Novelists talk about how characters in their books sometimes have a mind of their own. Donald E. Westlake introduced the consummate burglar John Dortmunder in The Hot Rock, a book he had originally planned as another in his series of novels about a hard-boiled criminal named Parker. Clearly, something happened to send him off course. As he wrote, Parker morphed into Dortmunder, and a new series of comic novels was born.
The evolving character of John Dortmunder
The Dortmunder who appears in The Hot Rock isn’t quite the same as the protagonist of the novels in the series that Westlake published much later in his career. He’s been in prison, and he’s a bit harder-edged than his later incarnation. The man’s got a temper. And his first wife, who goes unmentioned in the later books, was a “night-club entertainer named Honeybun Bazoom.” The novel introduces some of the familiar characters in his gang, but not all. Fans of the series will recognize Andy Kelp, Stan Murch the getaway driver, and Rollo the bartender at the O. J. Bar and Grill on Amsterdam Avenue. Other members of the gang do not appear in the books much later in the series.
The Hot Rock (Dortmunder #1) by Donald E. Westlake (1970) 246 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)
Dortmunder’s first caper goes awry
The hot rock of the title is the Balabomo Emerald, which two obscure African nations each claim as their national treasure. A certain Major Patrick Iko of the embassy of one of the two nations hires Kelp and Dortmunder to steal the emerald from the other country. Fortunately, the stone is on display at a traveling exhibition in New York. Unfortunately, Dortmunder’s brilliant plan for the heist goes awry. Then he is forced to come up with a second, even more brilliant plan to secure the stone. Which in turn goes awry. And thus the pattern is set.
Westlake excels at dialogue as well as plotting. The exchanges in this novel aren’t side-splitting, as are some in the later books, but they’re good for a lot of laughs.
About the author
The late Donald E. Westlake wrote more than a hundred novels and nonfiction books under his own name and many pen names. He is best known for the 14 John Dortmunder comic novels published from 1970 to 2009. The Hot Rock is the tale of Dortmunder’s first caper.
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