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. Dortmunder 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.
DONALD WESTLAKE. The Hot Rock (1970).