Review: Nobody’s Perfect

Oppressed by the continuing silence in the cab, these four large bodies sweating lightly in the hot July London air, Chauncey made a desperate stab at Smalltalk: “This your first trip to London, Dortmunder?”

“Yeah.”  Dortmunder turned his head slightly to look out the window.  The cab, having come in the M4 from Heathrow, was now inching through the normal traffic jam on Cromwell Road.  “Looks like Queens,” Dortmunder said.

Chauncey came automatically to the city’s defense.” Well, this is hardly the center of town.”

“Neither is Queens.”

I don’t really know what my favorite Parker novel is, but I know my least favorite–Flashfire, which is the first thing of Westlake’s I ever read.  It starts out great, then somehow loses its way once it gets to Palm Beach.  This just does not seem to be a place Parker belongs.   You could write a perfectly good crime novel set in Florida, don’t get me wrong (I believe it’s been done once or twice)–just not with Parker in it.

I don’t really know what my favorite Dortmunder novel is, but I know my least favorite–this one.   Which starts out great, then somehow loses its way once it gets to London, and from there to bonny Scotland.  These do not seem to be places Dortmunder belongs.  You could write a perfectly good crime novel set in London and/or Scotland, don’t get me wrong (they’d probably wear funny hats and there’d be fog)–just not with Dortmunder in it.  I believe I vaguely detect a pattern here.

Terra incognita is one thing for a fictional character and another thing entirely for an author.   Westlake had probably been to London by this point, perhaps more than once–referring back to an Abby Adams quote I employed in my review of Brothers Keepers, he reportedly uprooted much of his family for a tour of Britain and The Continent (dates not specified), and of course a writer never takes a trip purely for pleasure–there’s always mental note-taking going on, and perhaps the other kind as well.

Still, he could hardly claim the same familiarity with European locales as he could with New York and other American cities (Britain is still kindasorta European, right?  I mean, there’s a tunnel and everything).   So much of Westlake’s better writing is about the fine details, and particularly his comic writing.  To get the fine details right, you have to know the territory very well.  Or else fake it to beat the band.  That’s always an option.

More than that, though, Westlake must have been wondering where he could go with this series that had dropped into his lap unexpectedly at the tail-end of the 60’s.  What was he supposed to do with Dortmunder & Co?  People loved the books, and he could hardly pass up a steady paying gig, particularly now with Parker, Grofield. and Tobin all out of the picture.

But he’s already on the fourth book, and he’s got a problem–with Parker, he had a lot of options–Parker might steal a lot of money and get to keep it–or go on a blood-soaked campaign of ruthless retribution, which was what he did in the first book.  Dortmunder doesn’t seem constitutionally equipped for the latter course, and anyway, it wouldn’t be funny.  Nor can he do what Grofield does, and play-act his way through a variety of roles, swashbuckler, detective, secret agent.  Dortmunder is just Dortmunder.

The whole point of the character is that he does these elaborate heists that go hilariously wrong, and he ends up with a mere pittance–enough to keep him going until next time. How many stories like that can you write and keep it fresh?    If he wanted to keep writing these books, and cashing those royalty checks, Westlake had to find ways to expand Dortmunder’s options, without surrendering the essential qualities of the character.

Part of that will involve expanding the cast of regulars, but the finale of this book radically shrinks that cast down to just Dortmunder and Kelp.  Who normally make a great team (from our perspective, anyway), but here, not so much.   I’m probably spoiled after the last three books, the pioneering works of the series–this is a transitional book.  There’s so much to like about this one.  So many brilliant moments.  Somehow the pieces don’t quite fit together.  Well, a Dortmunder that doesn’t quite entirely work is still a Dortmunder.   But I’m making this a one-parter, because I don’t want to dwell on it.   Short synopsis follows, and then I shall analyze what went wrong–and right.

Dortmunder gets nabbed stealing TV sets from a repair shop.  He figures he’s going away a long time.  He figures wrong–out of the blue comes this famous legal eagle, J. Radcliffe Stonewiler, who mysteriously agrees to take up Dortmunder’s defense without Dortmunder even asking him to.

The wily Stonewiler performs a little courtroom razzle-dazzle at the preliminary hearing (something to do with doors), and the delighted judge, bored to tears with his humdrum routine of obviously guilty people stringing things out in hopes of getting off on a technicality, dismisses all charges out of sheer gratitude.   Dortmunder goes home to May about six years early, by his reckoning.   Hey, I thought next time he went to jail it’d be for life, due to his prior convictions?   Retconning already, Mr. Westlake?   Hedging your bets, in case you want to do another jailhouse comedy someday?

