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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
After publishing What's the Worst Thing That Could Happen?, Donald Westlake sent his hapless hero John Dortmunder on a five-year sabbatical. Bad News provides an ample payoff for all those who eagerly awaited Dortmunder's next caper, being one of Westlake's funniest, most memorably twisted creations.
The book begins when Dortmunder, together with longtime partner-in-crime Andy Kelp, reluctantly agrees to engage in a bit of nocturnal grave robbing. Under the guidance of a pair of shysters named Fitzroy Guilderpost and Irwin Gabel, Dortmunder and Kelp exhume the body of a long-deceased Pottaknobbee tribesman, and replace it with the body of another, carefully chosen Native American corpse. This post-mortem substitution is the lynchpin of a complex scam involving one additional co-conspirator: Little Feather Redcorn, a Las Vegas showgirl willing to risk everything for that one elusive score.
The scam, as devised by Fitzroy and Irwin. is a latter-day riff on the classic Anastasia theme. In this version, Little Feather presents herself as the last surviving member of the Pottaknobbee tribe, a claim aimed at making her the heir to a one third interest in the tribal-operated Silver Chasm Casino. As a hedge against the inevitable demand for DNA testing, the plotters have placed the relocated body of Little Feather's own great-grandfather in a verified Pottaknobbee grave, thus supporting her fraudulent claim with equally fraudulent genetic data.
It's a clever, carefully worked out scenario, and it all goes spectacularly wrong. Once again, Dortmunder's most ingenious efforts fall victim to a typically malign destiny. This time out, the elements of that destiny include a second, badly botched transfer of bodies, a switched headstone, a larcenous pair of casino managers, and a climactic, alcohol-inspired accident. As the narrative progresses from one crisis to the next, Westlake comments, with deadpan accuracy, on subjects ranging from tourism to modern technology, from tribal politics to the endemic stupidity of the average, small-time crook. Along the way, he reintroduces a gallery of familiar characters, among them the massive, intimidating Tiny Bulcher, Stan Murch, the man who can drive anything, and Murch's mom, the quintessential New York City cabdriver.
Like every other entry in the Dortmunder series, Bad News offers several volumes worth of controlled narrative chaos and high good humor. Aficionados of the comic caper novel, please take note: Westlake is at the top of his game, and a good time is virtually guaranteed. (Bill Sheehan)
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).