CONSIDERING WESTLAKE: NOBODY’S PERFECT

westlake-nobodysperfectHow does one follow up a delirious and near-perfect ensemble novel like DANCING AZTECS? With another Dortmunder adventure of course, a smaller cast of characters, some clever turns, and a surprise in little bit of escape from the great city that got such a lovely snapshot in the previous book. The work in question even cribs the near perfect last line from Billy Wilder’s wonderful 1959 smash hit comedy SOME LIKE IT HOT to use as its title. The work in question is, of course, John Dortmunder’s fourth appearance: NOBODY’S PERFECT.

This time around, we catch up with the canny but despairing crook at one of his nadirs. He is in police custody for a television store job that went blissfully wrong and landed him in the slam. At start, he is meeting his public defender and helping the man to open his briefcase. However, things look up before long:

Dortmunder sighed, and the cubicle door was flung open. A person had arrived.

No, not a person: A Personage. He stood framed in the doorway, filling the cubicle with the effulgence of his presence, as though he had been borne to this place atop a golden cloud. His large head, like some Olympian mountaintop, was haloed in a great white cloud of hair, and his barrel body was smoothed and stroked with impeccable pinstripe tailoring, accentuated by crisp white shirt, precise dark tie, gleaming black shoes. Sparks flashed from his eyes, his well-padded cheeks promised peace and prosperity, and his pepper-and-salt moustache assured reliability, dignity, and the support of a long-established tradition. The faint echo of a fanfare of trumpets seemed to follow him through the doorway and hang in the air about him, as he stood with one hand dramatically grasping the knob. (location 53)

This classy attorney is J. Radcliffe Stonewiler, he shows up and takes John’s case pro-bono—well, pro-bono in terms of a retainer and monetary fee; his services are not without strings of course, and the cost turns out to be far steeper than Dortmunder has any cause to realize. Although the robbery charge should be an open and shut case, as well played manipulation of a police officer in a courtroom recreation of the scene provides enough reasonable doubt for the judge to let Dortmunder off Scott free (a phrase that will come to haunt the rest of the narrative, in fact).

May is the one to bring up the price of freedom:

“What’s this gonna cost?”

“I don’t know,” Dortmunder said. “He didn’t say.”

“Didn’t he say anything at all?”

Dortmunder took an embossed business card from his breast pocket. “At the end there, he shook my hand, he gave me this, he told me to call this guy.” Dortmunder frowned at the card, reading off the name as though the sound of the syllables would give hima  clue to what was going on: “Arnold Chauncey. What kind of a name is that?” (location 253)

It’s a choice comic way to open the novel, and the book gets better from there. Too bad J. Radcliffe Stonewiler does not return in this book. He was a force of nature I would have had a lot of fun to watch knock over pieces Dortmunder carefully set up. Perhaps in a future work . . .

In exchange for getting Dotmunder out of his predicament, Stonewiler’s real employer is a fellow named Arnold Chauncey, who is best summed up as this:

He had one of those Midatlantic accents that Americans think of as English and Englishmen think American. Dortmunder thought he sounded like a phony. (location 339)

Chauncey wants to hire Dortmunder for a little robbery job. He has a painting he wants stolen so he can collect the insurance. The rub is: Chauncey owns the painting, it’s hanging in his house, and he can’t just stick it in a closet and claim it was stolen; he’s pulled that little scam twice before and the insurance company is getting suspicious. It has to be stolen in during a party Chauncey will be hosting in the house, attended not only by persons of importance but a team of security guards. It’s a ludicrous setup, but it’s an offer Dortmunder cannot say no to. No matter how much he wishes he could.

Chauncey is no fool. He has a contingency plan. He had Stonewiler find him two criminals to hire: one is a crook who can steal and has no history of violence. The other is a killer he can hire to keep the crook “honest” enough to return the stolen painting once the insurance company coughs up the dough.

Dortmunder’s string for the job has some familiar faces (Murch, Kelp) as well as a new one, a behemoth of a man called Tiny Bulcher, who makes quite the impression:

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. (location 531)

Tiny is no newbie to the game. He has been on plenty of jobs and has plenty of stories to tell. They often end with people trying to screw him over and getting their necks snapped, their bodies pummeled into pulp, or otherwise handled with brute force and high degrees of brutality.

