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Literature / Dortmunder

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Dortmunder asks the eternal question.

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

Dortmunder is a career criminal and a planner; creating schemes for burglaries, assembling a team, and assigning responsibilities. However, Dortmunder's schemes never run as smoothly as he would like them to, and almost always dissolve into a Plethora of Mistakes, followed by Crime After Crime as Dortmunder and his crew have to commit a succession of different crimes while attempting to achieve their original goal (if they haven't lost sight of the original goal altogether).

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.

The works in the Dortmunder series are:


  1. The Hot Rock
  2. Bank Shot
  3. Jimmy the Kid
  4. Nobody's Perfect
  5. Why Me?
  6. Good Behavior
  7. Drowned Hopes
  8. Don't Ask
  9. What's the Worst That Could Happen?
  10. Bad News
  11. The Road to Ruin
  12. Watch Your Back!
  13. What's So Funny?
  14. Get Real

Shorter Works:

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

Tropes in the Dortmunder series:

  • #1 Dime: In What's the Worst That Could Happen?, Dortmunder's partner May inherits a cheap shiny ring from her horse-playing uncle, who always swore the ring brought him luck. On an impulse, Dortmunder puts the ring on before going out on his next job: burgling the supposedly empty beach house of a billionaire. Dortmunder is caught by the billionaire, who—in an act of sheer pettiness—claims the ring is his and takes it off Dortmunder before handing him over to the police. The superstitious Dortmunder escapes from the police and is now convinced that the ring is lucky and that he won't have any good luck until he gets it back. What follows is a string of jobs aimed various properties owned by the billionaire. Ironically, these jobs keep scoring Dortmunder and his accomplices bigger and bigger profits but not the ring. When Dortumunder finally retrieves the ring, May is able to persuade him that maybe the ring is only lucky if he doesn't wear it, and to just leave it in his drawer from now on.
  • Abusive Parent: Frank Ritter in Good Behavior. He reacts to his youngest daughter becoming a nun instead of joining the family business by having her kidnapped and hiring a cult deprogrammer (and later a Torture Technician who fortunately never arrives in time to do anything) to force the idea out of her head.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Frank Ogalanda from Bad News is a very corrupt and unpleasant guy, but can inspire a little sympathy seeing his world crashing down around him, but finding himself unable to run away from his home and family, with his final attempted cover up just cementing his ruination.
  • Ambiguous Syntax: In The Road to Ruin, three blue-collar workers who are taken to a fancy ski lodge have this to say:
    Mac: You know, this place is about the size of our houses.
    Mark: Really? You live in a house like this?
    Mac: No, our houses. All three of them, put together.
  • Analogy Backfire: In response to an insult for his daughter Frank Ritter patronizingly says that "The sharpest thorns are in your own roses." She replies, "The rose grows from a dung heap."
  • Arab Oil Sheikh: One of the burglary victims in Nobody's Perfect is Nouveau Riche oil sheikh Rama el-Rama el-Rama El. He spends all of his page-time "cheerfully and suavely insulting everyone his glittering oily eye lit upon, making jokes about the West's incipient decline and the Arab World's upcoming dominance[.]" The best thing that can be said about him is that he doesn't laugh about an anti-Semitic joke, and even that may have just been because the joke was badly told.
  • Ax-Crazy: Tom Jimson from Drowned Hopes who thinks nothing about the idea of blowing up a dam and causing a flood the will kill hundreds to retrieve some money.
  • Badass Driver: Stan Murch is the driver for Dortmunder's Caper Crew, and is generally acknowledged as being the best wheelman in the New York underworld. His mother, who is a new York cabbie, is possibly an even better driver than Stan.
  • Bank Robbery: In Bank Shot Dortmunder and associates steal the entire bank, which is temporarily located in a trailer.
  • Bavarian Fire Drill: Dortmunder pulls this off brilliantly in What's the Worst That Could Happen?, managing to convince his target's bodyguards to hand the target over to him by faking a fire. (Incidentally, this is one of the few times where A Simple Plan of Dortmunder's runs exactly as he envisaged it.)
  • Becoming the Mask:
    • When the infiltrate Monroe Hall's estate disguised as servants in The Road to Ruin, Kelp gets a little too involved in fulfilling his duties as Hall's private secretary and trying to secure him much-needed good PR (although this also helps him stay above suspicion from almost everyone).
    • In Get Real the team gets a job at a reality show as a part of a plan to burglarize the building, but to Dortmunder's horror the others become to really get invested in the show and want to keep doing it.
