The plot of Donald Westlake’s The Hot Rock follows John Dortmunder and his crew of four other criminals as they attempt to steal an emerald for their employer, a Major Iko. Their caper fails a half dozen times over the course of the book, each attempt landing the emerald in a worse location than before. Donald Westlake essentially invented the genre of the comic crime caper with his Dortmunder series when he imagined this plot and found it too humorous for his typical thriller protagonist Parker.
As I read through The Hot Rock, I at first planned to just give it three stars out of five. There are plenty of reasons to: the prose is simplistic, often repetitive; the characters display one trait each, making them all paper-thin; and the descriptions are heavy with cliched 1970s thriller novel scenarios — the only hobbies our heroes indulge in (that aren’t also pulling double-duty as stand-ins for personality) are drinking alcohol and shooting pool. I would have only given it three stars out of a sense of respect for the thriller genre, which doesn’t demand strong prose or any emotional journey at all from its books.
The fourth star, however, earned its place as the book continued to reveal that Donald Westlake, despite his lack of subtly, does have a command on his plot and characters. The one-dimensional characters remain on-dimensional throughout the book, don’t get me wrong, but their dimensions continue to play off of each other in a way that becomes more fun the more it continues. As their situation worsens and Dortmunder grumbles, the other characters continue to focus on their traits — the getaway driver constantly discusses alternate routes that no one else cares about, for example — but they do so in different ways. Basically, the cliches turn into running jokes. By sticking to his cliches, which organically flourish in new settings, Westlake keeps the plot more engaging than it has any right to be.
The only aspect I’m used to seeing in capers that I expected and missed was the revelation scene. You know, where you realize the main characters tricked you as well as their mark. In this book, you always know what they’re planning to do just as they’re accomplishing it. No double crosses or traps come as surprises. Even so, the plot is twisty enough to be entertaining. The Hot Rock isn’t a great work of literature, but it’s a fun read if you enjoy your Ocean’s-Eleven-style madcap capers heavy on the running jokes.
4 stars out of 5.