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What's So Funny?

(Dortmunder #14)

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  1,421 ratings  ·  130 reviews
In what may be the "best Dortmunder yarn yet," Westlake's seasoned but often scoreless crook must take on an impossible crime, one he doesn't want and doesn't believe in -- but a little blackmail goes a long way (Associated Press).
All it takes is a few underhanded moves by a tough ex-cop named Eppick to pull Dortmunder into a game he never wanted to play.
With no choice,
Paperback, 416 pages
Published March 1st 2008 by Grand Central Publishing (first published April 1st 2007)
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Average rating 3.90  · 
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It's sort of hard to rate this one fairly; I understand that there's another Dortmunder book coming out in 2009, but this still feels like the end of an era, given Westlake's death. So there was something of a nostalgia factor at work here.

But, overall, this is just another middling Dortmunder novel - which means it's fun, yes, but not laugh-out-loud funny, the way some of the earlier novels are, and not as complex and devious as most of middle ones are.

Part of the problem is that the formula
Mar 22, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone not afraid of laughing uncontrolably on public transit
The best way to think of the Dortmunder books: imagine P.G. Wodehouse (however anachronistically) re-writing Guy Ritchie movies as novels. Sadly, this will be the last of the Dortmunder series; Westlake, like Dickens and Austen, went out still at the top of his game. Who but Westlake would create a NYPD "Chief Inspector Mologna (pronounced Maloney)"? And who but Westlake would have been shameless enough to christen a bungling security outfit "the Continental Detective Agency"?
Aug 11, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
Do you know about Dortmunder? Man, I love Dortmunder! Here's how this one starts:

"WHEN JOHN DORTMUNDER, RELIEVED, walked out of Pointers and back to the main sales floor of the O.J. Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue a little after ten that Wednesday evening in November, the silence was unbelievable, particularly in contrast with the racket that had been going on when he’d left. But now, no. Not a word, not a peep, not a word. The regulars all hunched at the bar were clutching tight to their glass
Jeff P
Sep 13, 2021 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
These Dortmunder books are always a quick and enjoyable read and this one is no different. Dortmunder and his associates are a gang of small time criminals who are getting by, but nothing ever goes quite right for the big score. The story in this one is that John is blackmailed by an ex-cop to "retrieve" a priceless gold chess set once intended for Czar Nicholas II for an old man whose father had stolen it originally at the end of WWI. ...more
Jul 15, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is more like it!

I was disappointed by the last Westlake novel I attempted (a rather humourless thriller entitled 361) and was advised to try a Dortmunder. I'm very glad I did. For years now I've been a Parker fan and these books seem to work as a counter-point to those. In Dortmunder we have a character who, while a really good planner, is not a violent sociopath. It means that Westlake/Stark can take his ideas in a different direction. For example, the proposition put to the lead character
Oct 03, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not the best Dortmunder book, but fun none-the-less! John gets put up by a private-eye type, "17 months not a cop" says he, to steal a gold chess set from a bank's vault. And there is also a gold dome that might need some thieving! And, of course, the whole crew gets involved and it's typical Dortmunder luck from then on! The story does go on a bit, but the ending is well done! Not so funny after all! ...more
Jul 12, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a four-star review and not a five-star review only because Westlake sets the bar for himself so very high that it's sometimes hard for him to maintain such a high level of quality, humor, and style. That said, this is still a highly entertaining and whimsical Dortmunder adventure, with everything you know and love about him and his circle of hapless friends-come-thieves present and accounted for. I've mentioned elsewhere that Westlake clearly maintains a deep wellspring of affection for ...more
Carol Jean
Dec 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An ex-cop turned private eye forces Dortmunder to pull off the impossible robbery -- an 800 pound gold chess set stored in a vault under a Fifth Avenue bank. Many lovely twists and turns, including an aging blue-blood matron dressed as the Wicked Witch of the West. One more Dortmunder to go and I will have finished my revist to this wonderful series!
Tim Hicks
May 13, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: mystery, adventure
Another solid Dortmunder. Westlake loved these characters, and he's crafted another complex plot. This is formula, but Westlake dresses it up nicely with wisecracks throughout. Thoroughly enjoyable. ...more
This is one of Westlake's stories of John Dortmunder, a professional thief who is very good at planning, but who is also very unlucky.

