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