Wednesday 12 February 2014

Westlake Score: Nobody's Perfect by Donald E. Westlake (Hodder, 1978); Dortmunder Daze

NB: This post also appears at The Violent World of Parker. Linked in this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

This next Westlake Score is again a 1970s British Hodder & Stoughton first edition of a Donald E. Westlake crime caper, again bearing a Mark Wilkinson-designed dust jacket, which I've again added to the Existential Ennui British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s page, alongside Wilkinson's wrapper for A New York Dance.

Published by Hodder in 1978 – the year after the Evans first edition, which I blogged about briefly in 2010Nobody's Perfect is the fourth novel in Westlake's comedic crime series starring hard luck heister John Dortmunder and his inept crew, and, to my mind, thus far the least successful. In his two-part essay on thrillers the academic and critic John Fraser labels Westlake's capers "terminally unfunny" (Fraser has a lot more time for Westlake's pseudonymous Parker novels), and I must admit four books into the Dortmunder series I'm beginning to have some sympathy for his position. (Mind you, Fraser also called W. Somerset Maugham's sublime Ashenden, or, The British Agent "dreary", so his word certainly shouldn't be taken as gospel.) The only Dortmunder I've found really amusing so far is the second one, Bank Shot; the other three have barely raised a smile.

But while the debut Dortmunder, The Hot Rock, had novelty going for it (it is, after all, the first book in the series) and the third outing, Jimmy the Kid, was divertingly meta (especially for Parker fans it features a Parker novel-within-the-novel, Child Heist), Nobody's Perfect suffers from over-familiarity. Going in there's the expectation that Dortmunder and co.'s theft of a painting (to aid the owner's insurance scam) will somehow go wrong, and sure enough it does. Which would be fine if the laughs were forthcoming... only they're not, no matter how many comedy Scotsmen Westlake throws at the thing.

Ethan Iverson, in his peerless, indispensable overview of Westlake's oeuvre, "A Storyteller That Got the Details Right", reckons that as of the next book, Why Me?, "the franchise really starts to settle down", and "the team consistently act like experienced pros". I hope Ethan's right, because in the absence of any giggles, for me the Dortmunder books are going to have to stand or fall on those old stalwarts, character and story. And on the evidence of Nobody's Perfect, there's plenty of room for improvement on both counts.


  1. You love Westlake and if these Dortmunder books aren't working for you now, wait several years and then read them.

  2. Yeah, I think I'll do that. And quite a few folk have said that Nobody's Perfect isn't one of the better ones, so I'm not too worried.

  3. I've never read the Dortmunder books, but man, I loved THE AX. I'm not sure I'd like these near as much.

  4. Nick, chiming in after a long absence--I also consider Nobody's Perfect the worst of the Dortmunders, though it has its pleasures for those of us who cherish the denizens of the OC Bar & Grill.

    Pretty nearly every person I've spoken to who has read Westlake is either a Parker or a Dortmunder fan--rarely both, and never to the same extent. I'd chose Parker over Dortmunder if forced, but it's a choice I'm very happy I don't have to make.

    They do get better--then they get worse--then better again--then worse again. It's a long slog, but a worthwhile one. What you get from Dortmunder, much more than Parker, is a sense of outrage--Parker doesn't care about injustice--Dortmunder does, oddly enough--he's got an actual conscience, though it functions rather unpredictably.

    There's a running theme of working class vs. hoi polloi (you can guess which side Westlake identifies with) that comes out in many of these books--there's also a lot of topical humor, responding to social changes, and issues of the day, that you don't find much of in the Parkers. And there's a more consistent cast of supporting characters, that expands over the run of the books.

    You can't know Westlake if you don't know Dortmunder. I think he had the deepest feelings about Parker (which is why he wouldn't sell Parker's name to anybody), but Dortmunder was the alter ego he related most closely to.

    It's like what Chuck Jones said about the two characters he's most identified with--""Oh, I dream about being Bugs Bunny, but when I wake up, I'm Daffy Duck."

    Who isn't? :)

  5. Dammit, I forgot hoi polloi means the same thing as working class. :\

    To put it plainly, Westlake hated the filthy rich, and he used Dortmunder to get even with them for being so--filthy.