John Dortmunder

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John Archibald Dortmunder is a fictional character created by Donald E. Westlake, and who is the protagonist of 14 novels and 11 short stories published between 1970 and 2009. He first appeared in the novel The Hot Rock, published in 1970.

Westlake originally intended The Hot Rock to feature his character Parker and to publish it under his Richard Stark pseudonym. However, the plot involves a precious gem that is stolen, lost, reacquired, stolen again, lost again (and so forth), which seemed too comic a situation for a hard-boiled creation like Parker. Westlake therefore rewrote the novel with a more bumbling and likable cast of characters, led by a pessimistic, hard-luck professional thief. A neon sign Westlake spotted, which reported the extended version of the DAB beer acronym "Dortmunder Actien Bier", suggested the name for the book's new protagonist.[1]

Dortmunder is similar to Parker in several ways. He is a career criminal and a "planner," creating schemes for burglaries and assigning responsibilities to his team.

Dortmunder is tall with stooped shoulders and "lifeless thinning hair-colored hair" and has a disreputable "hangdog" face which rarely smiles. He shares a home with a longtime girlfriend, May Bellamy, a supermarket cashier; they live in Manhattan on East 19th Street. Unlike Parker, however, Dortmunder is a nonviolent character who devises schemes that are usually outlandish and over-the-top.

Character background[edit]

Very little is known of Dortmunder's childhood. It is mentioned in more than one book that he was abandoned at birth and raised in an orphanage in the fictional town of Dead Indian, Illinois, run by the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery.

Dortmunder married a nightclub entertainer whose stage name was 'Honeybun Bazoom' shortly before he left the country to serve in Korea in 1952. The marriage took place in San Diego; upon his return from Korea, they were divorced in Reno in 1954.

Dortmunder has been twice convicted of burglary charges, serving time in prison – he is completing the final day of his second prison term at the very beginning of The Hot Rock. Always hanging over Dortmunder's head is the knowledge that a third conviction will mean that he will be placed in prison for the rest of his life, with no chance of parole.

The fact that something almost always goes wrong with Dortmunder's jobs, in spite of careful planning, has given him the reputation of being jinxed—and despite claiming not to be superstitious, Dortmunder has believed so, too. In fact, Dortmunder gets worried when things go smoothly and seems relieved when something does go wrong. In most novels, Dortmunder's team earn only small amounts of money; the resultant heists, therefore, are only Pyrrhic victories, and the moral for the reader is that Crime Does Not Pay .. at least not very well. However, Dortmunder is not always unlucky, and in some novels and stories he and his crew make out quite well.

Dortmunder has occasionally used the alias "John Diddums" (he claims to anyone who asks that it's Welsh), a name he dislikes but uses involuntarily in circumstances that preclude using his real name.

The motto of his family crest (which he admits he stole) is "Quid lucrum istic mihi est?" ("What's in it for me?").

While a firm believer that for a job one should "Never go in with fewer people than you need" (Get Real), Dortmunder as a rule never works with more than four other people, his thinking being that if a job can't be pulled with a maximum gang of five then it's too risky. However in What's The Worst That Could Happen?, a job in Las Vegas (robbing a Las Vegas Strip casino) is so irresistible to other associates that he winds up with a total "crew" of twenty people.

As is common with characters in long-running series, Dortmunder and his companions seem to be more-or-less frozen at the age they were when we first met them. His age is given as 37 in 1970's The Hot Rock, and as 40 in 1977's "Nobody's Perfect"; thereafter, Dortmunder would appear to be somewhere in his early forties throughout the series' nearly forty-year run.

Associates[edit]

Except in a few short stories, where Dortmunder is working alone, each of Dortmunder's plans calls for a "string" (or team). Seen most frequently are:

