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.
The Hot Rock
A decade ago, I published the first Madeline Ashby story to see print, “In Which Joe and Laurie Save Rock n’ Roll,” in Tesseracts 11; four years ago, I reviewed her outstanding debut novel, vN, and then revelled in its sequel a year later: but now, a decade later, Ashby is an overnight success, with a breakout novel about love, labor, shame, sex and Singularity cultists: Company Town.
Next April, Tor Books will publish Walkaway, the first novel I’ve written specifically for adults since 2009; it’s scheduled to be their lead title for the season and they’ve hired the brilliant designer Will Staehle (Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Darker Shade of Magic) for the cover, which Tor has just revealed.
In 1989, Canadian activist, engineer and thinker Ursula Franklin gave a series of extraordinary lectures on the politics of technology design and deployment called “The Real World of Technology.”
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