Wednesday, June 11, 2008

BOOKS: Hot for The Hot Rock

I needed a change of pace from Dragons, and boy did I get it. The switch turned out to be the caper book, The Hot Rock by Donald E. Westlake. It's the first of the Dortmunder books, starring the star-crossed master thief who does well enough in the end, but perennially has his brilliant capers blow up in his face while getting there.

In the inaugural Dortmunder book, he's freshly sprung from the pen and out of sorts. Quicker than you can say encyclopedia salesman (which be becomes, briefly), he's hooked up with the gang who COULD shoot straight, but doesn't. He's out to steal a big emerald at the behest of one fictional African country from the New York display of rarities from another fictional African country.

Dortmunder's gang succeeds to a certain extent. That extent is that the emerald and a member of the crew end up in police custody. So, the crew breaks the laggard out of jail. But he left the emerald behind. So they break into the lockup to recover the hidden gem. But a shifty lawyer beat them to it. The lawyer hides in an insane asylum. That doesn't present too big an obstacle. The fact that the lawyer sequestered the gem in a bank vault also doesn't prove insurmountable. And there's still ONE more heist required before Dortmunder's gang is done with the heists. All along, the humour is sly and belly-aching.

Just reading the section where Dortumunder runs afoul of a guard dog (of sorts), only to be rescued by one of his crew, anxious for him to continue devising plans to continue the string of heists, has more laughs than the average TV sitcom. Sure that the emerald is jinxed beyond belief, Dortmunder's response is straightforward. "Take me back to the dog!" And he says it more than once, earning the reader's sympathy, and outright chuckles, each step of the way.

The Hot Rock, written in the mid 50's, is certainly anachronistic. The laggard who gets caught, merely changes his name and continues on his pilfering/womanizing ways. There's many places were the gang would leave copious amounts of DNA evidence. And with mastermind Dortmunder recently convicted, it would have taken the NY cops a nano-second to be on his doorstep. And some of the historic references are less timely now. A Jim Brown sweep in referring to an impressive display of power, makes sense to me. Today's readers might have heard of Brown as a political activist or even as an actor. But it's been close to fourty years since he played. And references to western cowboys might be equally obscure.

Still, this is a great book. The sex is non-existent and the violence more implied than acted out on. It turned into a pretty good Robert Redford movie in the early 70's. In whichever form, you probably can't go wrong by getting YOUR hands on The Hot Rock.

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