A few years ago I read the graphic novel adaptation of Donald Westlake's The Hunter, and loved it. It was my introduction to the prolific crime novelist's work. When I recently picked up his 1970 novel, The Hot Rock, I expected it to have the same grim tone as The Hunter. But the first scene set me straight: the anti-hero of the story, John Archibald Dortmunder, is getting out of prison after serving time for a failed caper. The prison warden, pleased at Dortmunder's good behavior while being incarcerated, extends his hand to shake Dortmunder's. Dortmunder lets go of the mucus-drenched tissue paper he'd been holding in his right hand and shakes the warden's hand, smearing it with his snot.
This perverse style of humor permeates the story, which is about Dortmunder and his team of oddball professional thieves' multiple attempts to steal the Balaboma Emerald, a valuable jewel that two African countries are fighting over. Dortmunder's gang is hired by a representative from one of the countries to steal the gem from a museum while it's on display at a museum in New York's Central Park. The gang is promised $30,000 per man for the safe delivery of the gem (which is a lot of money in 1970 dollars). When the meticulously planned heist is botched,Dortmunder and his partners must try again, and again, and again.
The smart dialogue, clever heist planning, and offbeat characters (the gang's lock picking expert is a mild-mannered, married model train enthusiast without a shred of conscience about the multiple felonies he commits) made this a snappy and enjoyable read. Westlake went on to write a 14 novels and 11 short stories featuring the hapless John Dortmunder, and I plan to read the next in the series (Bank Shot) soon.
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. His new book is Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects