Sunday, February 19, 2012

"Welcome back to the world, Mr. Dortmunder."

Patti Abbott is the mastermind responsible for the Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, and this past Friday was devoted to Donald E. Westlake. I was first tipped off about it by Barry Ergang, who wrote a fabulous review of God Save the Mark, and then others turned in reviews, including John at Pretty Sinister Books and Sergio from Tipping My Fedora. I had no idea about the event beforehand or I might have tried to participate myself—but after seeing so many fantastic reviews, I knew I had to join in the fun and discover Donald E. Westlake for myself. I initially planned to read and review God Save the Mark, but in a mix-up worthy of a Westlake novel itself, iTunes decided it wasn’t going to make things so simple. To make a long story short, I ended up getting a copy of Westlake’s The Hot Rock, and I had plenty of time to read it today. I ended up having so much time, in fact, that I finished the book!

The Hot Rock (1970) is the first book in the John Dortmunder series and was also turned into a movie in 1972. The main character is John Dortmunder, a criminal mastermind whose specialty is planning heists. He gets out of prison to start the book off, and due to a mishap he couldn’t possibly have foreseen, he misses out on a chance to make an easy $300. Perhaps this was an omen he chose to ignore; perhaps it was coincidence. Whatever it was, John’s friend Kelp nearly runs him over in a Cadillac and then asks him to help out on a job. And that’s just the first four pages.

See, Kelp has gotten himself involved in a job for Major Iko, the UN representative of the Talabwo. They and the Akinzi are two nations that were recently British colonies. They gained independence and promptly had a civil war, during which the Akinzi took the famous Balabamo emerald from the Talabwo. Well, the Talabwo aren’t happy at all, and although they were recompensed, they want the stone, which has religious significance. So Dortmunder is hired to plan a heist to grab the emerald. It’s a complicated job, but it can’t be too hard, right?

Wrong! Of all the luck in the world, Dortmunder has stumbled over the worst possible combination: a jinxed emerald with a sense of humour. Dortmunder and his friends are forced to pull off the same heist over and over again as attempt after attempt to take the emerald go awry. The plans slowly get more complicated and it even gets Major Iko to turn to the game of billiard for relaxation (hey, desperate times call for desperate measures). Some of the highlights include a break-out operation from a prison, a break-in operation into a police station, and an incident involving a locomotive. And every time you think the job has to work this time, Fate rolls the dice once more and everyone finds themselves back at Go without collecting the customary $200.

While The Hot Rock is not a traditional mystery—i.e. there is no “puzzle” to solve—in this case, that really can’t be used as a criticism since it’s never the point of the book. This is a heist novel à la Craig Rice (with all the hijinx but with only half the liqueur). So far this year, none of the books I’ve read have come even close to entertaining me as much as this book. There are so many moments that simply made me laugh out loud, and the book as a whole never gets dull. There’s plenty of plot, plenty of humour, and the comedy attains a remarkably high batting average. One of my favourite moments is early on, where Dortmunder tries to figure out what kind of men he needs to hire, only to find out just what kind of crazy things have been going on while he’s been in prison. For instance, one of the crooks is doing time for running into an airplane, and another has decided to fix his crooked ways and entered the priesthood! And (horror of all horrors) cancer commercials have started to air about cigarettes!

Supporting all this are the characters, who are simply wonderful. I got to love them all. These folks have their personal idiosyncrasies that make them all very distinct and memorable. I particularly loved the character of Roger Chefwick, a man with a mania for model trains who happens to be in a wonderfully loving marriage with the perfect spouse. He also manages to be extremely polite even when threatening to shoot someone. It’s a delight to read.

Overall, what more can be said? The Hot Rock is a comic masterpiece, with a plot that would make Harry Stephen Keeler green with envy over its complexity. There is so much humour in this book that I could talk about it for hours and still leave you material to discover for yourself— but at the same time, it is such a delightful experience that I want to keep as much secret as possible. The characters are every bit as fine as the comedy, and all things considered it’s an early contender for the “Best Books I Read in 2012” list.

“All this sounds just fine and dandy, Patrick,” you might say, “But where can I possibly get this novel?” Well, never fear my friends: the newly revamped Mysterious Press is here to save the day! I’m sure I brought this up earlier on the blog, but Otto Penzler has brought the Mysterious Press back as an e-publisher— (Be sure to take a look at the site— I’ve even made it onto the blogroll!) Well, folks, if you visit their website and go to the author pages, The Hot Rock is one of the Donald E. Westlake books that have been brought back into print. And we’re not just talking about a Kindle edition (which, by the way, is wonderfully formatted and edited)—you can buy The Hot Rock in just about any flavour of e-reader you might own—you can find links on the page devoted to the book. So don’t delay— order a copy now! And if you don’t have an e-reader, order one and then order a copy of this book! Trust me—you won’t regret it. And you’ll help support a fine publishing venture with your purchase.


  1. I'm glad you enjoyed the novel, Patrick, and I'm equally certain you'll enjoy many other Westlake novels. As you pointed out with regard to The Hot Rock, much of the work under his own name is not mystery in the traditional puzzler manner, but rather comic crime fiction. A Grand Master, he's long been considered the consummate criminous comedian, though not all of the work under the Westlake name is humorous. I'm thinking of the stories he wrote about a police detective named Abe Levine, who has a serious heart condition.

    He also wrote under a variety of pseudonyms as well, the most prominent of which is probably Richard Stark. The Stark novels about a professional thief named Parker are polar opposites of the comedies; they're as hardboiled as it gets. If you've ever seen the film "Point Blank" starring Lee Marvin, you're probably aware it's based on the first Parker novel, The Hunter.

  2. A classic read Patrick, really glad you enjoyed it. Westlake really was the modern master of the caper (comic and non). The movie incidentally is also great fun - it was released initially in the UK as "How to Steal a Diamond in Four Uneasy Lessons" which is a bit of a mouthful but pretty accurate!