Dortmunder knows there’s always a catch.   The catch this time is named Arnold Chauncey.   The shiftless wealthy heir to a great fortune, who spends his days lolly-gagging about, jet-setting around the globe, enjoying the fruits of other mens’ labors–enjoying them so much, in fact, that he’s perpetually on the brink of insolvency, due to cash-flow problems.

These problems he has twice addressed in past by claiming that a valuable painting from his extensive collection has been stolen, then cashing a hefty insurance check (he just sticks the painting somewhere nobody but him can look at it).   Now he wants to try it again, with a painting he’s particularly fond of (Folly Leads Man to Ruin, by Veenbes, and there is no such work, or artist, don’t even bother to look) .   The insurance company is getting skeptical.   Hence the need to hire a professional to make it look real this time.  Hence Dortmunder.

But what, you may ask, would prevent Dortmunder, after he’s pretend-heisted the Veenbes, from actually heisting it?   Dortmunder asks this question himself, and then wishes he hadn’t, because it turns out Chauncey hired another professional–from a different profession.   Leo Zane is his name.  Tall, skinny, pale, pronounced limp.  His gun, you might say, is for hire.  Or for sale, same difference.  If Dortmunder doesn’t give back the painting, Dortmunder’s going away for keeps, to that big house in the sky.

So he recruits a string, some of the usual suspects, plus a new guy, Tiny Bulcher, and they steal the painting–and then lose it.  At a gathering of Scotsmen, of all things.  Okay, now what?  Not only can they not get paid without the painting, but Dortmunder is going to get whacked if they don’t cough it up.

So Kelp has an idea (doesn’t he always?).  They approach Griswold Porculey, an artist friend of his nephew Victor’s (the former FBI agent from Bank Shot), who can turn out a really convincing copy of just about any painting in any style–but he can’t get it exactly right without the original to work from.   It will stand up to a cursory examination, but not an extended one.

Dortmunder calls in some favors from a variety of old friends he re-connected with at this fantastic heister’s Christmas party at May’s apartment, including bisexual black revolutionary Herman X, and heister turned full-time TV actor, Alan Grofield (formerly Greenwood), and they pull an elaborate sting that ends with Chauncey believing Dortmunder brought him the real painting, but then a gang of terrorists or something stole it, and they were seemingly tipped off by Leo Zane (Grofield, giving the performance of a lifetime, in silhouette).   Dortmunder made sure to trap the real Zane in a blockade of trucks over on the west side–by the time he gets out, Chauncey won’t return his calls, and he won’t whack Dortmunder gratis.

So they have a fantastic heister’s Post-Christmas party, with the whole gang present, and Dortmunder feels really good about one of his schemes finally working out the way he planned it, and then he and May go off to Puerto Rico on Chauncey’s money (which of course the ‘terrorists’ stole along with the painting).

Dortmunder is, as I said, atypically contented with his lot in life after making this score, but he can’t help but think he’s missed some crucial detail, and he starts looking around nervously, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

And part of me thinks this is where it should have ended, but that would be too simple, right?  Still and all, up to this point, it’s a very creditable effort.   Westlake, playing his usual structural games, divided the book into three ‘choruses,’ First, Second, and Final.  It’s the Final Chorus, only fifty-six pages long in the first edition,  where the enterprise begins to founder.   And in fiction, as in life, how well you end things matters more than how well you began them.

See, Leo got out of the trap Dortmunder set for him, and managed to convince Chauncey that they’d both been had.  And now he and Chauncey are in Dortmunder and May’s apartment (Kelp is there too), Porculey’s fake thumbtacked to the wall (Dortmunder had considered tacking the original up there as well, before they lost it), and not even Kelp can come up with a good enough story to get them out of this.

This is bad–Chauncey didn’t even get the insurance money, because the real painting has shown up (wouldn’t you know it) in Scotland, where an impecunious squire by the name of MacDough (pronounced MacDuff, but no relation, so lay off) is claiming, with a completely straight face, that it’s been in his family for generations.

They are all going to die (even May).  Chauncey believes they lost the painting, knows there was no planned double-cross, but that just means they conned him out of the money with that terrorist gag, and like all rich men in a Westlake novel, his well of compassion runs dry very quickly.

But now Dortmunder has an idea–and here’s where we may detect that most extreme rarity–a genuine gaping plot hole in a Westlake book.  See, Dortmunder says they can go to London and steal the painting back, putting the copy in its place, and then Chauncey can demand the one in London be re-appraised by experts, who will declare it a fake, and he’ll have the real one stashed back at his crib, no one the wiser.

