For the sixth novel in the Dortmunder series, Donald E. Westlake invokes a couple of elements from his epic novels (KAHAWA and HIGH ADVENTURE), particularly in the involvement of a late appearing group of soldiers that was only hinted at prior to its appearance, some religious-tenet wrastling from his comic novel, BROTHERS KEEPERS, and then tosses Dortmunder and his crew into the mix. The result is a laugh out loud funny novel as well as a work that makes a few sly satiric jabs at the world circa 1986. In the writing of the book, however, Westlake managed to do the one thing many authors hope and pray for: He managed to pen a work that is as relevant thirty plus years after it was written as it was when it was first published. Well, Westlake managed to do this more than once, really, which is a miracle all on its own. The book under consideration today is the novel GOOD BEHAVIOR.
It starts off innocently enough. As with JIMMY THE KID or WHY ME?, our flappable hero John Dortmunder is caught up in a crime that goes poorly. In this case, he is on the roof of a building he intends to bust into with the help of a lock man by the name of O’Hara, only to discover that an alarm has been tripped, the police are en route, and O’Hara has decided he needs to be elsewhere post haste. O’Hara gets nabbed before he can get away, leaving John out to dry. Our hero manages to flee the building by jumping onto a neighboring one only to end up with a twisted ankle and falling into a convent. Well, he figures the nuns being godly and all that, they will be turning him in. However, although he is in the wrong place, he has arrived at the right time: These nuns are in need of someone with his peculiar set of skills. One of their number, the newest member Sister Mary Grace (aka Elaine Ritter) has been taken, and they want her back. They have been praying for God to deliver them a means of getting her back and Dortmunder’s fortuitous entry is taken to be God’s answer. Also, it turns out the nuns have taken a vow of silence (which allows them to speak only for two hours on Thursdays) so they would not have blabbed to the cops anyway—they would have written notes instead.
Well, Dortmunder is caught in a dilemma. The nuns have effectively helped him out, and to get away from them he made a promise to help them get their missing sister in return. However, kidnapping a girl is not exactly up his alley—the last time he got involved in that particular crime ended in a lousy way to say the least (see JIMMY THE KID)—particularly since this missing girl is not missing at all, she’s being held by her father while a psychologist performs a particular bit of head messing on her. As he explains to Andy Kelp:
Dortmunder said, “Except her father’s treating her like one of those kids goes off with the cults, you know, the Moonies and like that. He’s got her locked up, and he’s got this deprogrammer in there, doing his number on her.”
Kelp said, “He’s deprogramming her out of the Catholic Church?”
“That’s the idea.” (location 367)
Of course, May rears her head similar to Parker’s woman Claire rearing her head for THE BLACK ICE SCORE; she sees this job as something that is morally right and not just a little score. Dortmunder decides to give it a look, though his options for strings will be non-existent. There’s no real score here to attract a string, after all, and apart from Kelp, his coworkers are not exactly buddy enough to come in on a job like this gratis. The building the nun is being held in, a skyscraper owned by her insanely wealthy father, turns out to be home to importers, magic shops, jewelers and other folks who are classy enough to have a nigh-impregnable security system. But when Sister Mary Grace manages to smuggle out the codes and schematics to infiltrate the building’s security, everything changes. Dortmunder can get a string, after all: They will be robbing an entire building over the weekend, more loot than they could possibly hope to nab. It’s a once in a lifetime score. Enter Dortmunder’s familiar string, including wheelman Stan Murch and enforcer Tiny Bulcher. Enter, also, a brand new guy: Wilbur Howie, a recently released ex-con who Tiny vouches for as an excellent lock man. Wilbur might be a good lock guy, but he’s been in the can for an inordinate amount of time:
“I told you last night,” Tiny explained to Dortmunder, “Wilbur just got out. He was inside kind of a long while.”
“Forty-eight years,” Howey said, and winked at everybody, grinning and chirruping as though that was quite an accomplishment.
Dortmunder stared at him. “Forty-eight years? What did you do?”
“Well, it was just a nickel-dime to begin with,” Howey said, “for a lumberyard safe. But I kept escaping. That’s me, the escape artist.”
“He’s good with locks,” Tiny pointed out. “The problem is, he’s not so good with anything else.” (location 1237)
Howey never got far in his escape attempts, ending up in a culvert or similar. Like the fellow who could not keep himself from playing with locks, who ended up releasing a tiger at the zoo, Howey is a fellow unable to restrain his impulses and those impulses came to bite him on the tuckus but hard. Tiny sums everything up pretty well, after Howey tells his story.
“Then they’d add a couple years on the end of the sentence,” Tiny said, “for the escape. Wound up it took him forty-eight years to serve a ten-year sentence that he should of got out in three.” (location 1250)
Howey is one of the more difficult to like characters. He’s a cad and a womanizer, rude though not intentionally so. He’s a fish out of water, since his water has been prison for over half his lifespan. As Tiny vouched, he’s a great lock man and security guru.
