the Kid, Westlake ventured into kidnapping and employed a device more commonly used by literary novelists: the book within a book.
Jimmy the Kid (Dortmunder #3) by Donald E. Westlake (1974) 196 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)
An ingenious wrinkle on the comic caper novel
Westlake was surely laughing to himself when he set up one of Dortmunder’s hapless colleagues in crime, Andy Kelp, with a copy of an imaginary caper novel by someone named Richard Stark. Which just happened to be Westlake’s most familiar pseudonym. So, when Kelp goes running to John Dortmunder insisting on using the book as a model for a kidnapping, you know you’re in for a good time. Naturally, “Richard Stark” wrote about a brilliant gang who pull off a fiendishly complex caper. And, just as predictably, Dortmunder and his less-than-brilliant associates will manage to screw it up. But the fun, of course, is in the how, and it’s all wrapped up with a surprise at the end.
For additional reading
I’ve reviewed several other Dortmunder novels, including The Hot Rock (Dortmunder #1), reviewed at Dortmunder’s first caper goes awry again and again, Bank Shot (Dortmunder #2), my review of which is at A hilarious crime novel featuring dumb criminals and a harebrained scheme, and Get Real (Dortmunder #14) by Donald E. Westlake—Dortmunder’s last caper, funny to the end.
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