Watch Your Back – Donald E. Westlake

March 27, 2017

Donald Westlake extends his Dortmunder series of comedy-mystery novels with Watch Your Back, published by Mysterious Press, copyright 2005.


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Westlake begins this captivating caper with an introduction to John Dortmunder as he walks into his favorite watering hole, the O.J. Bar and Grill to the greeting of Rollo the bartender.  Dortmunder attends a regular poker game in the back room of the O.J. Bar with his friends Stan, Kelp, and a huge man called Tiny.  On this night it’s different though as Dortmunder has been propositioned by an obnoxious art trader named Arnie Albright who has just returned from the Caribbean Club Med after attending a seminar promising to cure his obnoxiousness.  Arnie swears it worked so Dortmunder decides to listen to his proposal.  While at the Club Med Arnie had met Preston Fareweather, a known art collector, who owns a Park View penthouse in New York City.  He is also a huge womanizer with many ex-wives.  Arnie hates this guy because Arnie can hardly get a date, which is no surprise to Dortmunder or anyone else at the back room game.


The players assemble as usual, not for poker but to discuss the feasibility of Arnie’s proposal.  Fareweather is expected to remain at the Club Med with his assistant Alan who is being paid to see to all of his needs and to help Alan seduce women with stories of his wealth.  Fareweather won’t be back soon which is good because Dortmunder and his poker mates decide to take Arnie up on his proposal, which is to break through the alarm system and steal most of Fareweather’s art, some of it priceless.  They acknowledge the task will be extremely difficult if not impossible, but Arnie assures them the collection is worth more than enough for their troubles.

They case the joint separately so as not to arouse suspicion and meet back at the O.J. Bar where Rollo nervously tells them they can’t use the back room anymore.  A big guy in a bright green polo shirt comes up from the back corner and asks Rollo if there is a problem.  So Dortmunder takes a stroll down the hall like he’s headed for the toilet and sees the back room full of boxes and theorizes that the mob has taken over O.J.’s as a transfer station for their ill-gotten gains.  While investigating this theory late one night he is trapped in the basement when the mob guys close the trap door.  With great effort and the help of various chair legs he wriggles through but stops to lift the trap door, go back down, and retrieve the ownership papers and set everything back in its place.  Dortmunder flies down to Florida and visits Otto Medrick, the present owner of the O.J. Bar, and explains the situation.  Otto flies back to New York with Dortmunder to right this travesty and reclaim the O.J. Bar and Grill, but the mob resents the interference.

Back in New York the poker guys continue with the burglary of Preston’s penthouse.  Tiny’s presumed girlfriend, who runs a small office which houses five separate businesses and corporate addresses, is one smart cookie and provides Dortmunder with a recent hire of hers, one Judson Blunt, who proves his worth in the end.  Mikey, the mob boss, has been keeping an eye on Dortmunder because he blames him for losing the O.J. back to the legal owner.  Mikey and his men are ready for when Dortmunder and the others intend to transfer the stolen antiques and paintings.

Complicating matters further is the presence of Roselle, who Preston has hooked up with at the Club Med.  She is clearly interested in his money but has an ulterior motive as she is a plant sent by his ex-wives to seek revenge.

Westlake proves once again to be the king of humor in this exciting mystery.  The O.J. Bar’s regulars and their continual disjointed, half-baked arguments, like why God lives in the clouds and how many virgins are in Muslim heaven, are a fine illustration.  This is just a small sampling of the fact that this author always injects a lot of humor into the Dortmunder series of adventures as well the other books he has written throughout his decades long career.

Literally, Paul.

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