“The Hot Rock” by Donald E. Westlake

Westlake, Donald E. The Hot Rock (1970)  
Simon and Schuster, 249 pages, $5.95 hardcover  
ISBN 671 20541 2

The Hot Rock introduces John Archibald Dortmunder, the criminal you can’t help but like. According to William L. DeAndrea in Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, Westlake’s  “most successful comic novels, the Dortmunder series, grew directly from the grim Parker books” (p. 372). The comic Dortmunder is the obverse of the antihero Parker (who appears in novels published under the pseudonym Richard Stark).

Whenever a job (read “theft”) opportunity presents itself, Dortmunder calls together his core group of friends. His chief allies are Andy Kelp, an ex-con who specializes in stealing cars, and Stan Murch, who drives the stolen cars. Kelp always steals cars with MD license plates because doctors know how to outfit themselves with luxury. Murch lives with his mother, a cab driver; for entertainment Stan and Mrs. Murch listen to records of sounds from the Indianapolis Speedway. Over the course of the Dortmunder series the reader comes to appreciate the recurring characters for their endearing qualities; they’re a bunch of funny, lovable chums who just happen to be crooks.

In The Hot Rock Dortmunder is hired to steal a valuable gem, the Balabomo emerald. Possession of the emerald has become a bone of contention among two emerging African nations, and Major Iko, the U.N. ambassador from Talabwo, wants the priceless stone back for his country. The Dortmunder gang doesn’t succeed in swiping the emerald on their first attempt, but they’re willing to try again—and again, and again. Each succeeding attempt is more outlandish than the previous one, and the equipment Major Iko must supply becomes bigger and bigger.

No one outdoes Westlake in the comic caper novel. What’s so amazing is how Westlake manages to outdo himself with each book in the series. While it’s not necessary to read the series in order, doing so will enrich your enjoyment, as Westlake frequently refers to events that occurred earlier in Dortmunder’s escapades.

© 1999 by Mary Daniels Brown

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