So, the scheme should be straightforward, no? Well, no. This is Dortmunder and Kelp after all. It turns out Sister Mary Grace’s father has plans of his own, which involve hosting sixty hired killers in the building. A petty dictator from some nowhere country in South America (General Pozos of Guerrero, actually, which is a character and location that play roles—one central and one secondary—in two Alan Grofield novels from Westlake’s Richard Stark pseudonym) has irritated Frank Ritter, and he is readying an armed retaliation. So, even though Dortmunder and the gang think they have an angle on a building to rob over a weekend, there’s an unknown menace waiting in the wings.
GOOD BEHAVIOR is a gem of characters and plotting, one of the best of the Dortmunder novels and second funniest only to WHY ME? (at least in my admittedly screwy opinion). There are all kinds of gags in the book, including a lengthy gut buster of a sequence involving Dortmunder being unable to play a good game of charades. Likewise, there’s a fun bit about Kelp discovering cappuccino during his stakeout of the building, which culminates in a particularly memorable series of observations as well as a bill for eight of the suckers:
Stan, whipped cream on his upper lip, said, “This is coffee.” He sounded like somebody who’d been cheated.
“Yeah,” Kelp agreed. “That’s what we said. Ten cents worth of coffee, two cents worth of whipped cream and a tenth of a cent of cinnamon, for two dollars and seventy five cents.”
“I’ll stick to beer,” Stan decided, and put the cup down. (location 1663)
For a series already five books strong, GOOD BEHAVIOR still manages to find plenty to surprise and engage. This time around, for example, Tiny gets bitten by the love bug, and watching his meet-cute, initial rejection, proud competition, and outcome is a treat—no worries to those who prefer to read capers and not traditional romances, this is not a category rom-com book by any stretch of the imagination. Still, it’s great to see Goliath get knocked down by a David, and there are no Goliaths mightier than good old Tiny Bulcher.
The book is also prescient in its presentation of cultural shifts. In particular, there is a lengthy mention about America’s future as a feudal nation that rings pretty close to true all these decades later. This all comes in an exchange between the Ritter paterfamilias and his dullard of a son, Garrett:
“It’s more than exciting, Garrett,” Ritter said. “It’s real. The truth is, the pendulum has swung all the way back, several hundred years, and we are today entering upon the next great era of feudalism.” (location 1950)
Garrett of course cannot conceive of feudalism in any other way than King Arthur and his knights of the round table. His father sets him straight:
Ritter laughed, a sound that always had a threat in it. “I don’t mean myth,” he said. “I mean reality. Feudalism is a system based not on national citizenship but on loyalties and contracts between individuals. Power lies not in the state but the ownership of assets, and all fealty follows the line of power. Very sensible.”
“I guess so,” Garrett said, blinking slowly.
“Think of it this way. I am the baron. Templar International and Margrave Corporation and Avalon State Bank and so on are the castles I have built in different parts of my territory, for defense and expansion. The subsidiary companies we’ve bought or merged with owe their allegiance not to America but to Margrave. We reward loyalty and punish disloyalty. When necessary, we can protect our most important people from the laws of the state, just as the earlier barons could protect their most important vassal knights from the laws of the Catholic Church. The work force is tied to us by profit-sharing and pension plans. I don’t expect national governments to disappear, any more than the British or Dutch royal families have disappeared, but they will become increasingly irrelevant pageants. More and more, actors will play the parts of politicians and statesmen, while the real work goes on elsewhere.” (location 1954)
He goes on, of course. Ritter is a character who enjoys hearing himself talk. He goes on to discuss how the company bends immigration laws and how it has its own militia (highly trained security personnel with access to military-grade munitions) to prove his point.
While the 80s was the time when cyberpunk postulated corporations becoming nigh-godlike superpowers in their own right, Westlake’s writing seems to do a lot more to predict the kinds of loopy situations that would lead to corporate lawyers litigating to recognize companies as legal, living entities which deserve the rights possessed by all living entities.
