Author of the Month

Name: Donald Westlake

First Novel: The Mercenaries

Most Recent Book: What's So Funny?

'… a sassy, amusing and involving novel'

John Dortmunder is accosted by Johnny Eppick, a retired cop turned detective. He has a few choice photos of one of Dortmunder’s previous ‘jobs’. So that it won’t turn up at the local police station, Eppick insists he needs Dortmunder’s help to get something a new client desperately needs. Soon, Dormunder finds that the object that Eppick’s client desires is locked away in a vault which will be impossible to penetrate.

The desired object is a jewel encrusted chess set which has been missing since the Great War. Now it is found and Eppick’s client is determined to get his hands on what he feels is rightfully his. Dormunder and his cohorts are involved and up to their necks. It will take a great deal of ingenuity and luck to pull off this caper.

Westlake has created a group of men who exist on their wits and live every day looking out for the next scam that will make them the fortune they crave. When Dormunder is blackmailed into taking on a commission to gain access to a jewelled chess set, the reader soon gets the sense that everything is certainly not going to slot into place too easily. The author has created a group of characters who are very appealing, despite the fact that they err on the wrong side of the law. Take Dortmunder’s partner in crime, Andy Kelp, who likes to go out shopping - but not the way we know it. Kelp comes back wearing two suits and several overcoats, all of which will be sold on for cash. What this team gets up to leaves you breathless at its audacity.

Westlake has written a sassy, amusing and involving novel in What’s So Funny? There is no body and no gore. What you do get is a witty, thrilling novel of five guys who are going to steal a chess set that many people covet. From there, Westlake takes you on an incredible adventure. The reader follows the plans the guys make and the unknown elements that seems to thwart them at every step. The writing is slick – in the best sense - whilst the observations are fresh and spot on. Despite initially not being sure about the title, this is a book I read in a day and simply couldn’t put down. I will certainly be waiting with baited breath to read the next instalment featuring John Dortmunder and his motley crew.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) As it slowly evolves and increases in popularity, crime fiction seems to be organically sub-dividing into a number of widely diverse categories. Which genre (or sub-genre, even…) of crime novel would you say you write in?
Robert Benchley once said, "There are 2 kinds of people in the world. Those who believe there are 2 kinds of people in the world, and those who don't." In a similar vein, Larry Block once suggested there be only two mystery novel prizes every year: The best one with a cat in it and the best one without. Suffering from double vision, I seem to be in 2 genres: Hardboiled pulp, very craft-driven, and slightly-over-the-top yarn-spinning, very character-driven. It means I can always let one field lie fallow.
2) What type of crime novels do you like to read? Do you prefer series or standalone?
It sounds ungrateful to say so, but I have trouble with series. Even Patrick O' Brian, I ran out of steam after 4 books. Several years ago I learned to my delight that my accountant had a motto or slogan: "No Surprises." I told him then I hadn't realized before how exactly the opposite our jobs are. When you're doing a series, it's hard to keep the surprises coming. What would he do that would be plausible for him to do that you don't already know? Ah, well.
3) Your main five protagonists are all con artists. What made you decide to focus the series on these characters?
It's not necessarily con artist. It's simply being on the other side of the law. I find that interesting because the tasks are harder, the risks are larger, and the rewards, if any, can be utterly gratifying. Some of us are born with the trickster gene, and this is one of the places it leads.
4) Part of the story is about the theft of a lost chess set from World War One. Is this based on fact or pure invention?
The chess set was my invention. The historical reality that got me started was that British and American troops had fought Russian troops on Russian soil in 1919 and 1920, when there wasn't supposed to be a war on. It's the only time uniformed American soldiers have fought uniformed Russian soldiers on Russian soil. So far, they have not had a return match.
5) You invest the story with a lot of humour. Do you see the crime genre and comedic writing as natural bedfellows?
I used to hang out with some stand-up comics, of the take-no-prisoners variety. Their greatest praise is, "He's a killer." They couldn't wait to leap on the other guy's line and top it. Crime and comedy are both dangerous enterprises that reward quick thinking.
6) We get to discover a lot of the tricks of the con artists. How did you research this area?
I don't know anything about making a soufflé. I know some things about topics that interest me or amuse me, and in those areas details tend to stick.
7) The guys seem to get a raw deal at the end of the book. Does this indicate a metaphorical comeuppance suggesting crime does not pay?
The only reason crime doesn't pay for those fellows is, I can't afford to let them retire.
8) Without giving away the plot, which book - yours or by another author - included your favourite plot twist of all time?
My favorite plot twist of all time was in Ira Levin's A KISS BEFORE DYING. In Part 1, we see 3 plausible suitors for one rich girl. Part 2 begins from the point of view of one of the suitors, who's a villain and a murderer, and we suddenly realize, in Part 1, we didn't get their names.We're inside the guy's head, and we don't know which one he is.
9) What is your favourite movie adaptation of a crime novel?
THE MALTESE FALCON. However, my second favorite is POINT BLANK.
10) Would you describe yourself as a crime fiction fan in general and, if so, which authors do you most admire and why?
I began reading everything and then, in the middle passage, specialised more in crime fiction and comedy fiction. Then I broadened again, and now I read very little crime fiction, except Elmore Leonard.
11) What is your favourite crime read of all time?
THE RED RIGHT HAND, by Joel Townsley Rodgers. Try to read the first sentence and shut the book.