  • Born Unlucky: Dortmunder has an uncanny ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by having the most unlikely things go wrong. He actually feels uneasy if everything is going too well on a job.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: In "The Road to Ruin," Mark and Os's partners don't see why one of them can't impersonate a horse trainer to infiltrate Hall's estate without being recognized, doubting that they'd stand out in Hall's memory from his countless other investors. Mark and Os reply that they would stand out though, as, during their last meeting, Os threw a golf trophy at Hall's head while Mark "wrestled Os to the ground, then wasted two or three minutes apologizing to the bastard." During the kidnapping, Hall does recognize Mark's voice (to the group's terror) but all Hall can remember is that it involved:
    Some unpleasant association in the past, but that didn't help much; most of his conversations in the last few years had involved unpleasant associations.
  • The Caper: Every Dortmunder story is a caper of some variety.
  • Clipboard of Authority: In What's the Worst That Could Happen?, Dortmunder and Kelp are able to gain access to almost every area of the Watergate complex by dressing as engineers and carrying clipboards.
  • Caper Crew: Dortmunder is the Mastermind, Kelp is the Partner In Crime, Murch is the Driver, and Tiny Bulcher is the Muscle.
  • The Casino:
    • In What's the Worst That Could Happen?, the final crime in the escalating series of crimes committed by Dortmunder in his attempts to regain his ring is an Ocean's Eleven style heist on Max Fairbanks' casino in Las Vegas.
    • Bad News has the crew become involved in an attempt to take partial ownership of a casino on an Indian reservation by a group of conmen having one of their number pose as the last heiress to one of the three tribes (now extinct or scattered) that has title to the reservation. The casino members representing the other two tribes put up a fight, partially to avoid having to pay an extra third in profits but mostly because they don't want an audit to show they've been embezzling.
  • Colliding Criminal Conspiracies: In the short story "Too Many Crooks," Dortmunder and Kelp tunnel into a bank right as it's being robbed by a quintet of armed gunmen. They pretend to be hostage rescue cops when they find the bank vault is filled with hostages. Moments later, the gunmen come down to the vault. Dortmunder is mistaken for one of the hostages and dragged out of the vault to be held at gunpoint as a warning to the police, while Kelp helps the hostages escape through the tunnel. Kelp also tricks the hostages into carrying all of the money out through the tunnel (so the robbers won't get it) and take it to his getaway car (which he claims is an unmarked squad car).
  • Conscience Makes You Go Back: Happens several times in Drowned Hopes when Dortmunder badly wants to abandon the job to dive for the money in the reservoir but knows that Tom would kill hundreds of people in a flood by blowing the dam if he did this. This becomes especially pronounced when May and Mrs. Murch move below the dam to provide him further incentive when he wants to give up after a near death experience diving.
  • The Convenient Store Next Door: In one of the short stories, Dortmunder and his crew tunnel into a bank from a nearby building. They emerge in the middle of another bank robbery and become part of hostage situation. They ultimately end up using their tunnel to help the hostages escape.
  • Cool Old Lady: Livia Northwood Wheeler in What's So Funny, a powerful heiress who is a fairly decent boss and willing to loosen up and dress up as The Wicked Witch of the West for a Halloween Party, being a major hit with the guests.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: About half of the books have one as a villain. They tend to get brought down a peg or two by Dortmunder and his crew.
  • Crime After Crime: Almost all of Dortmunder's schemes end up with the crew having to commit additional crimes due to the original heist not running to plan. The Hot Rock is a classic of this and prompts the client financing Dortmunder's scheme to remark "I've heard of the habitual criminal, of course. But I never dreamed I'd become involved with the habitual CRIME."
  • Criminal Procedural: All the Dortmunder books involve cons, capers, criminals, and gentlemen thieves.
  • Cut His Heart Out with a Spoon: Tiny Bulcher has dialogue to this effect at times, such as threatening to shove Dortmunder through a pencil sharpener when he thinks Dortmunder is about to get them caught by the police in one of their earlier adventures together.
  • Darker and Edgier: Drowned Hopes, while maintaining the characteristic humor and clever scenarios of the series, features a villain whose committed multiple murders, is on the verge of blowing up a dam and killing hundreds, is clearly plotting to betray and murder the gang, and does gun down another gang he'd taken the job to when Dortmunder briefly gave up (albeit offscreen) when they try to betray him. The fact that he and another, more sympathetic, character actually die in the climax makes it worse.
  • Deprogram: Good Behavior, involves the group of criminals having to rescue a young nun from the deprogramming efforts of her corporation-owning father.
