Review: The Hot Rock by Donald Westlake

The Hot Rock began life as an attempt at a Parker novel:

One day in 1967 I was wearing my Richard Stark hat, looking for a story to tell about my man Parker, and I thought, he reacts badly to frustration, what if he had to steal the same thing four or five times? I started to work it out, then realized the idea was only comic and Parker wouldn’t stand for it. But I still liked the notion, and even–once it was comic–saw how to make it six thefts of the same elusive item. So I’d do it that way.

–From “Meeting John,” Donald Westlake’s foreword to the 2001 Mysterious Press edition

This change in approach resulted in the creation of Donald Westlake’s most famous character, the always-unfortunate John Dortmunder, and what may be Westlake’s best-known novel, The Hot Rock.

The Hot Rock opens with Dortmunder getting out of jail after a four-year stint, and its in these first few chapters that the Parker roots are most apparent (although Parker wouldn’t have been in jail for four years, of course). Like Parker, Dortmunder finds long conversations annoying. Parker’s coldness is transformed in Dortmunder to moroseness. And Dortmunder is no more capable of going straight than Parker is–stealing is what he does. Dortmunder goes directly from jail to discuss the heist of the title object. Getting a real job doesn’t even cross his mind.

Westlake tosses in a few other references to Dortmunder’s roots. A truck needed for one heist is from Parker’s Rent-a-Truck, and a piece of equipment is borrowed from Fun Island, setting of Slayground. Character Alan Greenwood at one point goes by the name Alan Grofield. (He is not Alan Grofield–Alan Grofield doesn’t live in New York, for starters–but he’s most definitely a parody of Alan Grofield.)

But a handful of winks isn’t what kept me glued to The Hot Rock. Rather, it was the beautifully structured and completely compelling novel itself, where Westlake deftly ratchets up each situation to make it more ridiculous and entertaining than the last. The Hot Rock starts a little slowly, but it sure doesn’t end that way.

I should confess here that I’m not a big fan of comic novels. It’s not that I lack a sense of humor; it’s just that comedy in the form of a novel, even a highly-regarded novel, has never worked for me the way great stand-up comedy or a great movie like The Producers does. I don’t know that I’ve ever laughed out loud while reading a novel–a smile is about all the author will get out of me.

Since I’m probably never going to think a novel hits the funny meter higher than “mildly amusing,” for me to enjoy a comic novel it needs to be great as a novel, apart from its comic elements. The Hot Rock certainly is. It’s a stupendously enjoyable book fully deserving of its exalted status in the pantheon of crime fiction.

(Note: The Hot Rock was filmed in 1972, starring Robert Redford(!) as Dortmunder. I saw this movie on cable as a kid, probably my first exposure to anything Westlake, but don’t remember a thing about it except for not thinking it was very funny. I hope to watch it again soon, as I don’t trust the judgment of nine- or ten-year old me. If I made a movie out of it, I’d cast Harrison Page as Major Iko. I kept picturing Iko as Captain Trunk on Sledge Hammer! in any scene where he was talking to Kelp or the gang.

The Hot Rock has also been adapted as a well-regarded comic book. I haven’t read this yet, but hope to soon.)