Excellent 1970 jewel heist novel: The Hot Rock

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


    1.  I recall his tongue and cheek commentary in a short story collection that he was surprised when he saw the movie, since he’d never realized Dortmunder looked so much like Robert Redford.

  1. I’m a huge fan of Westlake’s comic-crime stuff. The Dortmunder series is great but there was other stuff too. In particular I recommend Dancing Aztecs, which is not only a funny and complex caper/treasure hunt, but also kind of a love letter to 1970s New York.

    For the Dortmunder novels, you mentioned the 14 novels and 11 short stories (which are available in the collection Thieves’ Dozen), but there’s also a novella, “Walking Around Money”, which was in Ed McBain’s Transgressions anthology.

    Those of you who plan on giving the Dortmunder books a try, and you really should, be aware that they get better as they go along. The Hot Rock and Bank Shot and Jimmy the Kid are quite good, but Nobody’s Perfect and Why Me are better, and the ones after that are even better. The first one I read was Don’t Ask, the eighth in the series, and I still think that might be the best one.

    I could talk about Westlake all day. He died just a few years ago, and every time I think about it, I wonder what we’re going to do without him.

    1.  When I want to introduce someone to Westlake, I give them “Too Many Crooks” in the Thieves’ Dozen collection.  For my money, one of the two funniest short stories ever written.

      (The other being “Uncle Fred Flits By” which I similarly use to introduce people to Wodehouse)

  2. Westlake is amazing. If you like the heist-y aspects of the Dortmunder book, check out The Outfit, one of his Parker novels, in which Parker and gang heist an entire town. Great stuff, and a bit less violent and sadistic than most of the Parker stuff (not that violence and sadism are bad things in noir-crime fiction, but you know….).

  3. Westlake also wrote a number of film scripts, and was nominated for an Oscar on the brilliantly noir “The Grifters.”

  4. Westlake is one of those rare writers who wrote tons of books and short stories, and in my opinion all of them were at least better than average.  The Richard Stark novels and the Dortmunder novels are all very good – I am a huge fan of ‘What’s the Worst That Could Happen?’ in particular (but don’t bother with the awful movie version).
    He also wrote some very interesting one-off novels like Kahawa, which is about mercenaries stealing the entire coffee crop of Uganda from a train during Idi Amin’s rule.  It’s more adult in nature, but a great read.
    The best thing about Westlake is that I am always discovering new books that he wrote, as he seemed to have written hundreds of books under as many as six or seven different names. 

    1.  Kahawa is one of my favorite books of all times.  Not only a great caper novel but it also gave me lots of education on who Idi Amin was and why his rule dominated the news when I was a kid. 

  5. Yay Donald Westlake and YAY the movie version of “The Hot Rock.”  Yes, Westlake wrote a lot of stuff under a lot of names, which makes him a fascinating read.

  6. I’m definitely a fan of Westlake/Stark, one piece of trivia that I always found interesting is the “accidental” nature of both of these series (the Parker novels and the Dortmunder novels) – originally “The Hunter” was supposed to be a one-off (if I’m remembering correctly, he slapped it together and never expected much from it) but the public liked it so much his publisher forced him to write as many more Parker books as he could.  Then “The Hot Rock” was originally supposed to be another of those Parker novels but it “kept coming out funny”, all the scenarios that Westlake came up with were too ridiculous for a Parker novel, so he created a new character to exploit the comedic potential and *that* one was a hit, too.  Not sure if that’s all correct but it’s the story as I remember it.

  7. I’ve only read “The Bank Shot” (though I keep meaning to catch up with the rest).  You are in for a serious treat.  ‘Bank Shot’ has one of the most hilarious climaxes I’ve ever read!

  8. Westlake was one of the writers who supplied much of my leisure reading through grad school–I found him (as “Richard Stark”) via the Parker series, about the same time I discovered John D. MacDonald and Lawrence Block. Block’s career in particular parallels Westlake’s in variety, range, and length (though Block has the advantage of still being alive). And as much as I like Westlake’s series work, I have to second the recommendations of those non-series books, particularly Kahawa and Dancing Aztecs.

    1.  I agree, and I would add another standalone novel, The Ax, a very dark and cynical satire on the plight of downsized middle managers. Well, “satire” as long as you don’t take that to imply humor.

    1. Dear Tod: your father will be entertaining people for centuries to come.  No question.

      Are you a writer yourself, by any chance?

      1. Non-fiction. I mostly write articles for local papers and magazines in the Hudson Valley. Successfully writing fiction is a trick I’ve yet to pull off.

        1. FWIW, there is some evidence that “writing style,” intangible as that may be, is actually heritable.  Good luck, sir.

    2. Hi Tod,  I don’t know how much control you have over such things, but it’d be great if the Parker novels could be made available as e-books in the UK. They’re available on the Kobo online store, but only for those in the US. They don’t appear to be available from any other e-book vendors.

      1. I’m not directly involved, but I will pass your request along. I would like to see all of his works readily available as a modestly priced e-text. 

  9. I’m another rabid Westlake fan.  Unfortunately I didn’t get here fast enough to be the first person to mention all my favorites (you’ve all beat me to it) but Donald E. was just fabulous.  I even used dortmunder as my alias on IRC (and other places on-line) for many years. 

  10. Man, the reading list backlog just keeps getting longer! I’m also a fan of the Darwyn Cooke adaptations of the Parker novels. 

  11. Almost everything Westlake wrote is well worth reading. The Dortmunder novel What’s the Worst that Could Happen? is near the top of my list of favorite novels, period.

  12. The Hot Rock was also adapted into a very cool graphic novel, oozing 70s crime caper style, by the excellent British Indy comics publisher SelfMadeHero several years ago, made my annual Best Of the Year list on the Forbidden Planet Blog when it came out. On classic crime to comics adaptations it is also well worth seeking out the Manchette adaptations the great French comics creator Jacques Tardi has done – Fantagraphics have been translating them, with a new one due this summer.

  13. Welcome to Dortmunder! The Hot Rock is one of those formative novels, like The Hobbit and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, that I read as a kid, buy a new copy every time I loan mine to someone, and consume every version I can.

    I don’t feel like there has ever been a successful movie version of a Dortmunder book, but I do cast it in my head every few years as actors age into and out of eligibility.

  14. I recently read ‘Jimmy the Kid’ – another Dortmunder novel in which the gang uses the plot of a (fictional) Parker novel as a blueprint for a caper. It’s a great book anyway, but there’s added amusement to be had knowing that Richard Stark and Donald E Westlake were one and the same person.

    ‘ So Dortmunder took out the book. The title was Child Heist, and the author was somebody named Richard Stark. “Sounds like crap,” Dortmunder said. ‘

  15. I’ve been a big fan of Donald E. Westlake since I was a kid.  Thanks for posting this!  He was very prolific, and the Dortmunder novels were always my favorite.  I especially like the way he captures the essense of the Hudson Valley, my old stomping grounds.

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