  • Determinator:
    • After being betrayed by Tom Jimson, viciously beaten while being arrested and sent to prison for many years, after being released Guffey from Drowned Hopes has spent three decades as the sole resident of a Ghost Town, searching intently for the stolen money that Tom Jimson cached there while resolutely waiting for the day that Jimson will come back searching for it and he can take his revenge.
    • Zigzagged with Dortmunder, Kelp and the others. There are plenty of jobs that they want to give up on but can't due to circumstances but others where they press on through constant adversity either because It's Personal, or the promised rewards are just that great.
  • Divorce Assets Conflict: Preston Fairweather (the target of Dortmunder's team from Watch Your Back!) has spent years outside of the country in order to avoid being served by his multiple ex-wives (who've joined together) with their combined suits likely to wipe him out financially. Eventually they get so fed up with this that they have Preston kidnapped in an effort to bring him onto American soil to be served.
  • Double Caper: In The Hot Rock, a team of crooks is hired to steal a valuable emerald. After five separate attempts to get it, all but the last of which fail, they finally get their hands on it — and the diplomat who hired them stiffs them. So they steal it back from him, give it to a rival nation in exchange for a fake version, and wait for him to try to buy it off of them so they can reveal that they sold him a fake.
  • The Dreaded: Tiny Bulcher has a very fearsome reputation, and even Tiny is scared of Tom Jimson from Drowned Hopes.
  • Eat the Evidence:
    • In The Hot Rock, Greenberg is trapped in the museum with the emerald the gang was attempting to steal. He swallows the emerald before the police arrive.
    • During a police raid in Why Me?, Tiny eats several pounds of paper recording the alibis (mostly for other crimes) of crooks who he'd questioned to find out who stole the Byzantine Fire Ruby and brought down a police "blitz" on the underworld.
  • Embarrassing First Name: In Drowned Hopes, we find out that Murch's Mom's name is Gladys, and that she does not want this name used.
  • Entertainingly Wrong: Jacques Perly, a private detective investigating the crimes in Don't Ask and What's So Funny while a somewhat shrewd man of integrity, comes to hilariously wrong conclusions both times. In the first book, his official conclusion is allowed to stand without anyone being the wiser due to playing into Dortmunder's plans. In the second book, because it threatens an accomplice of the team, he gets shown up and humiliated.
  • Evil Is Petty: In What's the Worst That Could Happen?, Max Fairbanks catches Dortmunder burgling his beach house. Fairbanks hands Dortmunder over to the cops, which Dortmunder regards as fair, as he was caught fair and square. But then Fairbanks claims that Dortmunder's ring is actually his and takes it off him. This act of petty vengeance means It's Personal for Dortmunder and kicks off the plot.
  • Fate Worse than Death: In Good Behavior, not even Tiny's Cut Your Heart Out With A Spoon threat scares Dortmunder as much as the prospect of spending forty years in a cellblock with Talkative Loon and Dirty Old Man Wilbur Howey.
  • Fiery Cover-Up: In Bad News, after a supposed missing heir to the casino he manages (and has been embezzling from) is granted access to the book by a judge, Frank tries to burn the books and claim someone stole them. He burns down the whole casino by mistake.
  • From Camouflage to Criminal: Early books mention that Dortmunder served in the Korean war as a young man, with Bank Shot describing this as "The only police action where he'd ever been on the side of the police."
  • Go-to Alias: Dortmunder occasionally use 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 first time he used it, he started to say 'John Dortmunder', caught himself after say D, and blurted out the first thing to come into his head. He has been stuck with it ever since.
  • Hated by All:
    • Corrupt Corporate Executive Monroe Hall from The Road to Ruin is not a popular man (except to his wife). His mansion is understaffed due to servants preferring to work for dictators and such instead of him. There are multiple people with personal vendettas trying to rob or kidnap him and even other Corrupt Corporate Executives (such as agricultural polluters) find him distasteful. This actually makes Hall a fairly pitiable character at times although he's usually quick to ruin it with a Kick the Dog moment.
    • Tom Jimson is viewed with hatred or terror (primarily the later) by every character whose had a significant interaction with him. Even his own daughter can't find anything redeeming about him after they finally meet in person. As Dortmunder puts it when being threatened with torture by one of his enemies;
    Dortmunder: Would anybody on this Earth protect Tom Jimson? Would anybody risk their own ear for him.
    • Arnie Albright, Dortmunder's fence, is an utterly obnoxious man who no one likes dealing with despite how he offers top dollar. Even Arnie knows how obnoxious and unlikable he is. although he gets a little better in his last appearance.
