Why Me? is the fifth Dortmunder novel, after The Hot Rock, Bank Shot, Jimmy The Kid and Nobody’s Perfect. In any long series of books, you need to have more than one volume to bring in fresh readers. If you make every previous book absolutely necessary for the comprehension of the next, eventually attrition of readers will whittle away your audience.
By Nobody’s Perfect, there was a lot of reference back to characters from previous stories, whether it was cameo appearances from Herman X or the consolidation of the idiotic debates of the locals at the O.J. Bar & Grill. That book ended with Dortmunder and Kelp placed in a confounded position with no clear escape; perhaps wisely, there’s almost no reference in Why Me? to this, and none at all to how they extricated themselves. Although anyone familiar with the Dortmunder milieu will be happy to see its inhabitants again, it’s also a perfect entry point for a new reader. (Given that Dortmunder is of average height, with "hair-colored hair", it’s not as if a new reader is missing out on heavily layered physical descriptions, after all.)
Why Me? concentrates much more on the law enforcement community than previous books did. Bank Shot and Jimmy The Kid both had glances at lazy, incompetent or pigheaded cops, but it’s only in Why Me? that we spend a significant time with police chiefs and FBI men.
As previous novels have made clear, not every criminal is a criminal mastermind, and it’s ever more obvious that this is true of their counterparts. Police Chief Mologna is a hot-tempered ogre of a man, while Agent Zachary is so caught up in behaving "like an FBI man" in every action that he’s far behind every other federal agent, state trooper and beat cop. The only truly competent cop is an example to the rest, of how overachievement ruins careers – perhaps it’s no wonder none of them are good at their jobs.
The criminals, as ever, are no better. Whether they’re amateurish or career offenders, they’re as dumb (or as unlucky) as one another. Dortmunder has the biggest haul of his life, and that swiftly becomes a nightmare for him: again, it seems everyone, even God, must hate overachievers.
The difference between this and previous novels is that up till now they’ve followed a simple sequence: Dortmunder does something, which gets him in trouble, which he escapes from via a plan which unfortunately lands him in further trouble, requiring further effort to escape, as though he’s perpetually falling from one frying pan to another, gradually descending to the fire. In Why Me?, everything goes wrong from the start and has no hope of improvement, until the final chapters when Dortmunder figures a way out.
It’s hardly "and with one bound he was free" but the departure from the tried and tested formula means that although the book starts very well, by the halfway point it’s beginning to run out of steam. Don’t get me wrong: the solution Dortmunder comes up with is audacious and inventive, but the book doesn’t grip as much as it approaches the final chapter as it does in the other novels.
In fact, you almost feel you’ve missed out: Westlake had assembled such a motley crew of cops, criminals, Bulgarian spies and Turkish terrorists that you feel cheated they aren’t involved in the denouement in a more graphic way. That might have been the end for the series though, with Dortmunder painted into a corner where his demise was the only way out. And nobody would want that.
That said, it’s only because the first half is so good, literally laugh-out-loud funny, that the second half struggles to match up. The FBI and New York City cops are both fine additions to the cast, grotesque incompetents almost every one of them. While I missed Stan Murch and his detailed descriptions of his navigation of the roads of the Five Boroughs, the addition of a warehouse of telephonic equipment to Andy Kelp’s foolish schemes was a real positive. It’s only because Bank Shot and Nobody’s Perfect are so good that this is only the third best of the first five novels in the series.
(I stayed up too late last night, first reading and then feeding my bab, to the point where I was cross-eyed with fatigue this morning. Thus my haircut and my Spanish lesson passed in a blur. I did get to strap the baby to my chest and take her to the shops this evening, but the jury is out on whether she enjoyed that or not.)