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The Hot Rock

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The Hot Rock by Donald E. Westlake. The first Dortmunder novel, and one of the best.

Kate recently bought a bunch of caper movies on DVD, including the 1972 film version of this, starring Robert Redford as Dortmunder. It’s not bad, but Redford is too good-looking to be Dortmunder, and they made a bunch of other changes to the structure. Mostly, though, it’s just too slow for a modern caper movie. It’s only 105 minutes long, but it manages to drag all the same– particularly in the helicopter-based heist, which goes on way too long, and has a “look, Ma, they rented us a helicopter!” feel. (Creepily, much of the helicopter time is spent on panning shots of the World Trade Center towers, which were still under construction…)

Having seen the movie, Kate and I both wanted to re-read the book. Happily, we have two copies.

If you’ve read other Dortmunder novels (I’ve reviewed two of them on this book log, Don’t Ask and Bad News), you know what to expect. If you haven’t, well, this is the place to start. This book sets up many of the regular characters: John Dortmunder, the hapless “idea man” of this particular crime syndicate; Andy Kelp, the chirpy friend who gets Dortmunder involved in all his various misadventures; and Stan Murch, the alternate-route plotting driver, who listens to records of car noises to relax. It also introduces a number of recurring supporting characters (Rollo, the barman at the O. J. Bar and Grill, who knows patrons by drinks; Roger Chefwick, the first of a long series of deranged lockmen; Alan Greenwood, a ladies man who lands in jail, briefly), who turn up in later books.

The plot sets the standard for Dortmunder plots: there are five heists in this book, each more outlandish than the last. And each time, they’re trying to steal the same emerald at the behest of an African diplomat. They break into a museum, a prison, a police station, an insane asylum, and finally a bank, and build their heists around cars, trucks, a helicopter, a locomotive. Dortmunder is certainly inventive, but he’s also spectacularly unlucky.

Nobody in the comic crime genre comes close to Westlake, and this is one of the books that earned him his reputation. It doesn’t disappoint, and later books in the series get even funnier.

(Originally posted to The Library of Babel.)

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About Chad Orzel

  • Agreed. I love Westlake’s comic caper novels (as well as his hard-boiled books as Richard Stark, which he even parodied in one of his Dortmunder books); he’s crime’s answer to P.G. Wodehouse. . .