    • Upper-Class Twit Preston Fairweather is treated with outright loathing or varying degrees of disdain by everyone in his life. Even Arnie absolutely hates the guy (leading to him asking Dortmunder to rob Fairweather's penthouse).
  • Hazy-Feel Turn:
    • Little Feather in Bad News goes form being a member of a group wanting to kill the gang because [of what they know to coming to appreciate them more and kind of hoping they outmaneuver her partners.
    • Johnny Eppick, the PI from What's So Funny starts out as a blackmailer and aide to Mr. Hemlow, who gets sore when Dortmunder robs him of the blackmail materials, but he's willing to advocate on the gangs behalf by the end of the book.
  • Hero of Another Story: In The Road to Ruin, Kelp buys a fake ID that previously belonged to a man named Harbin before he moved onto another alias. Very little is revealed about Harbin, but he is on the run from a European dictatorship and is one of the few people ever to escape their main assassin.
  • Heroic Bastard: Myrtle (the illegitimate daughter of Tom Jimson) is a Plucky Girl with a decent moral compass who is largely an innocent bystander throughout things.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Dortmunder and Kelp, although Dortmunder would deny this (claiming to be better off without Kelp).
  • Hyper-Competent Sidekick: Kelp to Dortmunder (given his better luck and technology adaptiveness). One-Shot Character Preston Fairweather's secretary Alan is also savvier than his employer.
  • Hypno Fool: At one point in The Hot Rock, the crew hires a hypnotist to plant a trigger in a bank guard to help them get the emerald out of a safe deposit box.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Monroe Hall is an enormous tax cheat (among other crimes) but when his personal trainer doesn't report his cash payments to the IRS and gets caught, Hall smugly chides him for being unpatriotic. This goes not go un-lampshaded by both the characters and the text and causes his trainer to become part of a plot to kidnap him.
  • I Am One of Those, Too: Once, under pressure, Dortmunder claimed his name was "John Diddums," and then started to use it as a regular alias. Whenever people asked about the name that sounds like babytalk, he'd tell them, "It's Welsh," and they'd be embarrassed for questioning it. And then he ran into a British gentleman who remarked, "I know a Diddums family near Caernarvon. Might you be a relative?"
  • Iconic Sequel Character: Tiny Bulcher doesn't work with the Caper Crew until Nobody's Perfect (book 4) and is more of a part-time member for his first few appearances, but he eventually ends up as a full-time crew member and one of the author's most memorable and quotable characters.
  • Insistent Terminology: In Bank Shot Garry Wallah (owner of the Roamerica Mobile home company) is constantly correcting the police captain conducting the search during his one chapter for saying trailer instead of mobile home.
  • Lazy Alias: In an early short story, Dortmunder is forced to make up an alias under pressure and the best he can come up with is the very silly-sounding "John Diddums". He eventually comes to like the alias and continues to use it as his go-to alias in subsequent stories.
  • Metaphorgotten: In Good Behavior, Dortmunder comments that the lower levels of the Avalon State Bank Tower are reminiscent of the bowels of an ocean liner, then tries to develop a metaphor about how a skyscraper is like an ocean liner that stays in one place, before running aground on the ways that a skyscraper isn't like an ocean liner, and ending with "...maybe they aren't anything like each other at all. Forget the whole thing."
  • Monumental Theft: In Bank Shot, Dortmunder and his crew steal a bank. (It was a temporary branch established in a mobile home, but even so, it shows some serious ambition.)
  • New Powers as the Plot Demands: Well maybe not powers but for the first half of the series Dortmunder's crew always needs a locksmith in addition to Dortmunder, Kelp, Murch and (after the fourth book) Tiny. Later in the series however, Kelp has mastered this skill and he serves as the lock-breaker for Dortmunder's jobs, which also reduces the number of characters.
  • Nephewism: Kelp has a nephew who was once in the FBI and is involved in some of the gang's job. Roger Fox (one of the casino bosses from Bad News) also uses his various nephews as flunkies.
  • Nice to the Waiter: The final scene of the series has the gang deciding to send some money to the now unemployed production assistant on a cancelled reality show they'd been appearing in.
  • Noble Bigot with a Badge: Chief Inspector Malogna, who appears in three books (most notably Why Me?) has quite a few racist and homophobic thoughts, but is a generally honest man, has some appreciation for the skills of his black and gay assistant, and is one of the most capable and formidable detectives Dortmunder faces in the series.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome/ Noodle Incident: During the Time Skip in Nobody's Perfect it's mentioned that Tiny beat up a gorilla.
