Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Magrs Method of Book Reporting: Don't Ask by Donald Westlake

Encapsulate the plot in one sentence?

A gang of crooks reluctantly attempt to steal a relic to help representatives of a tiny country gain a seat at the United Nations: the femur of their patron saint, a promiscuous teenage girl, at present in the  hands of representatives of a rival country with a cargo boat for an "embassy".

When was it published?

1993. This edition was a paperback from 1994.

Where did you get it? Why did you get it?

Unfinished business - I had tried reading library copies of this book twice before years ago, then found an unread copy for a good price at a used book store back in January...I decided then and there to give the book one more chance and finish it this time...whether I liked it or not.

What's your verdict?

Too long - all of the books Donald Westlake wrote in the 1990s appear to have been written to fulfill a quota: heavily padded, at no less than 400 pages. The theft of the femur bone takes up less than a quarter of the book - much of the plot is spent on the gang of thieves assembling, planning, then getting revenge with a different caper...and then it ends with a dumb joke. Westlake's best books were usually half this length and his more-acclaimed were the Parker novels written under the "Richard Stark" pseudonym.

A fault I  find with Westlake's writing across the board are the long sequences that become hard to visualize...possibly because Westlake is describing something he's never really seen or experienced firsthand and is drawing from his own imagination. He'll have characters make entrances and exits through shafts, tunnels, corridors, windows, rafters, rooftops, sewers...and it's never clear what's happening until that sequence ends...five, six, seven pages later. One of the Parker novels (Comeback) involved a showdown at an abandoned building that had once been renovated so that the elevator shaft had been converted into closet spaces for every of course, our characters will make this discovery and start breaking through the floors of these closets and going through the shafts to one-up eachother. It's clever, but overwrought and lacking the eloquence to realize how cool an idea it was.

What surprises did the book have, if any?

I enjoyed the sequences featuring the minor secondary or even tertiary characters and not necessarily the leads. I love reading any scene in the Dortmunder novels when Arnie the fence shows up, or when Dortmunder's girlfriend May appears, and the from-out-of-left-field subplot involving an insurance claims investigator who carries himself like he's Sam Spade and shows off his findings in an Agatha Christie-style "I have gathered you all here today..." gathering that is actually a trap for his client (!) - this part of the book could've easily been it's own story.

What genre would you say this book is?

A "Comedic Crime" Caper novel. In these types of books, the so-called "MacGuffin" - in this case, the femur bone - becomes irrelevant for most of the middle of the book and the real plot is the thieves attempt to avoid getting caught or get revenge for a doublecross in the aftermath. The "comedy" usually comes from a bad case of Murphy's Law: Anything bad that can happen, will happen. Characters arrive late, thieves get robbed by other thieves, the prize gets lost in ridiculous ways, key players end up in jail under different circumstances - all in various ways. Often the books end with the thieves breaking even or no better or worse than when they started at the beginning.

What other works have you read by this author?

Mostly the Dortmunder novels, but I have read some of the Parker novels, as well as Lemons Never Lie, the Groffield one, but I would recommend you look for Bank Shot, Jimmy the Kid, Why Me? and Get Real, Westlake's last Do rtmunder adventure, in which the gang is cast in a reality show about a gang of thieves plotting a caper...and they opt for robbing the production company behind the show instead.

Can you give us a good quote from THIS book?

Sure. Check out the gallery below.

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