“How have things been inside?” Dortmunder asked.

“Bout the same. You remember Baydlemann?”

“Yeah?”

Tiny chuckled, like far-off thunder. “Fell in a vat of lye.”

“Yeah?” Get hurt?”

“His left thumb come out pretty good.”

“Well,” Dortmunder said, “Baydlemann had a lot of enemies on the inside.”

“Yeah,” Tiny said. “I was one a them.” (location 541)

Tiny is the carry heavy things guy, as well as the deal with trouble that shows up in his inimitable way.

Now, if we were following the template of the heist story, this little job would spiral out into a full novel’s length. However, as his adventures ever since his first appearance in THE HOT ROCK show, Dortmunder is a good thief and a better planner. Circumstances he cannot control are what gives his jobs the crotch soccer kick, and NOBODY’S PERFECT falls more into the mold of THE HOT ROCK than a book like JIMMY THE KID. The painting theft happens early, and though there are unforeseen complications (security guards where they are NOT supposed to be and an elevator that runs regular instead of being confined to the first floor) the string gets away with the painting as well as some acquisitions from the guest rooms.

However, they happen into a group of drunk scots spilling out of a Queen’s Own Caledonian Orchestra recital in the building next door.

The hall was full of Scotsmen. Hundreds of them gamboled in the aisles and thronged the lobby, with more arriving every minute. Some were in kilts, some were singing, some were marching arm in arm, most were clutching mugs, flasks, bottles, cups, glasses, jars, demijohns, goblets and jugs, and all were calling out to one another in strange and barbarous tongues. Around many necks and trailing down many backs were long scarves in the colors of favorite soccer or rugby teams. Tam o’ Shanters with bright wool balls on top were jauntily cocked over many a flashing eye. (location 973)

By the time the job is done, these Scots are good and drunk and itching for a brawl. On their way to the street, the string loses the painting in the mix. There’s no way to find out what happened, so they turn their attention to damage control.

Dortmunder is a fatalist. Of course he starts to despair that he’s a dead man when the insurance coughs up the cash. However, ever the optimist Kelp has a plan. His nephew (an ex-FBI man first introduced in BANK SHOT) knows a forger who’s really good and has artistic aspirations. He was pinched for painting twenty dollar bills with watercolor and then distributing them at the local Shop-Rite. In the end, his obsession for perfection got him off and now he’s looking for more work. Kelp thinks he might make a great resource to fix their broken situation:

“Anyway, the Feds nailed Porculey, but all he got was a suspended sentence when he promised not to do it anymore.”

“They believed him?”

“Well, yeah,” Kelp said. “Because it made sense. Once they got him, and they figured out how he was doing those things, they talked to him, and it turned out he was spending five hours just to do one side of one bill. You know, those twenties, they’re all full of tricky little stuff.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen some,” Dortmunder said.

“Well, anyway, that means ten hours per bill, and not even counting the cost of materials and overhead, paper, paint, depreciation on the brushes, all the rest of it, the most he’s making is two bucks an hour. He could do better than that delivering for the Shop-Rite, part time.”

Dortmunder nodded. “Crime doesn’t pay,” he said. “I’m gradually coming to that conclusion.”

“Well, the point is,” Kelp went on, “this guy used to live up in Washington Heights, he had this studio up there and all, but the rent kept going up, they priced him out of the neighborhood and he moved out to Long Island. Victor ran into him in the shopping center.”

“Passing twenties?”

“No,” Kelp said, “but he’s thinking about it. He told Victor he was looking for some way to do a bunch of bills all at once. Victor figures he’s about halfway to inventing the printing press, and he’s worried the guy’ll get in trouble. And that’s where we come in.”

“I was wondering where we came in,” Dortmunder said.”

“We can put a little honest cash his way,” Kelp said, “help him avoid temptation.”

“How do we do that?”

