Sat 3 Jan 2009
DONALD E. WESTLAKE – The Hot Rock.
Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1970. UK edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1971. Paperback reprints include: Pocket, 1971; Mysterious Press, 1987. Film: TCF, 1972; released in Britain as How to Steal a Diamond in Four Uneasy Lessons (scw: William Goldman; dir: Peter Yates).
Donald Westlake tells the story that he had an idea for a Parker novel (Parker is the grim, ruthless heistman featured in a series of very hard-boiled books published under Westlake’s pseudonym Richard Stark) in which Parker had to keep stealing the same object again and again.
It just wouldn’t work as a Parker novel — the idea was inherently too funny — so Westlake created the Dortmunder gang and launched a series of very successful comic caper novels with this book.
The African nation of Talabwo wants to obtain custody of the massive Balaborno emerald, currently in the hands of a rival country and on display in a museum exhibit. Their U.N. ambassador contracts with an odd assemblage of heistmen, led by master planner John Dortmunder, for the theft and delivery of the stone.
Dortmunder, Kelp, Chetwick, Greenwood, and Murch pull off a very slick job, almost, but Greenwood gets nabbed by the cops, and he was the one holding the emerald.
So they have to bust Greenwood out of jail, which they do, only to learn that he hid it in a police-station holding cell. So they have to break into the cop shop, which they do, only to learn that the stone isn’t there anymore, which necessitates yet another, even more elaborate caper, and so it goes….
Westlake doesn’t depend on blatant farce to generate laughs; his approach to the comic caper is rather subtle. Initially, the setup isn’t very different from what one might fmd in a straight Parker novel, but the crooks are just a bit odd, and the caper just a tad outlandish. As things proceed, the gang’s exceptional bad luck escalates and the situation gets quite out of hand, becomes increasingly ludicrous, and increasingly funny.
The Hot Rock was made into a very successful film, which, atypically, follows the book rather closely (though the casting of Robert Redford as Dortmunder is pretty far off the mark). The movie, alas, did omit the wildest caper in the book, the kidnapping of Greenwood’s lawyer from a sanatorium using a locomotive.
Two other Dortmunder books have made it to the screen, both badly botched: Bank Shot (1972), in which the gang steals an entire bank on wheels; and Jimmy the Kid (1974), wherein Dortmunder and company use a (nonexistent) Richard Stark Parker novel as the blueprint for a kidnapping, with predictably disastrous results.
The most recent entry in the series, Why Me (1983), is also one of the best and funniest. This one involves Dortmunder and his gang with a Turkish national treasure stolen by a band of Greeks; and with the FBI, the New York City Police Department, and no less than three terrorist groups from three different countries.
Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007. Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.