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What's so Funny?: A Dortmunder Novel    by Donald E. Westlake order for
What's so Funny?
by Donald E. Westlake
Order:  USA  Can
Grand Central, 2007 (2007)

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* *   Reviewed by Anise Hollingshead

What's so Funny? is Dortmunder's thirteenth outing, and he has indeed been outed - by an ex-cop, no less. This retired cop wants Dortmunder to help him complete his first real job as a private investigator, and is using a little blackmail to get Dortmunder to cooperate.

Once upon a time, there was a group of guys in the U.S. Army. They were sent to Russia after the end of WWI, to help the British protect a stockpile of munitions from the Communists. While there, they happened across a chess set that was originally intended for the Czar, before the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. This set, made of gold and jewels, was extremely valuable. Of course, these guys decided to smuggle the set back to the States and split the proceeds - but one of them ended up with the entire set and then disappeared. The others searched for years, but never found the man or the chess set. Now, it appears the chess set has been found, and a descendant of the original group wants sweet revenge.

Eppick, the ex-cop turned PI, has settled on Dortmunder as his best chance for success in stealing back the chess set. Unfortunately, the set is a centerpiece in several lawsuits amongst the various family members of the man who stole it. He used the set to raise capital to start a successful business, and now the business is being fought over by the family. To safeguard the set, it has been placed in a very secure vault in the same office building that houses the law firm involved in the case. It looks hopeless for Dortmunder.

The story centers on Dortmunder and his regular gang of thieves, as they try to figure out a way to get the chess set out of the vault. Luckily, they have an inside person in the law firm, who has access to all sorts of information. When they hit on a way to get the set out of the vault, they are on the road to success. But with Dortmunder, things are never as simple as they seem.

The Dortmunder books are so-called comic capers, and as such, are full of humorous takes on people in general, and New Yorkers in particular. The rich, the poor, working stiffs and privileged classes are all featured. Some things seem missing here though, like the strange conversations that always take place between the patrons at OJ's, the bar where the criminals hang out. The comedy just doesn't seem quite as funny as it usually is. While the plotting and dialogue are actually better than usual, the humor is less so, for some reason. I didn't find this book as humorous as Why Me, Good Behavior or Watch Your Back! The story as a whole is more cohesive and tightly plotted than most of the Dortmunder novels, but also flatter. Dortmunder and his friends are too serious. Kelp and Tiny in particular are too grown-up now, and not as silly as before.

What's so Funny? is a good read for those who enjoy the Dortmunder series, but more for the continued theme of the familiar characters than for the book as a stand-alone novel. Those who have never read a Dortmunder book should start with the earlier ones, particularly Why Me, my personal favorite.

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