I often talk about how my education in the classics is severely limited, and by that, I also mean the classics in the genres as well. There are any number of great writers whose works I’ve never read–and given the ticking clock of my life, most likely will never get to–and I’ve sometimes wondered if that has had a negative impact on my own writing, on my own work; the greatest writers always inspire, and perhaps if I took some time to read their work it would improve my own.
Donald E. Westlake is one of those authors; someone I always intended to get around to yet somehow never have. Several years ago I read his Hard Crime Classic The Comedy is Finished and loved it. I also knew that the Rob Byrnes caper novels I love so much (most recently Strange Bedfellows–you really should check the books out) were inspired by Westlake’s Dortmunder series, and at some point in the perhaps not so distant past I acquired a copy of the first Dortmunder, The Hot Rock (which I knew had been filmed in the 1970’s and the film starred Robert Redford; I should add the film to the Cynical 70’s Film Festival), and even more recently, I picked it up and started to read it.
I finished it Thanksgiving day.
Dortmunder blew his nose. “Warden,” he said, “you don’t know how much I appreciate the personal attention you been paying me.” There wasn’t anything to do with the Kleenex, so he just held it balled up in his fist.
Warden Oates gave him a brisk smile, got up from behind his desk, walked around to Dortmunder’s side, patted him on the arm, and said, “It’s the ones I can save that give me the most pleasure.” He was a latter day Civil Service type–college-trained, athletic, energetic, reformistic, idealistic, and chummy. Dortmunder hated him.
The warden said, “I’ll walk you to the gate, Dortmunder.”
“You don’t have to do that, Warden,” Dortmunder said. The Kleenex was colf and gooey against his palm.
I greatly enjoyed reading this book, and I will definitely come back to the Dortmunder series again. It’s a caper book–a heist novel–and while I wouldn’t call it a page-turner, it definitely held my interest and kept me reading–mainly because I was curious to see what would go wrong next. The premise of the novel–and apparently, the series–is that Dortmunder is a very professional criminal; he plans and plans and plans, takes every possibility of what could possibly go wrong into account, and so every job should go smoothly–but of course, what he never takes into consideration is how humans will respond, and so things will always go wrong.
The Hot Rock itself is an emerald, worth (at the time) half a million dollars, and Dortmunder is brought into a plan to steal it. It is a sacred stone to a small, impoverished African nation, and was, of course, looted from their country during its colonial period. It is going to be displayed at a museum in New York City, and so Dortmunder and his gang of skilled but not terribly bright criminals plan to steal it. But things go wrong…and it turns out the stone will need to be stolen from yet another location….and on and on and on, with each successive heist more dangerous, more over the top, and more difficult, with each time the stone gets routed incorrectly; among the other places it must be stolen from include a police station, a mental hospital, and a bank.
Great, great fun; a little bit dated, but still a great read.