1970; 287 pages. New Author? : No. Book #1 (out of 14) of the Dortmunder series. Genre : Crime Humor. Overall Rating : 8*/10.
The Balabomo Emerald is a golf ball-size precious jewel that the African nations of Akinzi and Talabwo both consider to be a national treasure. Of course, only one can possess it, and right now, that happens to be Akinzi. But the gem is presently in New York City, as part of a US tour of African artifacts. And Major Iko, the UN Ambassador from Talabwo, would like someone to “acquire” it for him.
John Dortmunder is an ex-convict who specializes in the planning and implementing “difficult” burglaries. He’s just been released from prison (not all of his heists go as planned), and could use some working capital. He’s got a team of fellow criminal specialists to draw upon as partners, and Major Iko is willing to pay for a worthy team.
What could possibly go wrong?
What’s To Like...
I’ve read four other books in this series, so it was a treat to read the book that started it all. The book opens with Dortmunder being released from prison, and that’s about all the backstory Donald Westlake gives for him. Some of the series’ “regulars” – Andy Kelp, Stan Murch, and Rollo the bartender – are here, but Tiny and Arnie the Fence aren’t, and neither is John’s girlfriend, May. Two team members in this book – Alan Greenwood and Roger Chefwick – were new to me.
The Hot Rock is really a series of five capers, all involving the stealing of the Balabomo Emerald. Every time Dortmunder thinks he’s got it, it somehow slips away and each subsequent heist requires increasingly outrageous equipment. This confounds Major Iko, who is bankrolling the project, but leads to some hilarious escapades.
The book, like the series, is essentially a “cozy”. No one gets killed, and the violence is minimal. There is some cussing here, but hey, wouldn’t you expect that in a gang of thieves? As with any Dortmunder book, the good guys prevail (even if their financial gain is minimal), the bad guys get their comeuppance, and karmic balance is maintained.
He’d preferred to drive up here today rather than take the train, so he’d gone shopping for a car last night, and he’d found this one on East 67th Street. It had MD plates and he always automatically checked those, because doctors tend to leave the keys in the car, and once again the medical profession had not disappointed him.
It didn’t have MD plates now, of course. The state hadn’t spent four years teaching him how to make license plates for nothing. (loc. 74)
In his office on the opposite side of the building, Chief Administrator Doctor Panchard L. Whiskum sat at his desk rereading the piece he’d just written for the American Journal of Applied Pan-Psychotherapy, entitled “Instances of Induced Hallucination among Staff Members of Mental Hospitals,” when a white-jacketed male nurse ran in shouting, “Doctor! There’s a locomotive in the garden!”
Doctor Whiskum looked at the male nurse. He looked at his manuscript. He looked at the male nurse. He looked at his manuscript. He looked at the male nurse. He said, “Sit down, Foster. Let’s talk about it.” (loc. 2367)
The Hot Rock sells for $7.69 at Amazon. The other books in the Dortmunder series are in the $6.99-$12.99 price range. Donald Westlake also wrote many “more serious” crime novels, and these range in price from $4.89 to $9.99.
”A racing driver going into the far turn at one hundred twenty mile per hour shouldn’t have to answer the telephone.” (loc. 450)
The exciting climax takes place in an airport, and involved gunplay and dodging taxiing airplanes. If your own airport experience is all post-9/11, these actions will seem hard to believe.
But back when the book was written (1970), there were no such things as metal detectors or security checkpoints, and doors leading to the tarmac were quite accessible. I know, because at that time I was a college student flying back and forth across the country to and from school. It was a different, simpler world for travelers back then, and sadly, it is gone forever. Still, this scene brought back fond memories for me.
My only quibble about The Hot Rock is that it seemed to have a lot of typos for a mainstream Publishing House-issued offering. Other than that, it is a worthy opening novel in the Dortmunder saga. If you like lovable crooks, you’ll like this book.