In this book his bad luck shows up first, in the form of Eppick, a retired cop now private detective, who has just enough evidence on Dortmunder for a burglary to convince him to take a job to retrieve a valuable artifact: a chess set originally meant for the last czar of Russia, "acquired" by WWII soldiers in Murmansk, stolen by one of their fellow soldiers, and
May 28, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It's the first Dortmunder novel I've read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I really like stories with good capers (like Ocean's Eleven) and this fit the bill. (Though I'm not sure why it's called "What's so Funny?")

I wasn't familiar with the characters that made up the gang, but I was given enough background and they had enough development for me to learn about them and get a sense of who they were without bogging the story down with too much exposition. They are likable and believable enough with
Robert J. Sullivan
You'd think that a 680 lb gold and jewel-encrusted chess set, once intended as a gift for Czar Nicholas II of Russia and subsequently liberated by some enterprising US doughboys after World War I would be exactly the kind of object that John Dortmunder, hangdog, recidivist hard-luck criminal mastermind, would love to put his hands on. However, since the chess set is locked in a vault in the sub-sub-sub-basement of a Manhattan bank, John's greed is tempered by his stronger desire to stay out of p ...more
Sep 09, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: fans of crime fiction
I picked out this book because it was a featured book for one of the book clubs I monitor. Unfortunately, I can't remember which one. Still, I would not have picked out this book without the recommendation, and it was an interesting story. It wasn't nearly as humorous as I expected it to be (I thought it would be similar to a Tim Dorsey novel), but it was entertaining and I appreciated the satire of the ending. The characters were interesting and I found myself rooting for the "criminals." I hav ...more
Jan 23, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I listened to this book as an audiobook. Altho this is not Westlake's best work, I gave it 5 stars because he is one of my favorite authors, and the story IS about the Dortmunder gang. It's a laugh-out-loud humorous crime novel about a group of unlucky bumbling criminals that never get it right. A retired ex-cop named Eppick has just enough evidence to blackmail Dortmunder into stealing a priceless chess set (the history of which is too complicated to describe here). The chess set is supposed to ...more
Apr 13, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Dortmunder novels, in case you're not a fan like me, are about John Dortmunder and his partners in crime. They are SOOOO funny. They're like a ragtag group of bumbling criminals, that get an E for Effort, but never quite get it right. In this one, they get hired to steal a solid gold chess set, and the ending is hilarious!!! These are laugh-out-loud books. Really worth reading. They all have the same characters, so it's like visiting friends every time you open one of these books up. I'd rec ...more
Paula Hebert
Apr 04, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
okay, it's not great literature by snob standards, but donald westlake's dortmunder novels will always get four stars from me. anyone who has not read these comedy crime stories is cheating themselves out of a lot of fun. in what's so funny? the morose dortmunder and his band of misfits are strongarmed into stealing a solid gold chess set that is in security so tight it is impossible to get to. needless to say, a series of twists and turns in the plot lead the gang into unchartered territory, an ...more
Julie Achterhoff
This is a book of blunders. A burglar is forced by an ex-cop to perform a heist of a chess set worth millions. He has an Andy Capp attitude, but enlists his fellow burglars' help to obtain the goods. It's all pure luck along the way as these fellow thieves embark on their path. I learned a lot about the underbelly of society in this book. I thought it was good as it had me hanging all the way through to the unexpected conclusion. ...more
Pat Gerke
An enjoyable heist story, and worth the read. Westlake takes his time setting up all of his dominoes before sending them into action. In the end I felt a bit too much time was wasted in aligning the pieces and too few of them paid off in the end. However, Westlake's characters and dry humor kept me entertained from cover to cover, leaving me wanting to read another book in the Dortmunder series. ...more
Apr 23, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: adventure-action
Another John Dortmunder and gang story. Another good story by Westlake, and sadly there will be no more (although I still have one more in this series to read).

All the gang is here, except Stan's mom. Characters I have known and read for many years.

John has his share of bad luck and setbacks, but still keeps plugging forward. A couple of surprises and that is wonderful.

Not his best work, but a fun read.
Aug 18, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fast, funny crime caper, splendid observations – “he looked like the part of the missile that gets left over the Indian Ocean, plus a homburg hat”. Excellent cast of characters too, neatly and tersely drawn.

I'l definitely be looking out for the rest of the series.