GOOD BEHAVIOR is a sly title, too. So many of the characters in this book demonstrate the opposite behavior, and it’s fun to see the ends their antisocial or immoral actions lead them to. Of the Dortmunder books, this one seems to grapple with concepts of goodness and badness the strongest (shades of the loose morality trilogy, which includes HELP I AM BEING HELD PRISONER, TWO MUCH!, and the aforementioned BROTHERS KEEPERS) pitting Dortmunder on the side of righteousness in a roundabout way. However, he, his string, the antagonists, and even the captive nun herself all have bouts when less than charitable thoughts pass through them. How the individuals (or group) act upon these thoughts tells a lot about the individuals, and it actually feeds into an older theme Westlake worked with
Starting in his second Parker novel, Westlake returned to concerns about motivation. Folks who operated from reason were few and far between, and ultimately dangerous like scalpels: they could excise irritants. Folks who operated from instinct alone, an animal sector of the brain, did the most collateral damage and tended not to survive for long. Most of the characters are somewhere in between these two poles, but the fiction suggested that relying on instincts could get to be a habit. It was a slippery slope to oblivion, which faced plenty of Parker’s associates and adversaries, as well as characters in Westlake’s other fiction, such as the pseudonymous science fiction novel ANARCHAOS. People lose track of their ability to reason, they revert to an animal state of mind, and they survive for a little while but first they lose control and then they lose themselves. Very few characters made a comeback from that particular state, once it set in.
In the trio of books grappling with goodness and badness, the question ceased to be acting from reason or animal instinct and became something along the lines of acting from a codified morality or acting on whim. The little devil and little angel on the shoulders whisper their suggestions, and the characters gain or lose points based on the actions they take. From this perspective, there is no clear cut cases anymore. One route would not lead a character to a guaranteed death (though one route led to self-destruction of a kind) while the other would come out smelling like a rose. Instead, the characters seemed to transition from an unstable middle ground toward one pole or the other and find these transitions fraught with complications.
The Dortmunder books are not overtly about morality or other such big concerns. At surface level, they are relatively light fare about people getting mixed up by chance and maybe-possibly fate. Dig under the surface, however, and there are plenty of potentially big ideas. Nothing speaks quite as directly to psychological troubles as comedy—we have only to look at standup comedians who have been trying to grapple with depression through their comedy, successfully or not, over the years. This is one of the deeper Dortmunder books, grappling as it does with matters of good deeds and bad ones. The morality might seem screwed up to some believers—in what world, they might argue, is burglary okay? However, the morality here is far simpler: Folks who harm individuals are vile, folks who harm kingdoms/insured companies are not, but the best of all are the people who will help one another whether or not there is a personal stake involved. It’s as black and white as any Calvinist theory, and were Saint Dismas (the common criminal who was crucified alongside Jesus, and who gets a mention in the book) be able to offer a thumbs up or down to a particular code of ethics, I’m sure he would offer a thumbs up to this particular bit of non-scripture.
However, all this heavy stuff runs along in the background. It’s subtext that never once intrudes as text. Readers looking for a solid beachread-type caper will find one. Readers looking for laughs along with their crime fiction will find plenty. Readers also looking for some substance along with their laughs will find some. It’s a book for just about everyone.
On a final note, I have cribbed one of the lines from this book in conversation for my own use. When going through possible lock men, Kelp explains the sad stories behind several of them, but when the name of lock man and train-connoisseur Chefwick comes up, Tiny asks the question and Kelp answers it succinctly:
Tiny looked at him. “In our line of work,” he said, “how do you retire?”
“You stop doing what you were doing, and you do something else.” (location 1105)
It’s the perfect response to folks who say, “How can someone retire from a job like writing?” Writing is not merely a state of mind; that would be storytelling. We all tell stories to ourselves and others every damned day. However, writers are the people who actually put in hours of work to get their stories written correctly, and as Cypress Hill observed in “Rock Star”, a fun job is still a job.
At the point in his career where he wrote GOOD BEHAVIOR, Westlake is making the hard work of writing look easy. That particular talent takes lots of practice and refinement to get right. He’s found his rhythm, and while he pushes himself out of comfort zones to varying degrees of success (KAHAWA, I am looking at you), he’s shows some serious writing chops. His work sings.
GOOD BEHAVIOR is available in eBook and audiobook editions. I particularly enjoy the narrator of the audio edition. He’s got a good sense for the characters and brings some individual vocal styles to each of them. Sure, May might sound a bit like Patty or Selma, but otherwise it’s a fun, funny listen to a fun, funny, and thoughtful book.
Next up in the Considering Westlake series is the first of four offerings from another of the author’s short lived pseudonyms: Samuel Holt. The novel is ONE OF US IS WRONG. That book is available in paperback and eBook editions. That one might not show up for a couple of weeks, though. We shall see.
Westlake, Donald E. GOOD BEHAVIOR. Mysterious Press: 1985.
“Considering Westlake: Good Behavior” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Quotes and cover image taken from the eBook edition published by Open Road Media and Mysteriouspress.com.
2 thoughts on “CONSIDERING WESTLAKE: GOOD BEHAVIOR”
This is a great review, enjoying the fun and also getting into the much deeper elements of the book. This one of Westlake’s really sticks with me. I mentioned it in a podcast I was on recently, comparing it to Cory Doctorow’s *Walkaway* (similar patriarch’s attempt to deprogram his daughter from her vocation).
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That is a terrific comparison!