Donald Westlake was a prolific author, particularly famous for his enthusiastic but far from successful bank robber John Dortmunder. This graphic novel of The Hot Rock – Dortmunder’s first caper – has been adapted by Christian Lacroix (also known as Lax) from Westlake’s book and illustrated in a gorgeous European style.
The story is a bungled robbery that goes from bad to worse. Split into six parts, each chapter covers a change in plan, starting with Plan A and ending finally with Plan F. On the way, Dortmunder and his gang of reasonably professional but largely unsuccessful associates attempt to steal a jewel for one African country from its recently divided neighbour, while it’s on show in a New York exhibition. As one thing leads to another, what starts as a simple heist ends up with various missions, ranging from springing colleagues from prison to smuggling someone back in again. While these escapades largely succeed, the jewel continues to elude them.
The story rolls along at a pleasing pace, mixing the harsh reality of guns and violence with a humorously absurd element. This is well matched to Lacroix’s style, which manages a subdued realism, particularly in his colour palette, with characters that are gently caricatured, giving them a certain comedic feel.
The end result doesn’t feel quite right as a comic. Some of its subtleties seem to have fallen through the gaps between panels during the adaptation process, leaving the reader having to work a little harder than normal to spot what’s going on.
However, it’s a refreshing take on crime comics that we haven’t seen enough of recently. And once again, it artfully demonstrates to English language readers that continental Europe remains the place to go for intelligent, mature comics that don’t take their readers for granted.