Not the perfect jewel heist, but possibly the perfect heist book – The Hot Rock
Original novel by Donald Westlake, adapted and illustrated by Christian Lacroix (LAX)
Donald Westlake, writing as Richard Stark, was responsible for one of the best books of 2009 in Darwyn Cooke’s adaptation of Parker: The Hunter. The Hot Rock, first published by Casterman in France in 2008, is the darkly comic flipside to Parker; a story of a bungling con and an increasingly ridiculous jewel heist.
It’s every bit as good as Cooke’s Parker, and may be just that little bit better.
Westlake’s writing in The Hot Rock is as good an example of the black comedy crime caper as you’re likely to find. – and Lacroix/LAX does the perfect job of adapting The Hot Rock to comic form. It’s timing is perfect, whether it’s for the thrills or the comedy. Westlake’s characters are archetypes, stereotypes, but they’re wonderful ones – in Parker we have the driven, relentless, hard-boiled criminal and here in The Hot Rock we meet John Dortmunder; the criminal mastermind – clever, master of the cunning plan, but so terribly unlucky – the comic counterpoint to Parker’s cold intense ruthlessness.
It’s June 1969, and John Dortmunder, newly released from prison (never a great start for a criminal mastermind) is contacted by one of his previous associates Kelp with an idea for an audacious jewel heist. There’s a small African nation in need of a team of thieves to recover a half million dollar emerald that holds special importance to the country but was lost to it’s neighbour in a civil war.
Dortmunder isn’t happy with the set-up, particularly with the African ambassador brokering the deal who seems to be very reluctant to let go of the purse strings, but reluctantly goes ahead, recruiting a 4 man team and sets about recovering the emerald from an African art exhibition.
(and you just know what’s going to happen next – don’t you? One slip ruins it all – Dortmunder’s heist is cursed with bad luck after all. From The Hot Rock by Westlake and LAX, published by SelfMadeHero)
And that’s when it all starts to go wrong. The raid on the exhibition goes wrong – they’re just one slip away from getting away with it – and from then the team finds themselves in an escalating series of audacious raids, with the jewel always seductively (and increasingly ridiculously) out of reach. From the exhibition they progress to breaking into first a jail, then a New York police precinct and finally an insane asylum as the jewel slips through their fingers each time. It seems nothing can go right for these ill-fated cons.
The story’s part expert crime caper, part series of brilliantly set up gags. It’s a great thriller, intricately plotted and brilliantly executed by LAX from Westlake’s story, full of the twists and turns that mark Westlake’s writing, he takes great delight in making each increasingly audacious raid to recover the emerald just that little bit more ridiculous than the last, milking the black comedy for all it’s worth.
It’s this delicious blending of classy thriller with black comedy that makes The Hot Rock such a great read. There are so many perfectly observed moments that will send a grin across your face as you read. Perhaps the best of these is the increasingly incredulious African ambassador’s reactions to Kelp’s ever more outrageous and expensive list of the equipment Dortmunder has earmarked for each job ….
(LAX nails the expressions every time, first it’s a truck……….)
(…… then it’s a helicopter. I won’t spoil the fun by telling you what the next request is, but trust me, it’s good. From The Hot Rock by Westlake and LAX, published by SelfMadeHero)
LAX’s adaptation keeps every bit of Westlake’s meticulously plotted thriller intact and does justice to the beautifully observed comedy moments but also adds something akin to a filmic touch on the comic page. Throughout the book he expertly fades the scenes, shifting effortlessly to the next setup, without need of detailed explanation, the art does everything, moving you along, beautifully, adeptly, seamlessly – this is just pure class . And the artwork in itself is a real treat, a subtle mix of exaggerated figurative cartooning and moody suspenseful scenes.
The Hot Rock is every bit as good as Cooke’s Parker: The Hunter adaptation, and perhaps, seeing how brilliant observed and executed the black comedy is throughout, even a little better.
But it’s potentially a book that, without the marquee name of Cooke to publicise it, will not reach the potentially huge audience it deserves, an audience who’ll absolutely love it. There’s a series of Darwyn Cooke adaptations of Parker coming out from IDW. I dearly wish there were a series of LAX’s adaptations of the Dortmunder stories. I think, in the end, I’d enjoy those more.
The Hot Rock is published in June from SelfMadeHero.