Friday, July 13, 2007

What's So Funny?

By Donald Westlake

John Dortmunder is one of life's failures. First off he is a career criminal. Secondly he is cursed with bad luck. It's too bad, because he is pretty good at what he does: he's a burglar. If it weren't for his bad luck, he would be a wealthy man. As I have followed his dubious career as told in the Dortmunder novels, I have seen him come so close to the big score only to have it all slip through his fingers, usually do to some unexpected twist of fate.
In What's So Funny, Dortmunder and gang have the opportunity to steal an extremely valuable gold and jeweled chess set that had been originally made for the last czar of Russia. But the revolution ended the czar and the chess set ended up in a warehouse where it was discovered by a group of American soldiers during World War I. They smuggled the chess set back to the USA only to have it stolen by one of their confederates.
At the start of the story, the descendants of one of the soldiers, Mr. Hemlow and his granddaughter, have finally tracked the chess set down and they come to Dortmunder to get him to grab it for them. But the chess set is being fought over by the thieving soldier's descendants and has been locked in a very secure bank vault pending litigation. Dortmunder knows he can't bust into a bank vault, but Johnny Eppick, the ex-cop who is working for Mr. Hemlow, has compromising photos of Dortmunder pulling a heist, and Dortmunder is forced to do the impossible.
Helped by his usual pals, Andy the lock man, Stan the driver, Tiny the muscle and others, Dortmunder comes up with a brilliant plan. Breaking into the bank vault is out. But what if he can arrange for the chess set to be brought out of the vault? This is a surefire, can't fail plan...or will another fortune slip through Dortmunder's sticky fingers?
I enjoyed this novel, just like I have enjoyed the previous Dortmunder stories. If you are a fan of the series, you won't be disappointed in this new installment. But I keep hoping that one day Dortmunder will finally pull off the fabulous score that will set him and his gal May and the rest of the gang up for life. But knowing poor, doomed Dortmunder...

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Way West

By Alfred B. Guthrie, Jr.

This novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for 1950, is the story of a wagon train headed west on the Oregon Trail in 1846, starting off in Independence, Missouri and headed for the Columbia River and Fort Vancouver in the Oregon Territory. This is story of hardy pioneers, determined to reach their goal, despite hardship, accidents, sickness and death. People do die on the trail, one to fever, one to snakebite and one to premature birth. But the pioneers keep on trucking, looking for the gold at the end of the rainbow. At one point, the wagon train splits apart, as one group decides to head for California as they have heard the trail is easier than the one to Oregon. The pilot of the train, Dick Summers, is an old mountain man, trail wise and eager to get away from civilization and farming and back to his roots. His great wisdom and sound advice are the key to the success of the effort as he guides the pioneers through treacherous river crossings, across burning deserts, and on steep, nearly impassible mountain tracks. It's a pretty good story, engrossing and easy to read.
This novel was made into a movie in 1967 starring Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark and Sally Field.
A word about the way the native peoples are portrayed in this book. Guthrie doesn't have a much sympathy for the people who will end up being pushed off the land by his doughty settlers. He most often describes them as dirty, smelly, naked, thieving, lousy and shiftless, with their hands out for whatever they can beg or steal from the settlers passing through their country. At one point, one of the characters is describing an Indian cemetery, saying, "You'll never set your eye on more good Injuns than right there," meaning all the dead Indians. I wouldn't call it an even handed or fair portrait but certainly typical of the times in which it was written. Apparently the racism didn't bother the Pulitzer committee when they were considering it for the prize.