Discovering Dortmunder: Nobody’s Perfect


Nobody’s Perfect, which was published in 1977, continues the fun, with absurd yet strangely realistic situations and Westlake’s ear for funny yet natural lines.
The fourth book of the series has an awful lot in it: a lot of people too. There’s a bit of a Homecoming Week feel to it, especially in the Second Chorus, with return cameos for folks like Victor Kelp, Herman X and even Alan Greenwood, playing tiny but essential roles in a looping, multi-phased story that takes off in several different directions around a well-constructed and essentially linear story.
In some respects, it resembles The Hot Rock, with a stolen-then-lost valuable at the heart of it, but Westlake’s angle is far looser this time round (on the surface: the plotting is snare-drum tight). The book’s divided into musical pieces: three choruses and a bridge, with shifting casts for different sections and, uniquely, in the final part, a trip abroad. Dortmunder outside the US! In England, and Scotland.
The book starts in cracking form with Dortmunder in court. He’s been caught in mid-heist, red-handed, 100% guilty, and he’s not going back to May’s apartment any time soon. Except that, for no apparent reason, one of the most famous trial lawyers in the country sweeps into the cells, takes over Dortmunder’s case, pro bono, and, with the aid of the complete plot of a local sex film and some spectacularly hilarious court room theatre, bluffs Dortmunder out of the charge.
Naturally, there’s a catch. The catch is Arnold Chauncey: rich, handsome, well-connected, spendthrift. Periodically, Chauncey – an Art collector and connoisseur – supplements his impressive but somehow inadequate income with an insurance scam. This time, having been to that well a little too often, the theft has to be real. So Chauncey has had this expert lawyer find him two professional criminals.
One, Dortmunder, is a professional thief who will steal the painting in question, keep it until the insurers pay up, then hand it back in exchange for his fee. The other, to ensure that Dortmunder doesn’t get any ideas about selling the painting in the meantime, is a professional killer.
The painting, incidentally, is by Veenbes and is called Folly Leads Man to Ruin. The name is not without significance.
So Dortmunder goes back to the OJ to discuss matters with his string. This, of course, includes Stan Murch (who gains a physical description for the first time in four books, as a stocky, open-faced fellow with carroty hair), Roger Chefwick (clearing up that nonsense about hi-jacking a train) and a new guy, Tiny Bulcher. Tiny is a smash-and-grabber with the emphasis on the smash, a man with very high standards in his professional colleagues and a habit of explaining exactly what it is he did to colleagues who fell short of those lofty heights. In short, Tiny terrifies everyone, and Dortmunder is not being entirely facetious when he thinks of him as the beast from forty fathoms.
Tiny’s only around for the First Chorus: he turns up ten days out of jail, and shortly after the disaster, he’s on his way back. For punching a gorilla. Westlake doesn’t seem altogether too sure of his new creation but take it from me: we are looking here at the début of the fourth permanent member of the gang.
Speaking of permanent members, you will have noted the absence of a certain name from the string. Kelp’s been left out and he’s seriously offended at it. After all those jobs he’s brought Dortmunder. All those jobs that Dortmunder promptly starts to list. Nevertheless, under May’s prompting, he relents and lets Andy in.
And when the job goes wrong, it isn’t even Kelp’s fault. This time it’s down to the mark, failing on his promises to keep security off the upper floor, and to keep the elevator from being used. But the team of seven security guards – who are trying to rebuild their reputation after that disaster two years ago when the Bank they were guarding was stolen out from underneath them – insist on doing things their way, and the overcurrents (it’s all too blatant for undercurrents) of Chauncey’s dinner party send one guest howling upstairs.
So, between Dortmunder getting trapped in the elevator shaft, and the rest of the gang getting mixed up in a foyer of drunken, fighting Scots, it’s hardly a surprise that the painting goes walkabout. Which means that,in about six months time, when Chauncey has his money and starts asking for it back…
Thus ends the First Chorus. The cast changes for the Second Chorus. Chefwick retires and moves out west. Murch, who hasn’t had anything serious to do anyway, fades out. Tiny, as I’ve already mentioned, goes back inside. Dortmunder’s got maybe six months to live, but somebody’s determined that there’s got to be a way out of this, and that is Andy Kelp – who, incidentally, also acquires a physical description now, as a wiry, sharp-nosed fellow. Dortmunder, incidentally, is still only tall, thin and depressed looking.
Thanks to Victor, the possibility is raised of obtaining a top-notch forgery and selling that back to Chauncey. But the artist, Griswold Porculey (who has come to the FBI’s notice by his incredibly accurate but extremely low-productivity forging of $20 bills by hand-painting them), points out that it would be impossible to produce a forgery that good that it would fool a connoisseur owner.
On the other hand, at a Thanksgiving party in which all Dortmunder’s friends come round to talk (not to plan heists or discuss marks, just talk: it’s a strange idea), Kelp suggests that the copy doesn’t need to fool Chauncey for more than a couple of seconds, not if a gang got in and stole it just when Dortmunder was handing it over.
And if the other guy, the killer, was decoyed out of the way, and if whilst this gang was getting away, Chauncey were to catch a glimpse of the killer (played by that TV star, Alan Greenwood), and Dortmunder and May were to move overnight, it all ought to work.
Which it does, until halfway into The Bridge, when a dissatisfied Chauncey and an impatient club-footed killer who have compared notes, re-enter Dortmunder’s life.
The new complication is one of those drunken Scotsmen, Ian McDough (pronounced MacDuff, but not by anybody he meets). McDough wound up with the painting, not to mention a dead aunt (totally unrelated, move along now, nothing to see) whose ‘inheritance’ gives him the fake provenance to claim that his family has had the real original for over 150 years.
There’s nothing for it: Dortmunder and Kelp are going to have to accompany Chauncey (and the killer, Zane)  to see if there’s anything that can be done to restore the painting to its rightful, though hardly deserving owner.
The book’s Final Chorus takes place in a very well-observed and accurately described London, not to mention a long drive along all the right roads, up into the Highlands where the final scene, including as it does the arrest of a surprisingly large number of guilty parties, but not Dortmunder and Kelp (who escape by disguising themselves in suits or armour).
It’s a Dortmunder and Kelp two hander for this phase, and even with the added burden of being fish out of water away from New York (the experience of Kelp learning to drive on the right should not be missed, although Westlake’s only false note in this sequence is his apparent belief that in British cars, the gear lever, or stick-shift, comes out of the steering column, like the indicator arm), they pull off yet another great caper, only for the painting to, one more time, be stolen from them, this time by Zane for real.
The ending, when it comes, is done quickly and decisively, whipping the rug out from under a situation that was nearing the point of having no plausible get-out. By which I don’t mean to suggest that Westlake as pulled a flanker or anything, only that he’s dropped in a kind of deus ex machina, that saves the day in a manner that doesn’t really help our two crooks any.
As the story fades out, there is strong evidence that Dortmunder has decided where the blame for this farrago once again lies.
Nobody’s Perfect hasn’t been filmed, and it’s unusual story-structure and constantly shifting cast would be difficult to make work on the screen: a three part television series, maybe? It’s a long way, now, from the hard-boiled feel of The Hot Rock. Though almost everything that happens could be made to work in a serious crime story, the combination is just too improbable to work. Westlake’s hit his stride, with an exact understanding of exactly how far he can push as plausibility and still keep things real within the world of Dortmunder and Co.
But that rift between John and Andy has now reached a point from where it would be impossible to make people believe that Dortmunder would ever work with Kelp again. This much was clear to Westlake. What’s needed is something pretty convincing to change his mind. Fortunately for the series, he had the very dizzying thing right up his sleeve.

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