In The Spotlight: Donald Westlake’s The Hot Rock

>In The Spotlight: Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's Last RitualsHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Donald Westlake was both prolific (he wrote more than one hundred books) and highly regarded. It’s more than about time this feature included one of his novels; the question was only which one. It wasn’t an easy choice, but today, let’s turn the spotlight on The Hot Rock, the first of his John Dortmunder novels.

As the novel begins, Dortmunder is leaving Sing Sing prison, where he served time for burglary charges. His sentence is up, and of course, the plan is that he’ll start his life over. He’s barely left the prison when his friend Andy Kelp, who’s been waiting for his release, tracks him down. There’s a new heist in the works, and Kelp wants Dortmunder to be a part of it.

The target is a valuable gem called the Balabomo Emerald, which is currently on display at the Coliseum in New York. It’s officially the property of the African nation of Akinzi, but the (also African) nation of Talabwo lays historical claim to it. Major Patrick Iko, the U.N. Ambassador from Talabwo, has a plan to get the emerald back for his country. He wants to hire Kelp and Dortmunder to steal the emerald and get it to him. If they succeed, he offers to pay them thirty thousand dollars each (the story takes place in 1970, when that was an awful lot more money than may seem today).

Dortmunder goes along with the idea, and they negotiate the terms with Iko. They’ll have a team of five (including Dortmunder and Kelp), each of whom will be paid thirty thousand dollars. They’ll also be provided with equipment they need, as well as with a weekly stipend. It seems a lot of money, but the jewel is worth half a million dollars. What’s more, Iko wants the glory he’ll get as the one who returned the jewel to its rightful place.

With the agreement made, Dortmunder and Kelp get their team together. The group consists of Stan Murch, the driver, Roger Chefwick, who’s an expert locksmith among other things, and Alan Greenwood, whom they describe as their ‘utility outfielder.’ It won’t be an easy job, though. The jewel is kept under a specially-designed, secure cover, and is heavily guarded. So the team will have to find a way to get past the four guards, retrieve the emerald from under its cover, and leave the museum. And that’s not including the matter of the Coliseum’s regular security staff and alarm system. Still, there’s a lot of money at stake, so Dortmunder and Kelp do the major planning, and the preparations are made. As you can imagine, things don’t go as planned…

This book is what you might call a comic caper novel. For those familiar with Westlake’s Richard Stark persona, and his Parker novels, the Dortmunder stories are lighter and less violent. We see that, for instance, in the dialogue:

‘‘Iko,’ Kelp said, pronouncing it eye-ko, accent on the first syllable.’
Dortmunder frowned. ‘Isn’t that a Japanese camera?’
‘No, it’s the name of the UN Ambassador from Talabwo.’’

There also some comic situations. For instance, in one scene, Dortmunder meets with his probation officer, who warns him about keeping the wrong kind of company. Dortmunder (who’s just had a meeting with his heist mates) says that he’s already had the opportunity to do just one more caper, but turned it down. Then, his parole officer asks how things are going at the machinist’s school (a program Dortmunder made up to placate the man):

‘‘You’re still going to that machinist’s school?’
‘Oh, sure,’’ Dortmunder said. There was no machinist’s school, naturally.’
That said, though, the story isn’t slapstick.

The five people involved in the heist are all, in their own way, misfits. But they are not caricatures. Each has some special skills that he brings to the job, so it’s not a group of  bumblers. These are people who, under ordinary circumstances, would carry off such a heist with few problems; they’re professionals. There’s a sense of camaraderie among them, too, and they know they depend on one another.

The scheme that Dortmunder and his team set up is not a run-of-the-mill plan of wearing balaclavas and announcing a robbery. It’s more complicated than that, and readers who keep strict watch on their disbelief will notice this. But with a very difficult proverbial nut to crack, and with a presumably well-heeled buyer for the emerald, all sorts of possibilities open up. So the team has more options than many other heist teams have.

The story takes place mostly in New York City and northern New Jersey, and Westlake places the reader there, both in terms of geography and in terms of lifestyle. Since the story was published in 1970, we also get a sense of what life was like in the days before personal computers and the Internet. There’s quite a lot of use of telephone books, telephone booths, and so on.

There is some violence, but readers who dislike a lot of violence in their stories will be pleased to know that it’s not very brutal or extended. One might say a similar thing for the level of explicitness both in sex and in language. Readers who prefer their stories without such things will be pleased.

