You know, it’s getting on for forty years since I first read this book: to still be laughing at the jokes this much later should give you some idea how good this story is.
It’s also the first time I’ve read the book with an analytical eye, assessing how it’s put together, and how it fares as the opening book of a series, which has led me to some intriguing discoveries.
The first thing anyone who goes on to read the entire Dortmunder series will realise is that the tone of The Hot Rock is very different from its successors. This is very often the case with series – compare Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic to any of the more recent Discworld novels – and is even more so here because this book was planned as a stand-alone.
And let’s not forget that this was originally a Parker plot. The Hot Rock was conceived as a hard-boiled crime novel, and more so than any other of its successors, its story strays not too far from that model.
Let me illustrate that by looking closely at Phase One (the novel is broken into Six Phases, each dealing with a stage of the continuing heist). We meet Dortmunder on the last day of his second prison term, escorted to the gate by the Warden, who talks about redemption but, underneath it all, has no belief that Dortmunder will change.
He’s met outside by Kelp, a colleague (these kind of people do not have friends), in a stolen car. Kelp has a job lined up. They are hired to steal the Balabomo Emerald by Major Iko, Cultural Attache at the Talabwo Embassy. Until recently, Talabwo was part of a British colony with what is now Akinzi. On Independence, the two tribes warred before splitting into separate countries. Both tribes worship the Emerald. Akinzi has it, Talabwo wants it back. It’s currently in New York, on Exhibition.
Dortmunder brings in three more men: Stan Murch, driver, Roger Chefwick, locksmith and Alan Greenwood, utility man. The gang study the museum, draw up and execute a scheme to get hold of the diamond. The plan works perfectly, up to a point: the gang get the Emerald but an alarm is set off and they have to flee. Everyone but Greenwood gets away: Greenwood is carrying the Emerald.
So far, this is a straight crime novel plot. But this isn’t that kind of book. Whilst keeping strictly to a realistic plot, Westlake makes certain that we know this is not for real by the character of the players.
It starts with the first line: “Dortmunder blew his nose.” He blows his nose into a kleenex, which he has to hold in his hand as he listens to the Warden lecturing him, all the way from the office to the gate, incidentally costing Dortmunder the $300 he was due for ‘selling’ his cell, which was going to be handed over just before he was let out. So Dortmunder shakes hands with the Warden. With the hand into which the kleenex has been soaking.
Then there’s Kelp. Kelp prefers luxury cars. Doctors have luxury cars with all the latest gadgets, like electric windows. So Kelp only steals cars with M.D. Plates. Unfortunately, he’s so busy trying to work out which switch is which, he ends up attracting Dortmunder’s attention by nearly running him down.
The rest of the gang are similarly not quite conventional when it comes to crooks: Murch is a car nut who lives with his cab-driver Mom, plays LPs of engines revving, roaring and screeching at Indianapolis and always explains what route he’s taken to get anywhere, Chefwick is a model railway nut, with an extensive home layout in his basement, and Greenwood has eyes for the ladies.
This section also includes our first visit to the O.J Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue, where we meet Rollo the barman, tall, meaty and balding, who knows his customers by their drinks, our first walk down the little passage with the payphone and the toilets, and our first meeting in the back room whose walls are invisible due to the cases stacked, leaving space for a table, a light with a reflector and a half dozen seats.
But throughout Phase One, to borrow Clive James’s words in discussing Alan Bennett, the jokes are decoration, not architecture. The plot is completely realistic, whereas the characters are just that bit off-centre. That is, until the last page of this Phase, with Greenwood trapped on a mezzanine floor, with guards approaching ahead and behind, no concealment, no cover, no escape.
So he eats the Emerald.
At that moment, the book lifts out of the realistic story and starts to follow its own, slightly skew-whiff logic. It’s not just the characters who display their idiosyncrasies, but now the plot starts to wobble off-centre. It may stay pretty close to the hard-boiled milieu throughout Phase Two, in which the gang have to break Greenwood out of prison to find out where he’s stashed the Emerald, but as soon as we learn that this is not the end of the caper, the plot breaks free of its realistic tramlines and starts to head towards improbability.
Westlake judges carefully how to up the ante at each stage. Having started with a pretty straight crime story, he takes care to make each step an extension of the earlier path until the part with the life-sized model train and the mental sanatorium becomes perfectly plausible because the ground has been so expert;y prepared.
He even puts into words the gag that sums up the whole, ridiculous story, when the crooked lawyer Andy Prosker comments that he has heard of the habitual criminal, of course, but that this is the first instance in the world of the habitual crime.
By the time the job is done, and the gang have in their hands the Balabomo Emerald, the audience is just waiting for something to go wrong. And it does. Westlake’s hinted at it in advance, so it comes as no surprise, in fact with a roar of recognition, when Iko plots a double-cross, intending to return to Talabwo with the Emerald – and Talabwo’s new Government Legal Advisor, E. Andrew Prosker – without paying the gang. Having finally got the diamond after so many efforts, Dortmunder and Co. have to steal it again. This time, from their own client.
All that trouble, and they don’t get paid after all.
Dortmunder, however, is not a planner for nothing. Iko has promised to find the money and pay them, given time, and Dortmunder knows he can rely on that. In the meantime, he turns the Emerald in at the Akinzi Embassy, not for money but in return for two things: one of Akinzi’s perfect replicas of the Balabomo Emerald, and a promise that they won’t announce they’ve got the real jewel until Dortmunder says so.
Which is going to be right after Major Iko has paid him $200,000 for a piece of glass…
The Hot Rock was an immediate success and it has stayed in print since first appearing in 1970. It was optioned and filmed, with a screenplay by William Goldman. It was the first of five films (so far) to have been made from Dortmunder novels, and is distinctive in being the only one to use Dortmunder’s name. It starred Robert Redford as Dortmunder, which is casting against type to say the least and, this being a Hollywood film, the ending was changed to allow the gang to get away with the Emerald themselves.
Coming out ahead, except in being still out of jail, is not going to be a common characteristic of this series.
It’s a fine start. Of course, it lacks the multitude of mannerisms, schticks and tics that the characters accumulate in future books – interestingly, there are no physical descriptions of any of the gang, with the exception of Chefwick, who is in late middle-age, skinny and short: it’s not giving away too much to say here that Chefwick doesn’t make the cut into the second book of the series, Bank Shot.
But overall, The Hot Rock does everything to establish the laconic, pared down, low-life world of Dortmunder and Co. If it’s more serious and hard-boiled here than the series as a whole, if the gang are more prone to wield guns and threaten (though not actually perform) harm than they are later, if the plot is more serious than the story, it’s still a superb, and very funny book for all those contradictions.