Okay, who knows why this doesn’t work?   First of all, the experts in London would probably have taken photos of the original, which they could refer back to, and see that it doesn’t quite match up to the fake, in ways they would have noticed on their first perusal.

Now that might not be too much of a problem for Chauncey, insurance-wise (he just needs to prove the other guy doesn’t have the real painting), but why is he risking everything, even his own liberty, to help commit an art heist, in a foreign country, with one surly hired assassin and two guys who already bungled it once on their home turf?  Aside from the fact that Westlake figures he needs another fifty-six pages of story?  Obviously because he has a collector’s obsession with hanging onto his collectibles, but that doesn’t work here.

Because once Dortmunder tells Chauncey the whole story, you see, he can get the painting back without their help.   Because he can prove the doughty MacDough was there in New York, in a theater a block away from Chauncey’s townhouse, at a gathering of be-kilted Scotsmen attending a concert.  The very same night his painting was stolen.  And then, shortly afterwards, Mr. MacDough ‘discovered’ this old Flemish master, worth a small fortune, in his dungheap of an ancestral castle, part of his inheritance from a land-rich relation who never had two farthings to rub together.

It’s too much of a coincidence for anyone to swallow.   Even a Scotsman (sorry lads, couldn’t resist).

You can rationalize it, if you want–Chauncey didn’t really want to be an accomplice to murder, he was intrigued by the prospect of engaging in art theft directly, he just didn’t think of it (though he’s no dummy).   If Westlake thought any of these were viable excuses, he’d have trotted one or all of them out for our approval, but he didn’t.  Because he knew they weren’t viable.  And he just devoutly hoped we wouldn’t notice the hole.   Well, to be honest, I didn’t notice it myself–the first time.    His legerdemain is always adroit.

But much as the Dortmunders are not exercises in gritty realism, there does have to be that underlying credibility–Westlake has to play fair.  He painted himself into a corner here, and he cheated.  Bad form, old scout.

And that may be why what follows just lacks the usual Dortmunder flair, aside from the change of venue.  Oh it’s fun to read, don’t get me wrong–Westlake can’t be boring, ever.  But you compare it to what came before, and there’s something missing, some secret ingredient, and while the ending rather cleverly hearkens back to the overriding theme of Folly Leading Man to Ruin, the final image seems more like the ending of a third-rate Abbott & Costello movie.  Or maybe Tom & Jerry?   You’ll know what I mean if you’ve read it (there is no way they could have gotten that armor on so quickly by themselves).

(‘Newgate Callendar’, NY Times music critic and part-time mystery maven, loved this one, by the way.   I don’t know if he saw the plot hole, and if he had, I don’t know that he’d have given a damn, because to him, this is just a silly entertainment, nothing more.   The more depth a book in this genre has, the more it departs from the established format, the less he likes it.   Someday I’ll have to share with you all what he thought of Charles Willeford and Patricia Highsmith.  Maybe you can guess.)

So I’ve prefaced and synopsized and dissected the whole novel in a bit over two thousand words, and delivered my final judgment, and just one short prefatory quote, and it’s not at all my normal way of doing things, is it?

Because, you see, I want to end this on a positive note.  Because even a Dortmunder that doesn’t quite work is still a Dortmunder–just like a painting by an old Flemish master who was having a bit of a dry spell is still an old Flemish master, and as I have said before, sometimes we learn more from an artist’s failures than his successes.   Whatever the Book of Proverbs may think, Folly often leads man to more inspired efforts in the future–if he recognizes it as such, as I believe Westlake did in this case.

So let’s go back to the beginning, and look at all the fine details of the picture, all the things that do work, all the masterful little brush strokes that don’t quite add up to a masterwork this time, but still make for an interesting book.

Detail #1: The Terror of Tiny Town

“Hello, Dortmunder.”  Tiny had the voice of a frog in an oil drum, but less musical.”  “Long time, no see.”

Dortmunder sat opposite him, saying, “You look good, Tiny,” which was a palpable lie.  Tiny, hulking on the little chair, his great meaty shoulders bulging inside his cheap brown suit, a shelf of forehead bone shadowing his eyes, looked mostly like something to scare children into going to bed.

Westlake had introduced many a massive supporting character in past novels–George, the good-natured and oddly philosophical leg-breaker for the Machinists Union in Killy; Lobo, the silent and comically terrifying evocation of Rondo Hatton, in The Spy in the Ointment; Dan Wycza in the Parker novels; and there were two giants in Help I Am Being Held Prisoner.  I think it was the shorter and scarier of the two, Billy Glinn, who provided the main impetus for Mr. Bulcher’s genesis.