The Hot Rock is the story of that ‘one more caper’ that’s just too hard to resist. It features an oddball assortment of characters, a distinctive New York City context, and quite an adventure. But what’s your view? Have you read The Hot Rock? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 4 April/Tuesday, 5 April – A Dark and Twisted Tide – Sharon Bolton

Monday, 11 April/Tuesday, 12 April – Unidentified Woman #15 – David Housewright

Monday 18 April/Tuesday 19 April – The Page Three Murders –  Kalpana Swaminathan


Filed under Donald Westlake, The Hot Rock

30 responses to “In The Spotlight: Donald Westlake’s The Hot Rock

  1. Col

    At the minute I prefer the Stark – Parker books to the Westlake – Dortmunder offerings, but I do need to read some more of the latter.

    • They are quite different in tone, I think, Col. So I’m not surprised you prefer one over the other. And, quite frankly, I ought to read more of the Stark/Parker novels than I have.

  2. Great choice Margot, I liked this one a lot and laughed all the way through – and it is one of those rare cases where the film version, starring Robert Redford as Dortmunder, was just as good. Apparently this started out as a Stark book for Parker but turned out humorous, requiring a change of lead character (hence the small twist right at the end, linking the two series)

    • I heard that, too, Sergio (about the genesis of the story). I like it that Westlake let his muse run the show in this case. I give him credit for that. And thanks for mentioning the film version, too. It really is a solid adaptation which I should have included in the post. Thanks for filling in that gap.

      Thanks for the kind words.

  3. Love the Dortmunder books and this one is one of the best.

  4. mudpuddle

    i’ve gotten through several; some are better than others. this is one of the best… but they can become a bit tedious after a while; maybe the focus is a bit narrow? i don’t know exactly what i mean here( a common occurrence). maybe that it all becomes a bit much, sometimes… i guess it has to do, like most humor, with timing; seemingly, it gets a bit off sometimes…

    • I understand, I think, what you mean, Mudpuddle. It really is all in the timing, one’s mood, and so on. You make an interesting point, too, about the focus. I agree with you, too, that this one’s a good ‘un.

  5. Hurrah! Might be able to resist this week. Sounds good, but I’m not a huge fan of caper novels. Hopefully I won’t run out of books before next week… 😉

    • 😆 I know exactly what you mean, FictionFan! And the fact is, no novel, or series, is for everyone. If capers aren’t your thing, they’re not. There’ll be other weeks… 😉

  6. A.M. Pietroschek

    First of all this is a very nice way to review or moderate, and I am glad that I was given the chance to be inspired by you. Inspired to improve. Thanks.

    Besides being well-written it is, too, a dangerous appetizer, as I MUST resist the inviting interest you arose, for my duties do not allow me that much free time… Detonated bank loan goes into the final phase, and I am on the losing end (besides losing a contract partner I never wanted to disappoint).

    189 customer reviews IS a lot. I checked:

    Impressive growth of your blog. Congratulations, Margot.

    • Thanks for the kind words, André. And I know just what you mean by being tempted by an author’s back catalogue. It is hard to resist, isn’t it?

      • A.M. Pietroschek

        It can be hard to resist indeed.

        I think you tempt in a good way, for a solid classic IS preferable to another copy-cat or plagiarism for sure.

        My last reading was

        And I spare you any manipulative attempt of wondering about how a crime fiction expert could change the theme from voodoo to crime, and unleash a masterpiece I would never be capable of… 😉

        Temptation and the wisdom that we all go our own path, it has not always come the gentle way, but I work hard to honor each learned lesson.

        Thank you.

  7. Another intriguing series to add to my TBR list. Thanks, Margot.

  8. This sounds like great fun Margot, it certainly sounds a little different to my normal fare and probably something that I wouldn’t have picked up without your helpful spotlight

    • It really is rather fun, Cleo. It’s a tribute to Westlake, too, that he was able to create this series as well as some of his darker work. If you do try it, I’ll be keen to know what you think of it.

  9. Margot, I have some Westlake novels though I’m not sure either of them is a Dortmunder. I don’t know when I’m going to get around to reading them. I enjoy caper novels and have a read couple of them by Lionel White.

    • I know exactly what you mean, Prashant. There’s never enough time, is there, to read everyone we want to read. And thanks for mentioning Lionel White. I’m not familiar enough with his work.

  10. It sounds like an excellent read. I like a little comic relief in my crime fiction.

  11. I’ve read a couple of things by him in the past – but I think I can resist this for now.

  12. THE HOT ROCK is one of my favorite Westlake novels. Very funny book! And the movie version of THE HOT ROCK is entertaining, too!

  13. I read this one years and years ago and loved it. I am sure I read a few other Dortmunder novels, but I want to read some of them again. I want to read more Westlake of other types also, first one will will the first Stark novel.

    • The Dortmunder stories are, in my opinion, the kind one can definitely read again, Tracy. Of course, no book or series is for everyone, but for those who enjoy comic capers, they’re well-written. And I ought to dive back into the Stark/Perker novels, myself…

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