Friday, May 03, 2019

FFB Review: DROWNED HOPES (1990) by Donald E. Westlake Reviewed by Barry Ergang

We roll into May 2019 with another classic review from Barry. Make sure you check out the full list over at Todd Mason’s blog.

DROWNED HOPES (1990) by Donald E. Westlake

Reviewed by Barry Ergang


Using the pseudonym Richard Stark, the late Donald E. Westlake wrote a superb series of hardboiled novels which starred the completely amoral and uncompromising thief named Parker. A number of films adapted from Parker titles have been made, but the best, in my opinion, remains the 1967 “Point Blank” based on The Hunter, the first book in the series, and which starred Lee Marvin, renamed Walker for whatever nebulous reason the screenwriters decided made sense to them.

In 1970’s The Hot Rock, a novel published under his own name, Westlake introduced John Archibald Dortmunder, a (usually) hapless and frequently inept professional thief—Parker’s polar opposite—and his idiosyncratic crew of cronies. It was the first in a series of comic crime novels about Dortmunder of which Drowned Hopes is the seventh.

The novel opens when Dortmunder, disgruntled over a failed burglary, comes home to the New York City apartment he shares with his girlfriend May Bellamy and discovers that an old cellmate, Tom Jimson, has shown up at their door and awaited his return. Jimson is not and never was a friend. He is, in fact, as cold, untrustworthy, and ruthless a specimen as any who has ever trod earth, and who should be and would be still in prison—he’s an admitted lifer—if governmental budget cuts hadn’t resulted in the release of a multitude of inmates. He has sought out Dortmunder to enlist his help in recovering money he stole in an armored car robbery (with a pair of partners he betrayed) in upstate New York many years earlier: seven hundred thousand dollars, to be exact. Ditching said partners, he went to a town called Putkin’s Corners, obtained a casket into which he put the money, and buried the casket behind the town library, intending to recover it after the heat died down. Unluckily for him, a state decision made while he was in prison resulted in the building of a dam to flood the valley and create a reservoir, thus submerging Putkin’s Corners and his treasure.

Seventy years old now, Jimson intends to dynamite the dam to uncover the ground and dig up the stolen loot so he can spend the remainder of his life living lavishly in Mexico, and wants Dortmunder’s help in effecting the project. He claims to be willing to split the money evenly, with Dortmunder using his half to pay off whoever he must for their assistance. The problem? Dynamiting the dam would result in a flood that would drown the hundreds of people who live in the areas adjacent to the reservoir, and Dortmunder isn’t about to be a party to mass murder. Consequently, he must devise a method by which they can recover the money without hurting anyone. If he doesn’t, Jimson assures him he’ll use dynamite and, if necessary, find another partner or partners to aid in the scheme.

Of course, nothing goes as planned and situations become progressively more complicated, resulting in considerable frustration for Dortmunder and company, and considerable hilarity for the reader.

Dortmunder’s crew is a quirky bunch: Stan Murch, the driver; Tiny Bulcher, the strongman; and Andy Kelp, who is fond of “borrowing” for jobs cars with MD license plates. Brought into this particular caper for their expertise are young computer nerd Wally Knurr and pretty-boy scuba-diving instructor Doug Berry. The cast also includes several people who have connections, not necessarily of the amicable sort, to Tom Jimson. And then there’s Murch’s Mom, cab-driving Gladys who misses swearing at New York City drivers while she’s out in the placid countryside.

Drowned Hopes contains more than a few laugh-out-loud moments, the author being a master at tickling risibilities. On several occasions, I had to wipe tears out of my eyes from laughing hard so I could continue reading. With the sole caveat that there are some instances of raw street language some readers might find objectionable, this is a fast, funny, cleverly-plotted crime novel loaded with memorable moments I can and do unhesitatingly recommend.

© 2015, 2019  Barry Ergang

Derringer Award-winner Barry Ergang’s written work has appeared in numerous publications, print and electronic. Some of it is available at Amazon and at Smashwords. His website is

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