Review by Frank Plowright
The gold standard adaptations of Donald Westlake crime thrillers are those by Darwyn Cooke of the Parker books Westlake wrote as Richard Stark. One only has to flick through The Hot Rock, however, to discover that Lax (Christian Lacroix) is a superb artist whose speciality is visual characterisation. Working in a form of cartoon naturalism, the people are memorably and distinctively designed, their personalities clear from their appearance, and those appearances in tune with the 1969 setting.
Westlake originally planned this to be Parker vehicle, but having constructed the plot concluded it was too comedic for Parker’s established tone, and he ended up with a new protagonist, John Dortmunder, just out of jail and already looking for his next job. Westlake rapidly sucks you into his novels, and this seduces from the start with the observation that a seasoned thief always looks for a car with MD plates as doctors tend to leave their keys in the car. The title refers to an emerald, historically the provenance of one African tribe, but now owned by another, but its display in New York affords an opportunity. Dortmunder is hired to put a team together.
As The Hot Rock continues it becomes apparent why this wouldn’t work as part of Parker’s more orderly world. To reveal exactly how would ruin some enjoyment for the new reader, so we won’t. Suffice to say that this features all the trickery and surprises you’d expect from Westlake along with a watertight plot and amusing asides, such as Dortmunder’s experience selling encyclopedias door to door to keep his probation officer happy. Lax picks his elements well, and as with the best adaptations, were you not told it was originally a novel, you’d not suspect.
It’s with the art that Lax falls down slightly. He’s technically a superb artist with an elegantly thin line and brilliant technique when it comes to facial features. That’s coupled with excellent period details and the ability to create a grimy world. Yet The Hot Rock is an extremely cinematic piece, featuring use of a steam train, a helicopter, and the causing of a panic in New York, and by keeping the focus tight in on the main cast Lax deliberately avoids the spectacular image time and again. This isn’t an artist being idle, as there’s no shortage of detail in the pages, but it’s a missed opportunity. The muted wash colour scheme he uses also fails to enliven and it frustrates as Lax isn’t doing his own art any favours.
The book however, is reasonably priced and a great read, just not as good as it might have been.