Good Behavior is the sixth novel in the Dortmunder series, and first appeared three years after its predecessor, Why Me? Westlake is no longer around to ask whether that was because he was struggling to find inspiration, or was just too busy with everything else he was writing. Still, I’m mindful of the fact that reading these novels back to back, rather than with the interval between them that a reader in the 1980s would have had, provides a different experience to what a contemporary reader would have had.
Why Me? departed from the formula of earlier Dortmunder books, by just being a sequence of escalating catastrophes for Dortmunder, whereas in the first four books each problem Dortmunder had was the consequence of his attempt to overcome an earlier problem. Good Behavior is a slight return to this, although not a complete one. Instead of the later problems being directly caused by Dortmunder’s actions, it’s more a sequence of revelations: Dortmunder tries this, then that happens, then Dortmunder has to overcome that, and so on. Rather more like a conveyor belt than an intricate mousetrap.
As a result, it’s not as engaging as some of the earlier novels. It starts well, it finishes well, but there’s a feeling of flabbiness to the middle that renders it less satisfactory.
There are still a lot of laugh-out-loud moments: Kelp’s eight cappuccinos, Tiny Bulcher’s romantic interlude, and the continued incompetence of contracted security staff, to name but a few. Unfortunately, there are some loose ends that are left trailing in ways uncharacteristic for Westlake. A few characters wander into the plot and back out again, without doing anything significant, and the ending is slightly kinder to Dortmunder than we’ve become used to; it feels as though we’ve been cheated when he doesn’t suffer one final, complete reversal of fortune at the end of the novel. There’s also Chepkoff, a bent grocery wholesaler who tries to sue Dortmunder for a failed robbery. While he’s an unpleasant and effectively drawn character, he doesn’t feel like a fully integrated part of the plot.
Perhaps if Westlake was making a point about social alienation then Chepkoff’s appearances would make sense, but since all the other Dortmunder novels suggest a tightly integrated world in which unfortunate consequences are tied in to almost every action, that doesn’t seem like a plausible reading. One can hope Chepkoff will make further appearances in the future, but he never really earns his place in the book, apart from to give May, Dortmunder’s girlfriend, a well-deserved opportunity to do something herself which doesn’t involve baking tuna casseroles or bringing Dortmunder a beer.
There is at least one uneasy moment; Dortmunder has been captured by some mercenaries, who discuss ways to torture him. Although that comes on the back of a terrific sequence where Dortmunder folds himself inside a dishwasher in an attempt to avoid detection, the threats of torture themselves seem too violent, too dark for a Dortmunder novel. In the Parker sequence, they wouldn’t depart from the general tone, but I felt more uncomfortable with them here.
Perhaps if I’d had three years between Dortmunder novels, I’d overlook some of these faults. I hope when I get to the next novel, it’s not a case of continually diminishing returns.