  • Pity the Kidnapper: Dortmunder and company bite off a lot more than they can chew when they turn their hand to kidnapping in Jimmy the Kid.
  • Plague of Good Fortune: In a fully self-inflicted example, What's The Worst That Could Happen? has Dortmunder obtaining the biggest load of loot he has gotten in his career via a Roaring Rampage of Revenge that went (mostly) flawlessly, and Dortmunder spends the whole tale thinking he's jinxed (well, more than usual) because Max Fairbanks took his "lucky" ring.
  • Plethora of Mistakes: Almost every one of Dortmunder's carefully planned heists run afoul of this.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: What's the Worst That Could Happen? shows us that he closest that the series gets to one, by having Dortmunder pull off a barrage of (successful and highly profitable, which is quite rare for him) heists in his quest to get back his ring.
  • Sadistic Choice: The plot of Drowned Hopes has elements of both this and Boxed Crook, with Dortmunder forced to decide between helping Tom recover a cache of money at the bottom of a reservoir, or letting Tom do it his way — blowing up the dam and killing hundreds of innocent bystanders.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Why Me? has several to M with the crooks of the city trying to capture the perpetrator of a crime for the police in order to take the heat off themselves (naturally, that poor perpetrator is Dortmunder).
    • In The Road to Ruin, Kelp tells the man the gang is planning to rob that he shouldn't hire a PR man because "That starts with 'P,' and it rhymes with 'T', and that means trouble." This is a twist on a line from The Music Man where the slick-talking Anti-Hero says "Trouble with a capital 'T,' and that rhymes with 'P' and that stands for pool!"
  • Single Line of Descent: In Bad News, to fool a DNA test, Dortmunder needs to steal the hair of a descendant of a man who died seventy years ago. They find a total of one adult descendant, who (along with her three daughters) is the live-in caretaker of a tightly-guarded art museum. Earlier generations of the family had more than one kid, but her aunt died in a car accident as a teenager, and her great-aunts were a nun and a lesbian, respectively, so none of them produced any additional branches of heirs.
  • Steal the Surroundings: In Bank Shot, the gang steals an entire bank in order to crack the safe! The bank had temporarily relocated to a trailer while the bank building was being renovated.
  • Sue Donym: When asked for his name, Dortmunder started to say 'John D...' and the hurriedly changed the last name to 'Didums': the first thing that popped into his head. This later becomes his Go-to Alias, despite him hating it, as it always the only alias he can think of when under stress.
  • Tempting Fate: The superstitious Dortmunder should really have known better than to ask "What's the worst that could happen?" before embarking upon a seemingly simple job in What's the Worst That Could Happen?.
  • Unintentionally Notorious Crime: A ring Dortmunder steals from a safe in Why Me? turns out to have huge diplomatic significance and bring down the police, the underworld and various terorist groups looking for him.
  • Walk, Don't Swim: Dortmunder and Kelp plan to do this in an attempt to retrieve a cache of stolen cash from under a lake in Drowned Hopes. It fails as they discover the inherent buoyancy of the human body.
  • Weaponized Exhaust: A low-tech version appears in Bank Shot. A gang of criminals plot to steal an entire bank that is temporarily housed in a warehouse by surreptitiously attaching wheels to it, then later pulling it away with a truck. To deal with the guards that are stationed inside the trailer/bank they attach one end of a garden hose to the truck's exhaust pipe and put the other end in the trailer's air-vent.
  • Wham Line: In Don't Ask, Dortunder is captured robbing the diplomatic residence of Votskojek (a fictional Balkan state). He is seemingly flown to Vostkojek to be interrogated. Several chapters later, he escapes, and tries to flee to Votskojek's hated neighbor, Tsergvoia, which he has been told is only a few miles away. Dortmunder waves down a farmer on the first road he finds and cautiously asks if he's in Tsergovia or Votskojek. The farmer's reply reveals that Dortmunder's captors never took him out of the U.S., and have been playing him for a fool.
    Farmer: (In English): I don't know them towns.
  • What Could Possibly Go Wrong?: What's the Worst That Could Happen? takes its title from an offhand remark Dortmunder makes before he embarks on the initial crime of the novel; burgling an empty house. Needless to say, this crime goes horribly awry and Dortmunder gets arrested. After he escapes, he embarks upon a series of crimes in an attempt to recover the ring that was stolen off him by the householder who caught him. The phrase gets repeated before each of these crimes. Atypically, these crimes are spectacularly successfully and net Dortmunder the biggest profits he ever makes in the books, but he fails to obtain the one thing he actually wants: his ring.
  • Wrestler of Beasts: In his first appearance, Tiny visits the local zoo and beats up a gorilla under unclear circumstances.