Although no prior knowledge is needed, this is part of the John Dortmunder series about the titular thief. He’s the perpetual straight man in a universe where, no matter how meticulously he plans his heists, something always goes wrong until he considers himself lucky if he gets away uncaught.
For example, take today’s story. He and Andy Kelp think they’ve hit upon a perfect scheme. Kelp has located a large sewer tunnel that runs close to a bank; indeed, after looking at blueprints it appears that one of the tunnel walls runs right next to the bank vault. All they need to do is enter the sewer, far enough away from the bank that nobody takes notice, break through the wall and it’ll be easy money. They decide to strike at 6pm, an hour after the bank closes.
But it wouldn’t be a Dortmunder story if things went smoothly, oh no. So they get into the sewer and break through the wall, and this is what happens:
The block of concrete fell onto the floor of the vault. “Oh, thank God,” somebody said.
What? Reluctant but unable to stop himself, Dortmunder dropped sledge and flashlight and leaned his head through the hole in the wall and looked around.
It was the vault, all right. And it was full of people.
It turns out that at 3pm another gang decided to rob the bank, and locked all of their hostages in the bank vault. Naturally everyone thinks Dortmunder’s with the police and rescuing them.
While he’s still digesting this turn of events the robbers come down to get a hostage to use as a spokesman to negotiate with the police. They grab Dortmunder, and the mass of people in the vault means the robbers don’t see the hole. So Dortmunder’s taken upstairs and told to act as a spokesman to negotiate with the police, who have secured the perimeter outside.
Now, the robbers’ plan has gone completely off the rails by this point. If Dortmunder merely does what the robbers tell him to, the siege will collapse by itself shortly. But there’s a chance Dortmunder might get shot in the collapse. Besides, he’s got a long rap sheet, and he doesn’t want to be rescued by the police under circumstances where they can ID him. It all looks as though Dortmunder’s going to have to convince the robbers of his expertise and plan a brand new escape route for them all.
One of Westlake’s common descriptions of Dortmunder is that he has “a perpetual hangdog expression.” Even the little things go wrong. When the tellers in the vault ask his name his mind goes blank – the plan didn’t involve meeting anyone, so he never prepared a fake identity – and the first word out of his mouth is “Diddums.” From that point on, every time he has to introduce himself to someone he neds to justify that yes, his name really is ‘Diddums.’ It’s funny, it’s light-hearted, and Dortmunder remains the set-upon chew-toy of the universe.
Too Many Crooks by Donald E. Westlake
Word count: 4,900
Awards: Edgar Award winner
First published: Playboy, Aug 1989
Where to find it: Thieves’ Dozen, collection, 2004, The Mysterious Press