Billy was always telling stories about this or that person who had irritated him in some way, and those stories had a tendency to get rather bloody in their details.   Tiny has the same disarming habit of  going off on gruesome tangents, but the point, of course, is to keep reminding his colleagues that he’s not somebody you want to piss off.

And yet, in all his many appearances in the series, we never once see him seriously hurt anyone, because that’s just how the Dortmunder books tend to work out (with only one exception, and even Tiny was scared of him).   So does Tiny just make these ripping yarns of his up, or embellish them, simply to give himself a more fearsome reputation?   Looking at him, one would not think that necessary, but he’s smarter than he looks, and he might just figure the more scared people are of him, the less actual work he has to do.

Mainly he just carries heavy things (like cars), and Dortmunder may want him on some jobs because he provides that intimidation factor that makes actual violence unnecessary.   Dortmunder’s smarter than he looks as well, and he wisely assumes Tiny isn’t making anything up–their professional relationship is always somewhat guarded, with Dortmunder not wanting to let on he’s intimidated, and Tiny not really wanting to head up the string.  He just wants whoever is in charge to know they better not screw up.  As he meets each member of the string in this book, he is moved to recall some person in the same specialty (Driver, Lockman, etc), who disappointed him in some crucial way, and let’s just say you really don’t want to disappoint Tiny Bulcher, and leave it at that.  But the main thing is, he never disappoints us.

Detail #2: The Duo’s Dynamic

“Maybe you’re the jinx,” May said, very softly

Dortmunder gave her a look of affronted amazement.  “Maybe what?”

“After all,” she said, “those were Kelp’s jobs, and he brought them to you, and you can’t really blame any one person for all the things that went wrong, so maybe you’re the one that jinxes his jobs.”

Dortmunder had never been so basely attacked in his life.  “I am not a jinx,” he said, slowly and distinctly, and stared at May as though he’d never seen her before.

“I know that,” she said.  “And neither is Andy.  And besides, this isn’t you coming in on a job he found, it’s him coming in on a job you found.”

“No,” Dortmunder said.  He glowered at the TV screen, but he didn’t see any of the shadows moving on it.

“Damn it, John,” May said, getting really annoyed now, “You’ll miss Andy, and you know it.”

“Then I’ll shoot again.”

The pattern of the books up to now had been simple, though the execution was not–Kelp pitches a crazy heist to Dortmunder, Dortmunder wants nothing to do with the job but somehow gets pulled into it anyway, it all goes to hell (which on some level actually gratifies Dortmunder, because it proves he was right all along), and Dortmunder swears never to work with Kelp again.   And repeat.

Westlake was a lot like Dortmunder (and Parker, and Tobin), in that he often wrote books based on ideas that somebody had pitched to him.  Some of these ideas worked out better than others.   His was a reactive form of creative genius–he needed something to get him started, some outside stimulus.   And anyway, nobody could write as much as Westlake did and only use his own ideas.  And sometimes his own ideas didn’t work so well either.

Dortmunder is a genius (as Kelp is constantly telling him), but left to his own devices, he seems to mainly do penny-ante burglaries, and that’s what he’s doing at the start of this book.  The small job leads to a big one–this time pitched to him by Chauncey.  Work for hire, which isn’t his favorite source of income, but he’s having the same problems Parker is having, with finding heists where he can simply take a lot of insufficiently well-guarded cash.  He’s got to diversify.

So he takes the job, but he doesn’t tell Kelp about it.  Obviously Kelp finds out anyway, and is deeply offended.  May remonstrates on Kelp’s behalf, as always, and Dortmunder relents.  And ends up regretting it, again, but as matters work out, Kelp probably saves his bacon in the end, though Dortmunder is not feeling terribly grateful by then.

Westlake is trying to figure out how to use Kelp without always going back to that same old pattern.  At the end of the book, the two of them are a team, working to steal the painting (again) in London, and then (still yet again) in Scotland.  Yeah, it’s too much like The Hot Rock, only not nearly enough like it.

And yet Kelp is responsible for much of what’s best in this book.   Westlake is starting to develop ways to use him as something other than Dortmunder’s albatross.  His contacts and resourcefulness serve Dortmunder well after the first heist goes wrong, and one contact in particular–a police detective named Bernard Klematsky, who considers Kelp a dubious but useful source of information (and free Italian food)–will factor into future escapades.   As the books go by, it will often seem like Dortmunder is the jinx, not Kelp.  But don’t ever tell Dortmunder that.