  • Andy Kelp: All-purpose crook Andy Kelp is Dortmunder's best friend, though Dortmunder would be the first to deny this. Cheerful and optimistic where Dortmunder is dour and relentlessly pessimistic, Kelp is boundlessly enthusiastic and full of (sometimes questionable) ideas. In appearance, he is shorter than Dortmunder, has a pointy nose, and has birdlike mannerisms. An experienced thief, Kelp has a notable penchant for stealing cars with M.D. plates, his reasoning being that doctors have both the money and the ego to provide themselves with the very best. Kelp also loves to adopt the newest electronic gadgets, generally to Dortmunder's disgust. Because Kelp has brought Dortmunder many eventually unsuccessful jobs (or jobs that promised great payment but which dismally disappoint all members of the "string"), Dortmunder has been known to call Kelp a jinx. However, Dortmunder is generally loyal to Kelp throughout the series, even if he sometimes finds him exasperating (especially as Kelp has developed the habit of picking the lock on John's apartment door and entering without knocking or ringing the doorbell first). Kelp has an older sister, whose adult son Victor (a former FBI agent who wanted the FBI to have a secret handshake) plays a role in some of the gang's misadventures (Bank Shot and Nobody's Perfect). Although unmarried over the course of the series, Kelp is known to have had at least two prior marriages, presumably dissolved.
  • Stan Murch: Stocky, red-headed Stan Murch is the gang's usual driver. Genial and uncomplicated, Murch lives with his cab-driver mother (usually referred to as "Murch's Mom," though her first name is revealed as Gladys in Drowned Hopes.) Murch's life revolves around cars; he listens to audio recordings of the Indianapolis 500 for relaxation, and virtually every conversation he has will include a detailed account of his most recent trip in his car.

Kelp and Murch are the only regulars to appear in every novel. Kelp also appears in many of the short stories. Over the course of the series, several other regulars were gradually added to the mix, including:

  • Tchotchkus "Tiny" Bulcher: Introduced in Nobody's Perfect. A specialist in Thuggery, Tiny is a massive, muscular "man mountain" of Eastern European ancestry; one of the more interesting descriptions of him is "a medium range intercontinental ballistic missile with legs. Also arms, about the shape of fire hydrants but longer, and a head, about the shape of a fire hydrant." (What's The Worst That Could Happen?). He is used to getting exactly what he wants, and due to his size and physical strength (he has been known to steal cars by merely lifting them onto a flatbed truck), he doesn't have to ask for it twice. He often tells stories about past crimes that have sometimes gone wrong and the dire consequences he has administered on his cronies if they were to blame for the failed scheme. He generally finds Dortmunder and his cronies amusing – much to their relief.
  • Rollo: The bartender at the O.J. Bar and Grill on Amsterdam Avenue, the favorite hangout and meeting place for Dortmunder and his people. He remembers all of his customers by their drinking preferences, even when the customer hasn't set foot inside the bar for years, and usually refers to his customers by their drinks. He willingly turns a blind eye to what goes on in the bar's back room, but makes sure that there's no trouble in the main room. He runs the bar for the real owner, who's retired to Florida, and keeps him informed of how things are going.
  • Arnie Albright: Dortumunder's usual fence. Arnie lives alone in a squalid apartment on the Upper West Side and collects calendars. Through his appearance and behavior, Arnie repulses every character he encounters, but he is fully aware of this and compensates by offering better terms than his competitors. Even Dortmunder can't always stand dealing with Arnie and from time to time deals with another fence named Stoon instead.
  • Judson "The Kid" Blint: Introduced in Watch Your Back. Determined to meet the mysterious and elusive J. C. Taylor (see below), Judson arrived unannounced at her offices looking for a job. J. C. immediately saw through him and his fake résumé, but sensed his potential and hired him as her assistant to take over the day-to-day running of her mail-order scams. He originally joined Dortmunder's gang as something of a mascot/protégé, but by the time of Get Real has been accepted as one of them (even if he hasn't yet settled on what he drinks at the OJ).
  • Max: Proprietor of Maximillian's Used Cars. Max is a stereotypically dishonest used car dealer who is perennially unhappy with the state of his business. When Stan Murch (or others in the gang) wants to dispose of vehicles they have stolen in exchange for some quick cash, Max is usually the buyer.

