1982; 240 pages. Book #5 (out of 14) in the “Dortmunder” series (plus 11 other short stories, according to Wikipedia). New Author? : No. Genre : Crime Fiction; Humorous Crime. Overall Rating : 8*/10.
The Byzantine Fire is a huge ruby, worth a quarter million dollars as a gemstone, and even more for its historical value. At Kennedy Airport, the US was about to hand it over to Turkish officials as a goodwill gesture amid tight security, accompanied a couple of NYPD’s finest, when a team of commandos, speaking Greek, up and robbed them of it.
Needless to say, this very much embarrassed and angered the Americans and the Turks, to say nothing of the New York City Police Department. But wouldn’t you know it, someone in turn robbed the robbers of this precious jewel. Now all sorts of others are enraged – Greeks, Armenians, Lebanese, Bulgarians, a bunch of religious zealots, and even the NYC criminal element when the cops started putting the heat on them because of the heist.
Whoever stole it from the Greek thieves will find the Byzantine Fire impossible to fence, and will be lucky if he/she/they survive at all as soon as they show it. Who would do such a stupid, suicidal thing?
Well, they don’t call this the Dortmunder series for nothing.
What’s To Like...
Why Me? is book 5 in Donald E. Westlake’s immensely popular “Dortmunder” series, which chronicles the heists perpetrated by the inept, yet lovable, and ultimately successful light-fingered thief, John Dortmunder. I’ve read five other books in the series, but four of them are from late in the series, so this one was kind of a treat for me. Most of John’s “gang” have only slight roles, with the exception of Andy Kelp. And “Tiny” Bulcher, is more of a threat than an ally here, which was an unusual twist.
Why Me? was published in 1982, and it was kind of weird to see Dortmunder struggling with his first encounter with someone’s (landline) telephone hooked to an answering machine. I remember those days; they are thankfully long gone.
The chapters are short – 46 of them covering 240 pages, so you can always find a good place to stop. The pacing is good; there are no slow spots. There’s a bunch of cussing; I don’t recall as much in the later books in the series, but it fit in with the tone of the story. However, the use of the N-word did disturb me, as well as several other ethnic slurs. I recognize that at one time these were acceptable in a book (John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath uses the N-word a number of times), but it grates on my reading nerves, and isn’t necessary nowadays.
What I did like were the various intellectual debates among the patrons of the O.J. Bar and Grill; those were simply hilarious. And of course, Donald Westlake’s wit is here in abundance, which is always a treat. This is a standalone novel, as are all the Dortmunder tales. I am not reading them in order, and I don’t feel like I’m missing much.
“But the main problem right now, “ Cabot said, “aside from the loss of the ring itself, of course, is all the foreign gunmen running around New York, hunting the ring and one another. This theft is enough of an international incident as it is; Washington would be very displeased if New York were turned into another Beirut, with shooting in the streets.”
“New York would be displeased, too,” Freedly said. (loc. 1034)
“It was circumstantial evidence.”
“Don’t tell me about circumstantial evidence,” O’Hara said. “I did a nickel-dime once for hitting a lumberyard safe, and all they had on me was sawdust in my cuffs.”
“That’s terrible,” Kelp said. “Where’d they nab you?”
“In the lumberyard office.” (loc. 3570)
The Flying Sorcerers sells for $7.99 at Amazon, although I got my copy for free as a library loan. The other books in the “Dortmunder” series are in the price range of $6.99-$9.99. Donald E. Westlake also has a bunch more “hard-boiled” crime-mystery e-books available. They go for $4.60-$12.99.
“Valuable things get stolen, am I right? That’s what they’re for.” (loc. 755)
Let’s be frank, Donald E. Westlake’s Dortmunder books are formulaic. Dortmunder acquires some larcenous loot, sometimes by accident (such as is the case here), more often via some hare-brained but effective scheme he cooks up. Mayhem ensues, and somehow karma prevails. The ill-gotten gains are lost to Dortmunder, but either returned to their rightful owner or given over to some charitable cause.
Why Me? is no exception to this, and that’s okay by me. After reading 6 of the 14 books in the series, I’m still not burnt out on it. FWIW. I’ve read several of Donald Westlake’s “non-Dortmunder” books and have enjoyed them almost as much. I have not, however, read any of his serious-&-gritty detective stories.
8 Stars. It’s a shame Donald Westlake passed away in 2008 after a prolific, nearly writing career spanning nearly 50 years. Sadly, no one has picked up the mantle and continued the Dortmunder series. I, for one, would welcome it.