And somehow, I always get the notion that what we’re seeing here is an encoded history of real-life friendships Westlake had, that as loyal a friend as he reportedly was, he was also sometimes irritated beyond words with certain (mainly male) associates, and that irritation found expression in the Dortmunder/Kelp dynamic–and that way, he can write from the perspective of the overly helpful friend,  see things from his side, and convince himself that he’s worth the trouble after all.

Dortmunder would like to think he doesn’t really need anybody, but we know better, and so does May, and (at the deepest core of his being) so does Dortmunder.   In the Parker novels, as we saw in Butcher’s Moon, this contradiction between the protagonist’s rugged independence and his need to sometimes rely on others gets expressed with the tried-and-true Starkian romanticism.  In the Dortmunders, it’s expressed in the manner of a Laurel & Hardy comedy, with Dortmunder playing the ever-exasperated Ollie.  And once in a while giving we the audience an aggrieved look–“What did I ever do to deserve this?”  I dunno, John–just lucky, I guess.

Detail #3: Old Friends

Stately plump Joe Mulligan paused in the privacy of the hallway to pull his uniform trousers out of the crease of his backside, then turned to see Fenton watching him.  “Mp,” he said, then nodded at Fenton, saying, “Everything okay down here.”

Here’s another thing I missed the first time I read this–a glaringly obvious reference to the opening paragraph of Ulysses.

Now I’ve read a fair bit of James Joyce, but I must shamefacedly confess, I’ve rather cravenly shied away from his magnum opus over the years (I start reading, and then I stop, and they keep revising it anyway), and am thus not properly equipped to know if this is merely a surface reference, a little wink at the more erudite members of Westlake’s readership–or if there’s something more involved going on.  Probably not.  Then again, possibly so.  But I do know, having read virtually all of Westlake, that stately plump Joe Mulligan, and the six other other security men at Chauncey’s mansion, were in Bank Shot.

They’ve stayed together as a team, and have, as we’re told, been exiled to the wilds of Manhattan after their disgrace (losing an entire bank!).  Used to be cops, public and private, wanted to work Manhattan, but those days are gone–they’d rather be anywhere else.  They’re hoping to get back in the good graces of the Continental Detective Agency, and get posted back out to Long Island, Staten Island, any island but this.

Three of their number are still named after Hal Dresner, Lawrence Block, and Brian Garfield, and they still play a lot of poker during their down time.  They’re guarding the valuables of Arnold Chauncey at a party Chauncey has arranged for the sole purpose of making the theft more palatable to the insurance company, and of course they will fail in their sworn duty, because Chauncey wants them to, and also because Dortmunder is most definitely a jinx to them, whatever else may be the case.  And this won’t be the last time their paths cross, but we’ll get to that.

Detail #4: Kentucky Nepenthe

“Would that be bourbon?” asked the Prince.

“It would.  May I offer?”

“You certainly may.  Say what you will about jazz, the Hollywood movie, the Broadway musical or the short story, but I say America’s contribution to the arts is bourbon.”

I never drank a drop of bourbon in my life before I started reading Westlake novels, and now there’s a bottle of Knob Creek in my living room, and I’ll just pour myself  a dram to get in the mood to write this segment.  I’ve always been more of a beer&wine guy, but you read enough Westlake, you just can’t help getting curious.  Maybe I’ll go with Wild Turkey Rare Breed next time.  Widow Jane is pretty damn good (distilled in Kentucky, bottled in Brooklyn, with limestone-rich water from the Widow Jane mine in Rosendale NY,  not that you asked, but Westlake would have, I bet).

Dortmunder is a bourbon man (as is Kelp), but they normally drink the cheap stuff.  Amsterdam Liquor Store Bourbon: “Our Own Brand”.  Dortmunder thinks to himself, having sampled Chauncey’s extremely fine bourbon, that the stuff he drinks at the O.J. is probably distilled in Hoboken, from a combination of Hudson and Raritan waters (adding a whole new dimension to the phrase ‘Bourbon and Branch’).

