Drowned Hopes

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

John Dortmunder is anything but a successful thief. In fact, although his plans are often masterpieces of the art, their execution is normally so flawed, or prey to the unexpected, that he usually leaves a job empty-handed. Nevertheless, he perseveres, when not behind bars, in his chosen profession. Fortunately, May Bellamy, his significant other, is able to hold a steady job and thus keep food on the table and a roof over their heads.

In DROWNED HOPES, Dortmunder is offered a share of a $700,000 payroll robbery. That is the good news. Unfortunately, the bad news is horrific. For one thing, Dortmunder’s partner is Tom Jimson, whose colleagues seldom survive the association. Then there is the matter of where Jimson hid the money. Burying the loot in a coffin was perfectly reasonable. After all, how could Jimson know that the town was destined to be flooded for a reservoir?

And therein lies the true source of Dortmunder’s distress. Jimson informs him that if he cannot come up with an alternative plan, he must live with the knowledge that nine hundred people living beneath the dam will die when Jimson blows up the retaining wall. Dortmunder would prefer to leave well enough alone, but his conscience will not allow him that option.

Donald Westlake is a man of diverse talents. On the one hand, he is famous for his comic crime novels, several of which feature the long-suffering Dortmunder. At the same time, under the pseudonym Richard Stark he created one of the toughest men in mystery fiction--the professional thief with no first name, Parker. As with Dortmunder, Parker often finds his carefully planned operations subject to unexpected circumstances. Unlike Dortmunder, however, Parker is normally able to salvage something from the affair. Dortmunder is not so lucky on most occasions, and this is one of those.

DROWNED HOPES is not only Westlake’s longest Dortmunder book but also easily the most complex to date. The narrative shifts from character to character with ease, but the reader is never confused. In fact, only Evan Hunter (Ed McBain) is able to handle this literary device with the same facility. Admittedly, DROWNED HOPES is a much grimmer piece than is normally the case in this series, but fans of the author and his creation will not be disappointed.