- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 11, 2009

GET REAL
By Donald E. Westlake
Grand Central, $23.99, 288 pages

BAD THINGS HAPPEN
By Harry Dolan
Putnam, $24.95, 352 pages

Reality television is a sitting duck of a target for ridicule, and nobody could have done this better than the late, great Donald E. Westlake, the king of comic crime who over more than three decades left his ironic mark on movie scripts as well as manuscripts. The hilarious concept of making money through crime as practiced by professionals by casting them in a television reality show is Westlake at his best.

His deadpan writing style, occasionally reminiscent of Damon Runyon’s gangster dialogues, lends itself smoothly to Get Real (Grand Central, $23.99, 288 pages) an account of how money is made by what might be called honest burglars versus the colossal sums amassed by criminals who run giant corporations.

What makes the book so entertaining is that as a satirist, Westlake gleefully mocks what too many people too often view as reality. The caper gets off to a characteristic start with Sam Murch’s mom. She drives a cab in New York and she is well versed in what her son does for a living, something she thinks should bring in more profit.

With that in mind, she reports that she had a passenger called Doug Fairkeep who was the producer of a reality show and was interested in making a television show about criminals engaged in “for profit activities.”

Murch’s partner in crime, John Dortmunder, a man with “sloping shoulders and a glum face” who looks as though he is “loitering with intent” points out logically, “When we commit a crime, we don’t want witnesses. What we want is privacy.”

However, after suspicious negotiations, a deal is struck allowing the Dortmunder group — that includes a person called Tiny who has “the body of a top of the line SUV and a head like Halloween Island,” — to be filmed for $20,000 plus a per diem of $600 a day. That is after they conclude that the key to the situation is that when you heist someone already committing a crime, he can’t call the cops.

“At last” says the mountainous Tiny, “the perfect crime.”

Of course nothing goes the way the “Get Real” television company envisions it, because they are dealing with real criminals who decide that if they are going to get paid for a fake crime, they might as well commit a real crime — by robbing the people they are working for. Dortmunder and company have figured out that there is big money to be taken from the financial giants who are at the top of “Get Real,” which is the lowest level on a multi-tiered corporate cake.

They are, of course, correct, and they find the real money, in between making off with sundry cars they find on the premises. What makes the plot so delicious is its ending, which drips irony. When it turns out that despite firm predictions that the show called “The Heist”and its cast of real criminals will make a fortune, it is destined never to see the light of television day. Trans-Global Universal Industries is run by a man called Gideon, a morality crusader who wants only “wholesome stories with wholesome morals.”

The Dortmunder gang are told that their show is unacceptable “because it glorifies criminals.” And it’s all over. Except that Dortmunder and his cohorts have successfully played their dual role and got away with a great deal more money than they were ever supposed to be paid. So much that they decide out of the goodness of their hearts to share some of it with one of the “Get Real” employees who got fired.

It is a tragedy that readers can look forward to no more of Westlake’s genius for poking wicked fun at the world he used to live in. All you can do is go back and read his earlier works for the second or even the third time.

•••


Harry Dolan’s Bad Things Happen (Putnam, $24.95, 352 pages) is a walk on the dark side, with one mysterious man in a maze of murders proliferating in what used to be the quiet college town of Ann Arbor, Mich. You aren’t left in much doubt as to what is coming when you read the pungent opening paragraph, “The shovel has to meet certain requirements. A pointed blade. A short handle, to make it maneuverable in a confined space.”

All the requirements for digging a grave.

Mr. Dolan has a smooth touch with crime noir. But in a lively cast of characters, quite a few of them homicidal, his taciturn mystery man David Loogan captures the imagination. He may remind some older readers of the kind of character that Robert Mitchum used to play in the tough detective thrillers of the Fifties and Sixties. He has that kind of timing in his measured words and his movements — that are equally measured.

He even takes his time about having an affair with his partner’s glamorous blond wife who puts an end to his quiet and solitary life as befitting a man seeking to escape from the past.

Loogan’s partner runs a mystery magazine with the inspired title of “Gray Streets” and at one point the unfaithful wife recalls that when her husband is asked to describe the theme of his publication, he says, “Plans go wrong, bad things happen, people die.”

Heaven knows that’s true of Mr. Dolan’s book, which is awash in people dying, bad things happening and plans going awry, all at high speed, it seems.

Amid the corpses there are a lot of clues scattered, most of them red herrings,especially when they relate to Loogan and his dark past. The plot is complicated, but Mr. Dolan manages to tie it all up in a tidy if somewhat unlikely fashion, tossing in a wicked twist as a conclusion. If that’s not enough, his intriguing Loogan turns out to be haunted. But you don’t find that out until the last chapter. And that is as much of a tease as the first.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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