Drowned Hopes

I’ve just finished Drowned Hopes, the seventh of the Dortmunder series. After what had felt like diminishing quality in some of the later novels, this was a welcome return to form. The location shifts again, from the New York City settings of the previous few stories, to a quiet town in upstate New York – thematically something of a return to the rural setting of Bank Shot.

There’s more baggage than in the second novel in the series. Tiny Bulcher has moved from being the ogre of the tale to a slightly less threatening role as henchman, supplanted by the evil old pensioner, Tom Jimson, who drives the story forward. All the other regulars are there, including the idiotic regulars at Dortmunder’s usual bar, but now there’s some counterpoint as they’re contrasted with life in a small town. A town where people don’t get into arguments in bars about inconsequential idiocies. Stan Murch’s Mom makes a welcome return, and there are a series of varyingly grotesque hangers-on.

As with previous Dortmunder stories, it begins with a job: in this case, to retrieve a buried coffin full of stolen cash. At the bottom,of a reservoir. With each chapter, fresh problems emerge in the retrieval of the money, each involving John Dortmunder almost getting drowned.

In the past, Tiny Bulcher had been portrayed as entirely malefic, and in this book he seems to have mellowed a lot. Tom Jimson, the ‘owner’ of the stolen money, is a much nastier piece of work, or so Westlake wants to suggest. (Perhaps forgetting that when Tiny first appeared, he regales the others with a story of the time he threw a man in a vat of lye.) Tom is more visibly nasty than Tiny was, and near the end this threatens the tone a little; in previous Dortmunder stories, nobody waved around machine guns.

Also, with the way that everything ties up ever-so-neatly at the end, it reminded me of a Carl Hiaasen novel: one or two of them are good, but by the fourth or fifth it begins to grate that every plot thread should tie up so perfectly. I almost wanted there to be a few ramshackle odds and ends to appear later on.

We learn a lot about diving, marine salvage, and the precariousness of boats in this book. We also see a rather dated view of computers, as though Westlake, sat in the 1980s, was watching Disney children’s movies for research. By the end, in one of the closing speeches, computers are dismissed as childish, and in all honesty the computer adds little to the plot. To me, Dortmunder is a man in the 1970s in an ill fitting suit, and shouldn’t really go elsewhere without good reason.

As well as being a man with hair coloured hair, in that memorable phrase, I wonder if Dortmunder is in fact the devil incarnate. After all, wherever he goes, disaster follows, yet by the end he is always back in his apartment, at rest, beer in hand. I began to think there could be a dark rewrite of the Dortmunder series, with the humour stripped out and replaced by endless pain and suffering, but then I remembered that was what the Parker novels are for.

Drowned Hopes, despite the title, and the never ending rain storm of the final part of the book, is a sunny, cheerful book. The plot is, eventually, complicated enough to be engaging, while still well integrated enough that you’re amazed how Westlake pulls everything together. It also felt like the longest we’ve read to date, although that may be because my daughter kept interrupting the recital, in a way she hadn’t for previous stories.

Maybe she doesn’t like reservoirs. Or perhaps she wanted to feel part of the action. Either way, if you enjoyed the first few Dortmunders, and even if you, like me, found some of the later ones a bit of a slog, you should really enjoy this one.

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