So Dortmunder has to steal a lot of valuables from Chauncey’s mansion, along with the painting, just to make it look good, and having had a taste of the top drawer stuff, he crams all the bottles he can find under his suit jacket, and this proves to be his undoing, trapping him in an elevator shaft until after his colleagues have lost the painting.   This would never have happened to Parker, who never seems to give a damn what he drinks (and yet he often drinks bourbon).  Dortmunder learns to compromise, buying a decent if unremarkable brand to have at home, but at the O.J. he’ll stick to the stuff from Hoboken.  And speaking of the O.J.–

Detail #5: The Boys at the Bar 

When Dortmunder walked into the O.J. Bar and Grill on Amsterdam Avenue at eleven that night, three of the regulars were deep in discussion with Rollo the bartender about private versus public eduction.  “I tell ya what’s wrong widda private schools,” one of the regulars was saying.  “You put your  kid in there, it’s like a hothouse, you know what I mean?  The kid don’t get to know all kinds a people, he don’t get prepared for  real life.”

One of the others said, “Real life?  You wanna know about real life?  You put your kids in a public school they get themselves mugged and raped and all that shit. You call that real life?”

“Sure I do,” the first one said.  “Meeting all kinds, that’s what real life is all about.”

The second one reared back in disbelieving contempt.  “You mean you’d put your kid in a school with a lotta niggers and kikes and wops and spics?”

“Just a minute there,” the third regular said.  “I happen to be of Irish extraction myself, and I think you oughta just give me an apology there.”

The other two stared at him, utterly bewildered.  The main offender said “Huh?”

“Or maybe you’d like a swift left to the eye,” said the Irishman.

It is now an established feature of these books that Dortmunder will walk into the O.J. Bar and Grill and Rollo will be at the bar, and will tell him who’s in the back room waiting for him, identifying them by their drinks.  And as Dortmunder waits for his Hoboken bourbon, he will hear snatches of very strange conversations, and here’s one of the stranger ones, though by no means the strangest.  And let me say, I fully believe that Irishman is out there, to this very day, defending his Celtic race from wholly unintended ethnic slights, and if you don’t believe me, how’d you like a swift left to the eye?  Huh?  And it’s not just the Irish, either.

Detail #6: Family Resemblances

And now some of them were fighting.  Over there by the head of the second aisle, two or three lads were rounding and punching and clutching at one another, while another half dozen tried to either stop them or join in, hard to tell which.  “What are they fighting about?” Kelp cried.

A passing Scot paused to answer: “Well, you know,” he said, “if it’s neither football nor politics, it’s more than likely religion.” And away he waded, to join the discussion.

Since Scotland voted ‘No’ in the referendum, any visitors I get from there fall under the sway of the Union Jack, which is a damned shame, because I’d love to add the Saltire to my collection (118 flags and still counting).  And maybe for other reasons, but we all compromise at times, don’t we?  I’m quite sure a referendum in Northern Ireland would go the same way for the present time, and sometimes it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie.  Tiocfaidh ár lá.

Anyway, I haven’t known a lot of Scots, and that’s only my misfortune, but there’s this one story that reminds me of the Dortmunder gang’s experience at the concert hall.

It was a different kind of concert hall–The Ritz, in lower Manhattan, and not my usual type of venue at all, but I wanted to see The Pogues live, just once (it was twice, eventually, but Joe Strummer was in for Shane MacGowan the second time at the Beacon Theater, and that doesn’t really count).  Anyway, once the lads started playing their Celtic Punk, an impromptu mosh-pit quickly developed, and at its center were these muscular fellows, whipping their shirts off, and pouring beer all over each other, and (inadvertently) myself.

“We’re sorry, we’re from Scotland,” one of them cheerfully informed me. I forgave them at once.   That’s a perfectly decent excuse.  Fight on, Scotland the Brave.

And perhaps I’d best wrap up this itemized list with–

Detail #7: A Portrait of the Artist as a Lewd Man

While waiting, Dortmunder  looked around, absorbing this weird dwelling place and noticing here and there on the dark walls unframed paintings, presumably Porculey’s.  They were all different, and yet they were all the same.  In the middle foreground of each was a girl, either naked or wearing something minimal like a white scarf, and in the background was a landscape.  The girls were mostly seen full length, and they were always very absorbed in what they were doing.  One of them, for instance, sitting on the grass with some ruined castles behind her, plus in the distance a couple of trees and a small pond at which two deer drank, was studying a chess set laid out on the grass in front of her.  Another showed a girl on a beach, leaning over the gunwale to look inside a large stranded rowboat, with a huge storm way out at sea in the background.  (This was the girl with the scarf.)

The girls were not quite identical.  Glancing around, Dormunder saw maybe four different girls among the paintings, and it was with a sudden shock that he realized one of them was Cleo Marlahy.  So that’s what she looks like with her clothes off, he thought, blinking at a picture in which, against a background of an apple orchard white with spring flowers, an unsmiling girl was rather leggily climbing over a rail fence.

