Gene Lyons
April 02, 1993 AT 05:00 AM EST

Don't Ask

Current Status
In Season
Donald E. Westlake
Fiction, Mystery and Thriller

We gave it an A

Anything that can go wrong, according to Murphy’s Law, will go wrong. To which we should now append Dortmunder’s Axiom: If you think things are screwed up now, just stick around. The Dortmunder in question, of course, is the inimitable John, grouchy mastermind of Donald E. Westlake’s hilariously perverse series of novels featuring the most ineptly executed criminal conspiracies on the fictional side of the Watergate burglary. Don’t Ask is dedicated to Robert Redford, George C. Scott, Paul LeMat, and Christopher Lambert, four actors who have starred in film versions of earlier Dortmunder novels (including The Hot Rock and Bank Shot).

This time out, Dortmunder and the gang — quick-fingered Andy Kelp, wheelman Stan Murch, Stan’s cab-driver mom, and the rest of the cast — get themselves involved in what journalists like to call ”an international incident.” Specifically, they agree to filch the femur of a 13th-century Balkan martyr from its temporary resting place in the Votskojek embassy — temporarily housed in a tramp freighter anchored in Manhattan’s East River — and convey it to the storefront embassy of their paying clients, the rival nation of Tsergovia.

”’I’m seeing some daylight here, I think (Dortmunder explains). Either that or my brain’s on fire. Tsergovia’s a brand-new country, so they aren’t in the UN yet, and in order to get accepted into the UN they’ve got to steal this saint’s bone from this other brand-new country. The bone is like their admission to the UN.’ Kelp said, ‘John, that’s the dumbest thing I ever heard in my life. The United Nations lets you become a member if you got a bone? That’s too stupid even to be a sentence.”’

Nevertheless it’s true, and after casing the joint, Dortmunder concludes that the heist’s a piece of cake. ”It’s almost a shame to do it,” he says. ”We could phone for it. We could send a kid to pick it up.”

Fat chance. And as always in Westlake’s ingeniously plotted tales, unforeseen circumstances lead to preposterous screwups until even Dortmunder himself is brought face-to-face with what Westlake calls the ironclad ”code of the underworld, which is: Never sell out your partner until you get your price.” For Westlake readers convinced that Bank Shot, an earlier Dortmunder outing, is the funniest crime novel ever written, a worthy rival. A

You May Like