Also of note are the various wives, girlfriends and female family members of the regulars, who often find their way into the plots. These regulars are sometimes employed directly in the gang's criminal enterprises, other times they are not. But they are all seen frequently, and could certainly be accused of aiding and abetting Dortmunder and his cronies in all their endeavors:

  • May Bellamy: Dortmunder's long-standing live-in girlfriend, introduced in Bank Shot (the second novel). She is a supermarket cashier; they met when she caught Dortmunder shoplifting. She's thin, dark-haired, a chain-smoker (although she gives this up in later novels, resorting to fake-smoking), and usually more optimistic than Dortmunder (which isn't hard). She also can successfully keep him from becoming discouraged. During lean times, she keeps the two of in them in groceries that she steals from whichever store she's working in at the moment.
  • Josephine Carol "J.C." Taylor: Introduced in Good Behavior. Known as "J.C.", she is a sexy, tough businesswoman who runs several shady mail order enterprises, including a detective course, a song poem service, and her best-selling product by far: a profusely illustrated 'educational' sex manual in which Josie herself is the primary female model. In later books, she delegates the day-to-day operations of these scams in order to focus her attention on Maylohda ("mail order" in a New York pronunciation), a nonexistent country she created (and acts as Commercial Attaché for) in order to receive economic development aid. She is Tiny's girlfriend, but only Tiny calls her "Josie".
  • Anne Marie Carpinaw: Introduced in What's The Worst That Could Happen?. A senator's daughter from the midwest, abandoned in New York by her husband, she became Andy Kelp's girlfriend after meeting him in a hotel bar and then becoming involved with him in Dortmunder's vengeful pursuit of Max Fairbanks. She has since moved in with Andy and has accepted his unusual lifestyle.
  • Gladys Murch: Almost always referred to as "Murch's Mom", a temperamental cabdriver, usually out for a quick buck.

Several other specialists appear less frequently in the series, such as Ralph Winslow (a lockman), Wally Whistler (an extremely absentminded lockman who once accidentally released a lion from its cage at the zoo) Jim O'Hara (a recently released burglar who still hasn't lost his prison pallor) and Herman Jones (a black lockman formerly known as "Herman X" when he was a black radical and "Herman Makanene Stulu'mbnick" when he was briefly Vice-President of the African nation of Talabwo). Other memorable associates/appearances include Wilbur Howey (a lockman recently released after a forty-eight year sentence [originally ten years, but he kept escaping and getting immediately caught]), Roger Chefwick (a lockman who's crazy about model trains) and Fred and Thelma Lartz (a husband-wife driving team, but Thelma now does the actual driving because Fred has lost his nerve after nearly being run down by an Eastern Airlines flight on a Kennedy Airport runway).

When planning their heists, the group usually meets in the back room of the O.J. Bar and Grill (whoever gets there first gets the chair facing the door; Tiny is the only one who doesn't mind sitting with his back to the door). At these meetings, Andy and Dortmunder drink the Amsterdam Liquor Store Bourbon (labeled "Our Own Brand"), Murch drinks beer and salt (due to his status as a driver, he prefers to nurse one beer, and the salt restores the head on it), Ralph Winslow drinks rye and water with lots of ice-cubes which he keeps clinking, and Tiny drinks a tincture of red wine and vodka (described as looking like "flat cherry soda"). Scenes set in the public areas of the O.J. usually involve the unnamed "regulars" at the bar, who provide comic relief by engaging in heated arguments on various topics of which they are ignorant.

Significant Items stolen by Dortmunder[edit]

  • The Balabomo Emerald (The Hot Rock)
  • The Capitalists' & Immigrants' Trust Bank (Bank Shot)
  • The Byzantine Fire (a ruby) (Why Me?)
  • The Femur of St. Ferghana (Don't Ask)
  • The bodies of two 70-years-dead Indians (Bad News)
  • A gold chess set originally intended as a gift for Czar Nicholas II (What's So Funny?)

Appearances[edit]

Novels[edit]

Shorter Works[edit]

  • Thieves' Dozen (2004), a collection of ten Dortmunder short stories and one related story.
  • "Walking Around Money" (2005), a novella in the anthology Transgressions, edited by Ed McBain.

Films[edit]

Trivia[edit]

  • The IAV Dortmunder is shown to be the name of an Alliance Capital Cruiser on the television show Firefly. This is possibly a reference to the fact that the main cast consists of thieves and crooks, in the same vein as Dortmunder himself.
  • Dortmunder also makes a cameo appearance in Spider Robinson's Lady Slings the Booze. Late in the novel, the hero takes out a copy of Good Behavior and reads several chapters.

References[edit]