One minor quibble – the blurb on the back of the book says “1944 Murmansk” – but it should be 1920 Murmansk.
Dec 13, 2015 rated it liked it
3.5 stars. Less entertaining than the typical Dortmunder caper, as the gang really aren't involved for the majority of the book. The plot seemed promising but I found the story rather disjointed, with too many abrupt shifts. Westlake is talented and does manage one of his patented funny endings, but not enough to make this better than average. ...more
Dale Rosenberg
Jun 13, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I didn't realize there were any Westlakes left that I hadn't read! So I was excited to find this one. I had read the final Dortmunder - _Get Real_ - which is about reality television. This one is a heist of a chess set made of gold and jewels and originally commissioned by the last czar of Russia, but never delivered because of the Revolution. I laughed a lot, and enjoyed all the old characters. The new, just for this novel, characters were interesting and some of them quite funny, as well. The ...more
Quentin Feduchin
Oct 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The final Dortmunder, I'm so sorry to write. I loved them all, the bungling minor criminals who usually made a buck out of their illegal efforts, but then invariably victory was snatched from them by an unforseen theft-of-the-theft, or a misplacement of the winnings, or someone got lost..
Who can possibly forget Bank Shot, probably the funniest of them all; as everything completely disappears under water? (You will have to read why; your sides will split laughing.)
Goodbye Dormunder; and goodbye D
Hugh Mcaloon
May 06, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I thought that it was Dortmunder #1, but it turned out being #14. That ended up not being a problem. Despite the author's familiarity with the characters, he didn't pass off "in jokes" related to past stories that were obvious. In other words, while the characters may be familiar to many, for a new reader, there wasn't a feeling of "missing something." The writing was light, and I thought that the prose drew me onward. The characters were three dimensional, quirky, and fun to be with. The story, ...more
Dec 24, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Dortmunder leads a gang of petty thieves. They are caught by a private eye and blackmailed into stealing something for a client. The difficult job is way out of their league. Many of the characters are bumbling fools. I hadn't read any Westlake caper novels and it took me awhile to gauge how much was intended as comedy. The humor is mild and not enough to save an average storyline. ...more
Apr 29, 2021 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Everys so often, when life is a little too serious but ridiculous, I feel a need to reach for a Donald Westlake. Predictably full of slightly off-kilter love-to-hate characters who usually get what they deserve, this one was a fun but silly diversion through New York.
Yeah, the plot has holes and its imperfect. But I Westlake is always delightful and sometimes just what I need.
Emma Baca
Jan 04, 2022 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
When i got this on audible i did NOT realize it was #14 in a set smh.
However, it could have easily been a stand alone. This was my first Westlake novel and I came right back for more. If you like sly, witty, how on earth they going to pull this off kinds of stories then I highly recommend this one, maybe start at the beginning!!
Aug 30, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not the best of Westlake's Dortmunder novels, What's So Funny? is nonetheless a (typically) cleverly-plotted and (typically) sometimes very funny book. Entertaining reading, even for non-Dortmunder fans.
An Odd1
Apr 20, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: mystery
Chasing a chess set protected impossibly well, poor Dortmunder loses even when he wins, along with the usual gang. The other roles take precedence, more action and dialog. Hard to believe they only survive for this book.
Another fun heist story :)
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Donald E. Westlake (1933-2008) was one of the most prolific and talented authors of American crime fiction. He began his career in the late 1950's, churning out novels for pulp houses—often writing as many as four novels a year under various pseudonyms such as Richard Stark—but soon began publishing under his own name. His most well-known characters were John Dortmunder, an unlucky thief, and Park ...more

Other books in the series

Dortmunder (1 - 10 of 15 books)
  • The Hot Rock (Dortmunder, #1)
  • Bank Shot (Dortmunder, #2)
  • Jimmy The Kid (Dortmunder, #3)
  • Nobody's Perfect (Dortmunder, #4)
  • Why Me? (Dortmunder, #5)
  • Good Behavior (Dortmunder, #6)
  • Drowned Hopes (Dortmunder, #7)
  • Don't Ask (Dortmunder, #8)
  • What's The Worst That Could Happen? (Dortmunder, #9)
  • Bad News (Dortmunder, #10)

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“Well, you might not think it to look at me,” Dortmunder told him, “but I got a family crest.” “Have you?” “Yeah. And it’s got a motto on it.” “I am anxious to hear this motto.” “Quid lucrum istic mihi est.” Mr. Hemlow squinted; the red-headed hawk in flight. “I’m afraid my Latin is insufficient for that.” “What’s in it for me,” Dortmunder translated.” 4 likes
“May knew John had a very bad tendency, when things got unusually difficult, to sink with an almost sensuous pleasure into a warm bath of despair. Once you’ve handed the reins over to despair, to mix a metaphor just a teeny bit, your job is done. You don’t have to sweat it any more, you’ve taken yourself out of the game. Despair is the bench, and you are warming it.” 3 likes
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