Watch Your Back! by Donald E. Westlake

Watch Your Back! by Donald E. Westlake

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover (available in mass market), 310 pages, 2005

Rating: 9/10

Reason for Reading: It looked like it would be fun in an Ocean’s Eleven kind of way.

Synopsis: It’s bad guy vs. bad guy vs. bad guy as groups of criminals plot to come away richer at the expense of the other bands of criminals. The story’s ‘likeable thief’ is John Dortmunder, who’s called in to do a heist for Arnie Albright at a very high percentage of the take. Arnie’s feeling generous because his target is Preston Fareweather, a rich jerk hiding out in an island resort to avoid being taken to the cleaners by his five furious ex-wives. While Fareweather is out of the country trying to avoid legal action, he’s left millions of dollars in valuables in his Manhattan penthouse, a tempting score that looks laughably easy for Dortmunder and his crew. But Dortmunder is distracted by the presence of some New Jersey mobsters looking to close down his favourite bar after milking it for all it’s worth, and it’s putting the heist in jeopardy. Nobody’s making any new friends as this large assortment of criminals all look to go home the winners.

Why you should read this book: This was a fun one. Yes, it’s about gangs of criminals, but there’s no guilt in enjoying the excitement of the story because no innocent civilians get dragged into the crimes. Plus, Dortmunder and his crew talk and act more like suave (if shady) businessmen than moronic thugs, which also helps to up the enjoyment factor. Packed with action and lots of dialogue, Dortmunder and his pals waste no time struggling with questions of morality, and Westlake wastes little time with unnecessary, lyrical descriptions in his writing. Watch Your Back! is full of energy and a plot line that’s complex enough to be interesting, but not overly convoluted – there’s a nice balance from Westlake in all aspects of the book, in fact. And no worries if you haven’t read the first eleven books in the Dortmunder series – it all makes sense even without a previous acquaintance with Dortmunder, and no previous plot points are spoiled if you start with Watch Your Back! Add in some tongue-in-cheek humour, and it’s easy to see why Westlake has sustained popularity since his first novel was published forty-five years ago – the real question is: why haven’t I found him until now?

Why you should avoid this book: There are places in the book where the writing style gets a little awkward and/or clichéd, but it’s nothing major. If you like your books to end with the criminals in jail and the good guys triumphantly discussing how they foiled an evil plot, Watch Your Back! won’t satisfy you. Cops aren’t even a factor here; this one’s all about the bad guys.

Opening paragraph:

When John Dortmunder, a free man, not even on parole, walked into the O.J. Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue that Friday night in July, just before ten o’clock, the regulars were discussing the afterlife. ‘What I don’t get,’ said one of them, as Dortmunder angled toward where Rollo the bartender was busy with something far over to the right end of the bar, ‘is all of these clouds.’

Fabulous quotes:

‘No problem,’ Kelp assured him, and lifted his glass. ‘To crime.’
‘Without punishment,’ Dortmunder amended, and they both drank.
Rollo came back to put crumpled bills on the bar in front of Kelp, who took a few, left one, and said, ‘Thanks, Rollo.’
Rollo leaned close over the bar. Very softly he said, ‘I just wanna say, this isn’t the best place right now.’
‘We noticed that, Rollo,’ Kelp said, and nodded, and smiled in an amiable way, inviting confidences.
‘The thing is,’ Rollo said, more sotto voice than ever, ‘there are people around here right now, what they are, they’re criminals.’
Dortmunder leaned very close to Rollo over the bar. ‘Rollo,’ he murmured, ‘we’re criminals.’
‘Yeah, John, I know,’ Rollo said. ‘But they’re organized. Take care of yourselves.’

Preston settled himself and his tray, settled his napkin on his lap, and said, ‘A good afternoon to you, Alan. Did you have a lovely morning?’
‘No,’ Alan said. He seemed out of sorts. ‘I can’t find her,’ he said.
Polite, Preston raised an eyebrow, ‘Can’t find whom?’
‘Your new one,’ Alan said. ‘This Pamela Broussard. Not a trace.’
One of Alan’s jobs, as Preston’s paid companion, was to do background checks on the women Preston chose to pal around with on this island. But this one he couldn’t find? ‘Oh, well, Alan,’ Preston said, ‘all these women have so many different last names, you know. Like Indians with scalps on their belts.’
‘Yes, but they still have to have a background,’ Alan insisted. ‘They have to have those scalps. Pamela Broussard has nothing, no history, nothing.’

Also recommended: Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen; Tourist Season by Carl Hiaasen; The Narrows by Michael Connelly.

Also by this author: What’s So Funny?; Ask the Parrot; Lemons Never Lie; The Hook; The Ax; Humans; Sacred Monster; A Likely Story; Kahawa; Brothers Keepers; I Gave at the Office; Adios, Scheherezade; Up Your Banners; Bad News; What’s the Worst That Could Happen?; Don’t Ask; Drowned Hopes; Good Behavior; Why Me; Nobody’s Perfect; Jimmy the Kid; Bank Shot; The Hot Rock; The Road to Ruin; Gangway; Pity Him Afterwards; Killy; 361; Killing Time; The Mercenaries; Smoke; Baby, Would I Lie?; Trust Me On This; High Adventure; Castle in the Air; Enough; Dancing Aztecs; Two Much; Help I Am Being Held Prisoner; Cops and Robbers; Somebody Owes Me Money; Who Stole Sassi Manoon?; God Save the Mark; The Spy in the Ointment; The Busy Body; The Fugitive Pigeon.


Fun tidbit: So what’s up with the exclamation point in the title? Westlake explains on his website: ‘Generally speaking, I don’t much hold with exclamation points, and certainly not in titles, but some time after I decided this book was called WATCH YOUR BACK!, it occurred to me that there are two meanings for that phrase, the American meaning and the New York meaning (America and New York are always at odds, so why not here?), and it was the New York meaning I meant. In America, “watch your back” means be careful, someone means to do you harm. In New York, it means, “Comin’ through!” Move over, in other words, or get hurt. I added the exclamation point in an attempt to juke the reader toward the New York meaning.’

Would I read more by this author? I’d definitely go for more from Westlake’s Dortmunder series. It’s always nice to stumble upon an author with a large number of older books to check out.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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