In 1970 Donald Westlake published a novel called The Hot Rock. It featured an unlikely protagonist, a career criminal named John Archibald Dortmunder.
Westlake had originally planned for his tough guy protagonist Parker to be the hero of The Hot Rock. His idea was to write a story about a heist that not only went bad, but kept going bad. The “Rock” in the title is a famous emerald. The heroes are hired to steal the emerald, but bad luck prevents them from getting away with the stone. So they try again. And again.
All told, there are five separate heists in The Hot Rock–each to get the same prize. While writing the book Westlake decided that the black humor of what one of the characters describes as “the world’s first habitual crime” didn’t mesh well with his grim antihero Parker.
And so Dortmunder was born.
Westlake went on to write 14 Dortmunder novels and a dozen short stories. Seven different films have been made from Dortmunder novels. An Alliance cruiser in the pilot of Firefly was named the IAV Dortmunder.
I am currently listening to The Hot Rock on audiobook. I’ve read it before, and at least most if not all of the other novels. It’s a lot of fun.
What I am finding most interesting as an author, though, is seeing how the decisions made in this novel have shaped the series. Westlake hadn’t planned on writing a series about Dortmunder, at the time he was mostly concentrating on his Parker series. That was straight up crime fiction, with a known market and an easily definable genre. (And Parker has been played by Lee Marvin, Jim Brown, Robert Duvall, Mel Gibson, and Jason Statham which clearly makes him an epic badass.)
The Hot Rock, though, ended up being surprisingly successful. A film was made, with Robert Redford as Dortmunder. There was something endearing about a hard-boiled professional who is always prepared for the worst and never disappointed. Dortmunder was a bad guy, sure, but he was a good bad guy cursed with spectacularly bad luck. You couldn’t help but sympathize with him.
Westlake next wrote Bank Shot, another brilliant caper that should have worked but somehow didn’t. That one was also filmed and the rest is history.
The fact that the original novel was not intended to be the genesis of a series makes the development of the characters over 14 books all the more interesting, in my opinion. Dortmunder himself was created for one particular story, his signature stoic fatalism in the face of adversity a running joke as events go from bad to worse to absurd.
The other characters are also, in the first novel, more broad jokes than finely drawn people. Andy Kelp is as cheerful as Dortmunder is dour, a misguided Pollyanna in absolutely the wrong line of work. Alan Greenberg is a cartoon pickup artist of kind that fortunately went extinct in the late 1970’s, Roger Cheftwick is a model railroad nut who picks locks in order to support his expensive hobby, and Stan Murch is a driver who is obsessed with being a driver.
In a stand alone novel you can have one trick pony characters, but when those characters appear in multiple works you have to flesh them out, and you have to do it without contradicting your earlier works, and without losing the quirkiness that made them appealing in the first place.
Westlake has done that. The relationship between Dortmunder and Kelp, while always characterized by the pessimist vs optimist dynamic, grows and changes as the series progresses. Murch lives with his mother, a cab driver, and while that’s played for laughs in the first book, that relationship is taken more seriously over time, with Gladys Murch becoming an important character in several of the books.
Cheftwick and Greenberg, on the other hand, sort of drift out of the picture. Both reappear from time to time as background characters, but they didn’t seem to appeal to readers in the same way that the others did.
Which goes to show, I suppose, that you never know which characters will strike a chord. The central theme of the novels being based on heists allowed Westlake to bring in new characters as the various jobs required them. Some stayed for just one book, some became part of the Dortmunder family.
“Tiny” Bulcher, for example, shows up in the later books as a giant thug, but rapidly grows into a sympathetic and sensitive character–well, sympathetic and sensitive for a thug.
Donald Westlake is one of those authors that I keep recommending, and will continue to recommend until everyone has read all of his books. Revisiting this one, however, is particularly enlightening because I am so familiar with the later books and I can see the casual choices that later became canon.