The Pequod Review:
What's the Worst that Could Happen? is one of the best-plotted of Donald Westlake's Dortmunder books, involving a New York City real estate mogul (Max Fairbanks) whose petty vindictiveness leads Dortmunder to get his revenge, and then some. The story is a thrilling one from start to finish, a hugely enjoyable David-versus-Goliath battle that culminates in unexpected levels of tactical brilliance from Dortmunder (all because his pride was threatened).
It is also one of the best-written of Westlake's books. Jonathan Franzen is rightly praised for the rich back stories of his characters, but am I wrong to think Donald Westlake is just as good? This is how Westlake introduces the real estate mogul:
“Max Fairbanks,” Max Fairbanks said, “you’re a bad boy.” The milky blue eyes that gazed softly back at him in the bathroom mirror were understanding, sympathetic, even humorous; they forgave the bad boy.
Max Fairbanks had been in the business of forgiving Max Fairbanks, forgiving his indiscretions, his peccadilloes, his little foibles, for a long long time. He was in his mid-sixties now, having been born somewhere and sometime — somewhere east of the Rhine, probably, and sometime in the middle of the nineteen thirties, most likely; not a good combination — and somewhere and sometime in his early years he’d learned that a gentle word not only turneth away wrath, it can also turneth away the opponent’s head just long enough to crush it with a brick. Smiles and brutality in a judicious mix; Max had perfected the recipe early, when the stakes were at their highest, and had seen no reason for adjustment in the many successful years since.
As with so many self-made men, Max had begun by marrying money. He wasn’t Max Fairbanks yet, not back then, the century in its fifties and he in his twenties, but he’d long since stopped being his original self. Had there ever been loving parents who had given this child a name, their own plus another, no one by the 1950s knew anything about them, including Max, who, having found himself in London, called himself Basil Rupert, and soon made himself indispensable to a brewer’s daughter named Elsie Brenstid. Brenstid père, named Clement for some reason, had found young Basil Rupert far more resistible than his daughter had, until Basil demonstrated just how the Big B Brewery’s company-owned pubs could be made to produce considerably more income with just the right applications of cajolery and terror.
The marriage lasted three years, producing twin girls and an extremely satisfactory divorce settlement for Basil, Elsie being by then ready to pay anything to get away from her husband. Basil took this grubstake off to Australia, and by the time the ship landed he had somehow become a native Englishman called Edward Wizmick, from Devon.
Success stories are boring. On that basis, Max Fairbanks was today the most boring of men, having piled success upon success over a span of four decades covering five continents. The occasional setback — no, not even that; deceleration was the word — such as the current Chapter Eleven nonsense in the United States hardly counted at all, was barely a blip on the screen.
And it was certainly not going to keep Max from enjoying himself. In his long-ago childhood, he had come too close to being snuffed out too many times, in too many squalid alleys or half-frozen marshes, to want to deny himself any pleasure that this life-after-(near)death might offer.
For instance. One minor irritation within the minor irritation of the Chapter Eleven was that Max was not supposed to avail himself of the beach house in Carrport. The cleaning staff could still come in once a week to maintain the place, but other than that it was supposed to be shut off and sealed until the Chapter Eleven arrangement had been satisfactorily concluded. But in that case, what about Miss September?
Ah, Miss September; Tracy Kimberly to all who love her. The minute Max saw her pubic hair in Playboy he knew he had to have her for his own, temporarily. The problem, of course, was Mrs. Fairbanks, the fair Lutetia, Max’s fourth and final wife, the one he would grow old with (slowly), the one who had several hundreds of millions of dollars in Max’s assets in her own name, for reasons the accountants understood. Lutetia could be counted on to act with discretion so long as Max acted with discretion, which meant there were only certain specific venues in which he could hope to run his fingers through that soft and silky hair, one of them not being the apartment in Manhattan. But Tracy Kimberly, in avid pursuit of a career as an entertainment journalist, lived in Manhattan, and it would be even less discreet for Max to travel great distances with her; for instance, in airplanes.
Hence, the Carrport house...
And here is Westlake's profile of Max's wife:
Lutetia Fairbanks her name was, most recently, and now Lutetia Fairbanks forever. A tall and handsome woman, with striking abundant black hair, she moved with a peculiarly deliberate walk, a heavy but sensual thrusting forward and bearing down, as though she were always seeking ants to step on. The regal, if slightly Transylvanian, aspect this gave her was enhanced by her predilection for swirling gowns and turbanned headgear.
Meanwhile, in one of many funny scenes, Dortmunder gets an education in the bankruptcy code:
“He’s in Chapter Eleven,” Gus Brock said.
“Is this a person,” Dortmunder asked, “or a book?”
They were on the 7:22 Long Island Railroad commuter train out of Grand Central, running eastward across the suburbs, surrounded by workaholics still focused on their Powerpaks. Gus, a blunt and blocky guy with a blunt and blocky mustache that seemed to drag his face downward as though it were woven of something heavier than hair, said, “It’s a bankruptcy.”
“This guy is bankrupt?” Dortmunder frowned at his coworker’s sagging profile. “This guy is broke, and we’re on our way to rob him? What’s he got left?”
“Zillions,” Gus said. “What falls outta Max Fairbanks’s pockets every day is more’n you and me see in a lifetime.”
“Then how come he’s bankrupt?”
“It’s a special kind of bankrupt they have for people that aren’t supposed to get hurt,” Gus explained. “Like when countries go bankrupt, you don’t see an auctioneer come in and sell off the towns and the rivers and stuff, it just means a court takes over the finances for a while, pays everybody eight cents on the dollar, and then the country can go back to what it was doing before it screwed up. This guy, he’s that kinda rich, it’s the same deal.”
Dortmunder shook his head. All of finance was too much for him. His understanding of economics was, you go out and steal money and use it to buy food. Alternatively, you steal the food. Beyond that, it got too complex. So he said, “Okay, it’s just one of those cute ways rich guys have to steal from everybody without having to pick locks.”
“You got it.”
“But so what?” Dortmunder asked. “If he’s still got everything he had, and he had zillions, what do we care what chapter he’s up to?”
“Because,” Gus said, “this place out in Carrport, it belongs to the corporation, and so the court has jurisdiction over it now, so nobody’s supposed to use it.”
What great fun. This is one of the finest of the Dortmunders.