“You don’t get it?” Kelp was so pleased with himself he was about to run around in front and kiss himself on both cheeks. Leaning forward, gesturing with his half-full bourbon glass, he said, “We fake the painting!”(location 1641)

Regular readers of the Dortmunder books know that Kelp’s plans have great ideas. However, anything he touches gets overly complicated before long. This is no slouch. Eventually, the original painting turns up in the hands of a Scot, and questions of the authenticity for Chauncey’s claim arises, requiring Dortmunder to head to Scotland for a little job grabbing the same painting a second time.

The book runs along at quite a clip. Several robberies (including one I failed to include in the summary above), forgery, blackmail, betrayal, the threat of a brutal murder . . . The book has a catalog of crimes one might expect from a Parker novel, but it has an equal number of laughs to boot. Here is a book that deftly manages to balance its grim with grins.

Westlake has clearly hit his stride as both a crime and a comic novelist by the time he came to be working on this book. There is an ease to the prose, the timing, the series of incidents. This is not to say there are no surprises, of course. Westlake still has plenty of tricks up his sleeve, and though Dortmunder is in his fourth adventure, his adventures are not getting repetitive or stale. Far from it. The characters are finding new situations, new bewildering encounters, and also finding new ways to get themselves out from under.

NOBODY’S PERFECT feels like a reunion of sorts, where people discuss the good old days, and manage to escape the trap of only talking about what they’ve done to death. This gang finds new things to talk about and do. In fact, the best of the Dortmunders is yet to come, for my money, with the fifth work WHY ME?, which we will tackle in a few weeks.

For this novel, Westlake also touched upon some of his more far flung works. BROTHERS KEEPERS holiday section, finding a monk who abhors travel finding himself facing temptation in a place with warm sun and sandy beaches comes to mind. This time around, the author does not take us for a visit to the tropics, however. Instead, he brings us to cheery London for the sweltering summer weather, and what’s more he has Dortmunder pulling a heist while he’s there. It’s a heist made under duress, of course, at the prompting of Chauncey—more accurately at the prompting of Zane, Chauncey’s hired killer who somehow manages to smuggle a pistol into England of all places. Of course, even in merry olde England, there are some surprises and twists to the job Dortmunder puts together. Some of these are due to the difficulties in working in a strange land while the others are due to problems with the string itself. For this little outing, the most professional thief Dortmunder can count on is Kelp; the rest of the team is made of amateurs, being Chauncey and Zane. Much as I would have enjoyed getting to see Murch find himself flustered on the streets of London, no such luck.

Of course, the plot is only part of the reason to give this one a look. There are dozens of brief asides, notes from Westlake’s quirky, funny view of the world, to keep an eye out for. Take this little zinger that drops as a parenthetical aside:

The Seville was Cadillac’s response to the oil crisis and the need for smaller cars: dan de was removed from the middle of the Cadillac Sedan de Ville, resulting obviously in a shorter, lighter car: the Seville. (location1676)

The Dortmunder books are a master class in upping the stakes, and the fourth volume of Dortmunder’s misadventures follows this tradition nicely. At no time does the heat let up on poor old Dortmunder, even when he finally does a good job he keeps himself up at night wondering what will go wrong. After all, nobody’s perfect. Though Donald Westlake comes damned close in the best of his works.

#

NOBODY’S PERFECT is available in eBook from the fine folks at MysteriousPress.com and Cross Roads Media. The audiobook edition comes from the folks at Highbridge Audio. At present, no paperbacks or hardcovers are in print, so to acquire an artifact edition errant book hounds will need to venture to third party sites and shops. Luckily, copies seem to be plentiful.

Next up in the Westlake catalog will be KAHAWA, which is available in eBook. It’s a book I have heard great things about, and yet have not had the chance to read until now. It grapples with a real life coffee heist as viewed through Westlake’s singular eye. That review won’t be up for a couple of weeks

However, next week, we will instead turn our attention to THE KINGDOM OF NEEDLE AND BONE, a novella from Mira Grant. Grab a copy today in limited edition, signed hardcover or a reasonably priced eBook from Subterranean Press. Or listen to the audio edition.

WORKS CITED

Westlake, Donald E. NOBODY’S PERFECT. M. Evans: 1977.

“Considering Westlake: Nobody’s Perfect” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Excerpts and cover image taken from the Open Road Media & MysteriousPress.com eBook edition, copyright © 2011.

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