DONALD WESTLAKE. The Hot Rock (1970).

02 Jul

The stone of the title is the Balabomo Emerald, and the joke that drives this first chronicle of the perennially hapless crook Dortmunder is that the rock, though certainly “hot,” simply refuses to remain stolen. Or, to be precise, it insists on being stolen again and again, thereby setting in motion not a single humorous heist but five zany capers in all. HotRock2.jpgDortmunder and his crack team of cracksmen—each with his own personal foible (a mania for model trains, say, or an obsession with interborough traffic patterns)—first wrest the jewel from under armed guard at the New York Coliseum. Then they break into a Long Island jail. Then they invade an Upper West Side precinct house via helicopter. Then they use a locomotive to assault the ramparts of an upstate loony bin. Then, finally, they employ hypnosis to connive their way into the safety-deposit vault of a Midtown bank, where they gain custody of the emerald. “Custody” is a relative term, though: Even after that series of larcenies comes to an apparent stop, this gem of a novel shows that it has a few more facets to reveal. But it also reveals, along the way, some inherent limitations to the comic-crime genre. The early byplay that sets up the tale, be it subtle or slapstick or surreal, has a delightful kick to it. Then it subsides; in a caper story, after all, the plot must come first. And when Westlake later tries to restore a spirit of levity, it comes off as pat and contrived. High jinks that might carry a short story or a movie script don’t really work in a full-length novel about men who risk life and liberty to make a big score. Ultimately, crime does not play.


Posted by on July 2, 2011 in American, Novel


4 responses to “DONALD WESTLAKE. The Hot Rock (1970).

  1. J F Norris

    July 8, 2011 at 7:30 AM

    I read all of the Dortmunder novels. I like the movie version of this with Robert Redford, George Segal and Paul Sand (whatever happened to him!). Don’t think I ever read it though. It was definitely the movie that turned me on to Westlake in the first place. I also think Dancing Aztecs is one of the funniest of his comic crime novels. And epic length for a Westlake book from the 1970s.

    (tried to leave a comment last week about the Christie book – one of my favorites as it is the best locked room she ever wrote – but it was eviscerated by some digital gremlin from the bowels of cyberspace. Crossing my fingers that this one makes it)

  2. Yvette

    July 8, 2011 at 11:21 AM

    I love your review, Michael. Though I’ve never read any of these books. I did attempt one once, just enough to see that they weren’t for me. The humor just didn’t appeal.

    Doesn’t mean I won’t try again at some point.

    But I love your last line: “Ultimately, crime does not play.”

    It’s a rare writer who can make it so.

  3. Mike

    July 8, 2011 at 2:23 PM

    The “Hot Rock” movie seems to show up on various basic-cable networks all the time, but so far I’ve avoided watching it. Not sure why. Maybe I’m just wary of 1970s-era cheesiness that it appears to exude. Anyway, given my comment about how suitable the comic-crime form is to the medium of the movies, I should get over my avoidance.

    The topic of whether and how humor works in a tale of crime or detection is a big one. Unlike Yvette, I liked the humor in “Hot Rock”–but I found that it wore thin, and ultimately didn’t gel with the crime plot. As it happens, Christie’s use of humor (Poirot and his mannerisms, Miss Marple and the mordant village comedy that she observes from her armchair) remains for me an ideal model of how to blend the serious business of murder with not-so-serious elements. Yes, in the end, “crime does not play.” But (as Yvette’s favorite Rex Stout also showed) there’s room for playfulness in telling a crime-driven tale.

    And re JF’s comment about Christie: It’s funny, but I never think of her as a practitioner of the locked-room mystery, even though she did write a slew of stories in that vein. In most cases, her solutions hinge on time-shifting legerdemain, so I think of her as specializing in alibi-trick plots.

  4. George Kelley

    July 8, 2011 at 4:38 PM

    When I spoke to Donald Westlake after he gave a speech here in Buffalo years ago, he told me THE HOT ROCK was supposed to be a Parker novel. But while Westlake wrote it, it became a comic novel. Sadly, it would be many years before Westlake wrote about Parker again.


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