My favorite part of this book involves Kelp taking Dortmunder to see Oswald Porculey, Victor’s artist friend, whose studio is rather improbably (and yet entirely plausibly) situated in a Long Island shopping mall (the sheer wealth of detail in its description puts to shame the rather threadbare descriptions of London later in the book)–he gets cheap rent on a space that formerly housed a clothing store, in exchange for doing some security work.  He’s described to us as a man around fifty, overweight, unshaven, sloppily dressed, with about the most beautiful model/mistress any artist might desire, and somehow we know that much as he may enjoy fucking her, he’d much rather be painting her. She’s that beautiful.  Even Dortmunder ogles her, and he’s not generally the ogling kind.

Porculey is a tremendously gifted artist, with (let’s be honest) somewhat banal tastes.  Technique is not all.  His ability to mimic other artists is nothing short of uncanny, but left to his own devices, he mainly does very elaborate pin-ups.  And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  And what is the point of all this?

It may interest those of you who collect old paperbacks (like the Gold Medal editions of the Parker novels) that at the time this book was written and published, Robert E. McGinnis was just about exactly fifty years of age, and while I couldn’t possibly know what his shaving and dressing habits were, that physical description matches him to a proverbial T, and the descriptions of that artwork bear an even more striking resemblance to what McGinnis generally paints when left to his own devices.   Though I would tend to doubt he was ever reduced to doing night watchman duty at a Long Island mall.

I don’t believe this is a coincidence.  You may draw your own conclusions.   And really, since McGinnis drew himself as Parker (fondling a nearly-naked Claire) on his cover for The Black Ice Score, one might argue this is merely one feminine-obsessed artist returning the sincere compliment of another.   And I would hope McGinnis would take it as a compliment (particularly since Westlake wrote him into the final chorus of this book), but in the unlikely event that I ever meet him, I think maybe I won’t bring it up.

I could say more.   I can pretty much always say more.   But I think that’s enough.  I like this book.  It could have been better.   Pretty nearly all the subsequent books in this series are better, I think.  But there’s so much here.  So much richness of description, so many little flourishes put in there for those able to enjoy them, that you can’t call it a failure.  It’s just a bit less of a success.  Anyway, Newgate Callendar liked it.  I can imagine Westlake reading his rave review, having previously read his pans of far superior efforts, and wondering where he’d gone wrong.  And where he might, with a bit of extra effort, go right.

I am now going to commit heresy.  Our next book is Castles In The Air.   Perhaps Westlake’s least-loved comic caper featuring a cast of professional thieves–operating out of Europe this time.  And I think it’s funnier than Nobody’s Perfect.   And if you can refrain from the tar and feathers until next week, I’ll tell you why.

PS: One final array of covers–and again we see that the foreign editions tend to have the best artwork, where Dortmunder is concerned.  Some really creditable efforts.   No McGinnis art, though.  Somehow, I don’t think Dortmunder would have appealed to him.  Maybe that’s why he’s in a Dortmunder novel.

More at the Official Westlake Blog–my favorite place to commit art theft. 😉

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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17 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels, Nobody's Perfect, Uncategorized

17 responses to “Review: Nobody’s Perfect

  1. You could write a perfectly good crime novel set in London and/or Scotland,

    Conan Doyle didn’t try, though. All of the Holmes novels feature other, generally exotic locations (Utah, India, Dartmoor, and the US.)

    • The good parts are mainly in London, though Dartmoor was pretty cool. Holmes didn’t get to Scotland, did he? Even though his creator hailed from there. Nonetheless, many a mystery has been set there, and there’s usually funny hats. The fog is more of a London thing. Would you believe there’s an entire (very long) book about the history of fog in London? And yet they don’t have a lot of different words for it, like the Inuit have for snow. Strange.

  2. Anthony

    Also my least favorite Dortmunder. Also because the ending in the Highlands just seems tacked on and is the wrong kind of silly. On the other hand, I have a soft spot because he brought back Chefwick in this one. Really too mild mannered a character to go the distance, but very likeable.

    Also, the Christmas party at Dortmunder’s apartment is among my favorite scenes in the series. As I recall, Dortmunder sat in his chair with his feet on his ottoman and he damned near smiled.

    So, yeah, lots of great parts that just don’t quite add up to a satisfying whole. On the other hand, one of them has to be the least favorite.

    • I was reading the Dortmunders one after the other, and this one really stuck out as a bit of a lemon–then again, because I was reading them fairly close together, it was satisfying to see Dortmunder’s world expand, to see old friends return, to see new ones introduced. It moves the series forward as a whole, even as it falls short as a distinct unit within the series.

      And something else I didn’t get around to mentioning (the piece was long enough already)–Chauncey is something of a confused character. Westlake had been writing a succession of unapologetic cads you nonetheless root for a bit, and Chauncey falls partly within that orbit–but he’s also a rich twit, and falls heavily within that orbit–so there’s a certain ambivalence. There’s a bit more sympathy for the devil here, even though he doesn’t really merit any sympathy at all.

      But this is the prototype for the classic Dortmunder arch-nemesis–a rich man whose only purpose in life is to be still richer. We’ll see this kind of figure again and again, but in future they’ll be better defined, and more unequivocally villainous in nature (while still having human quirks), and that may be mere formula, but it’s damned effective formula, and it works. Dortmunder needs this kind of figure to bring out the Trickster in him, but he somehow ends up allied with Chauncey, and that strikes a false note. Westlake won’t make that mistake again. Nor will he ever again make the rich arch-nemesis a young man. But there is, for all that, a bit of Chauncey in all the tormenting tycoons Dortmunder faces off against in future. So again, we see this book pointing the way to better things.

  3. Anthony

    It’s like the bumper stickers that say A Bad Day Fishing (or whatever) Beats a Great Day Working.

    A Bad Dortmunder Book Beats A Good* John Grisham** Book.

    *relatively speaking

    **or Dan Brown, etc. etc. etc.

    • Basically, anything on the NY Times bestseller fiction list now. I am not exempting Go Set a Watchman (interesting, some powerful moments, but I think Miss Lee had sound reasons for not publishing it), and I’ve already made my feelings about George R.R. Martin clear–amazing storyteller, desultory wordsmith. We owe him a debt for his vision, but not for his prose.

      And the rest are overpaid hacks. What the hell happened to American readers? We always liked a healthy helping of trash, but now it’s pretty much the staple diet. And it’s not even FUN trash. Back in the day, Grisham wouldn’t have made the grade doing paperback originals for Gold Medal.

      I’d say don’t get me started, but you already did. 😉

  4. Anthony

    I KNOW that I keep jumping ahead on these, but I have to say that The Road to Ruin runs almost neck and neck with this one for me as the least of the Dortmunders. We’ll discuss it in more detail in about a year or so

    • May not be that long. The 80’s will go by very quickly. The real 80’s should only have gone by that quickly. The 90’s will go even quicker. There are going to be detours, of course. I have a rather involved series of articles in mind, comparing Westlake to other crime writers, but that’s going to require a lot more reading on my part. Might have to wait until I’ve reviewed all the novels. We’ll see.

      Anyway, by the point in time the The Road to Ruin comes along, the series is past its peak, and so that one doesn’t bother me so much–a mere dip in the road. Hell, I’m not sure it was so bad. I’ll have to read it again. In a year or less, most likely.

  5. Much as I love your reviews, but you and I disagree on Flashfire and this one. In fact, I just sat down and rated all the Dortmunder books from best to worst. Yesterday or tomorrow there would be slight variations but this is how it looks today: Hot, Good, Don’t, Drowned, Nobody’s, Why, Get, Watch, Bank, What’s so, Road, What’s the, Jimmy.

    One of the problems with this sort of game is what to judge a book on. For example, What’s So Funny has annoying characters and a plot I didn’t enjoy, but it has one of Dortmunder’s finest moments. (in Perly’s garage).

    • Interesting that you think the first one was best, but that the next two were among the worst. I can’t concur with that, but I don’t have to. Anyway, I will have to re-read all of them before I compile such a list.

      I would argue that most of the time, the Dortmunders are about those very moments. The Hot Rock was a perfectly structured succession of gags, but what followed was increasingly about character, meaning that you judge them precisely by those moments that character is revealed and built upon. And by the laughs, of course. I certainly agree that Good Behavior and Don’t Ask are among the very best.

  6. Anthony

    Robert,

    Nice list. Mine’s different of course but it is all objective. Bad news, though. You forget Bad News.

  7. rinaldo302

    This is pretty much the bottom of the Dortmunder series for me too. What seals it for my reaction is that the weak and perfunctory bits are concentrated near the end, so I can’t finish reading it without thinking, a la Dan Aykroyd in his Bad Theatre bit on SNL, “Well, that wasn’t so good, was it?” Especially the very last pages, which are unworthy of the author and characters, and don’t feel like a real ending; I’ve been waiting for a very long time to see a reviewer compare that bit to a bad animated short that needs to cook up a final image and get this thing finished. Thank you.

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