In the first chapter of "The Cutie", Hard Case Crime's reprint of a very early Donald Westlake novel, we're introduced to a heroin addict accused of murder, a morally gray mob fixer with a dancer girlfriend, and an overly earnest copy. In less interesting hands, the cop would have been the hero of this piece. In Westlake's hands, the cop drops out about halfway through the novel -- not due to death or disgrace, but simply because I think Westlake just felt the other players were far more interesting.
The protagonist is Clay, mob fixer and right-hand man to a Manhattan circa 1960 version of Tony Soprano. He narrates the novel with alternating purposes: first, he's trying to prove to his boss that the heroin-addled murder suspect was actually framed, and second, he's trying to justify his career choice to his dancer girlfriend. Both mysteries have interesting resolutions, and like any great mystery, the final chapter raises new questions just as interesting as the ones it answered.
Westlake's writing is crisp and tense, with only the occasional slip into bad pulp (such as when he describes Manhattan's air as having halitosis). Clay drives all over New York City, from Riverdale to the Lower East Side to an abandoned subway station under 95th Street. The characters with whom he interacts are mostly minor mob figures or hangers-on, many with hidden agendas and dark secrets, and even the heroin addicts come across as faintly sympathetic. However, threaded throughout is Clay's questioning the morality of his own lifestyle, and the choice he makes in the final pages is nicely contrasted against the book's kicker ending.
One nice little easter egg is that one of "The Cutie"'s key characters shares a name with an early Westlake pseudonym. Coming out as a grace note to his career just a few weeks after his death, "Cutie" is a nice monument to Westlake's legacy.
on January 4, 2012
What if Parker wanted to justify himself to us? Well, he wouldn't be Parker, of course. But what if there was a time when Parker wasn't Parker yet, was a young guy who had fallen into his way of life and still had doubts about what he was doing? Then he'd be something like Clay, the protagonist of The Cutie, who clearly enjoys the power of being a cold bastard for a Vito Genovese-like mobster but wants to feel good about himself too... and, like Parker, prizes the orderliness of a well-run criminal enterprise, and is ruthless when it comes to restoring the equilibrium disturbed by other, less reliable criminals. (Note that "Clay" is a descriptor applied to Parker more than a few times.)
Westlake's first crime novel is a slightly naive youthful work-- his insights into how the dirty world works have a young man's lack of subtlety (the whole mob-political understructure of New York seems to consist of three guys who we're told are all powerful), and draw too much on old movies at times (all those fish tanks, straight out of General Sternwood's orchid room). From here to the abstraction of The Hunter in two years is a pretty spectacular stylistic leap. But The Cutie clips right along, and Clay is an engaging character who may not seem entirely consistently realized, but the contradictions are part of what make him interesting. You can see nearly all of Westlake in embryonic form here (Clay's running self-justification will recall The Ax's narrator as well). And as with another early work Hard Case has reprinted, 361, you can't help but feel that Mario Puzo took a look at these books before conjuring up a mob family that seemed like a real family with familial issues and relationships, not just a standard set of Hollywood gangsters. If 361 is the first draft of Michael's story of accepting his gangster patrimony, Clay is just as plainly the model for Tom Hagen.
Mavis St. Paul has been murdered, and Billy-Billy Cantell, a stuttering dope user/seller is the prime suspect, mostly because he was found at the scene of the crime with the gun in his hand. Only there's no way he could've done it. His friend and colleague Clay believes this and, following order from their boss, gangster Ed Ganolese, is trying to clear his name because the police aren't interested in another suspect.
But Billy-Billy has disappeared, and the police are getting too involved in Ganolese's operation, so Clay (who creates "accidents" for people who cross Ganolese) has to play amateur detective and discover who the "cutie" (as Ganolese refers to him) is that killed Mavis and framed Billy-Billy, apparently just to sabotage Ganolese's outfit.
Will Clay find out who did it? Will he get any sleep? Will his girlfriend Ella leave when she finds out what Clay does for a living?
The Cutie is a reprinting of Donald E. Westlake's debut novel under his own name. (He had previously published so-called "sex novels" under a pseudonym.) As The Mercenaries (its original title), it was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for that year (it did not win, but the author would eventually win multiple times for other books).
The Cutie was always Westlake's preferred title, and it's actually more appropriate once you read the book. The funny thing is that the girl on the cover is not the "cutie" of the book, but she is the only one referred to as "mercenary."
For a debut novel, Westlake's familiar style is already apparent: a semihumorous approach, clever plotting, and an engaging mix of smart and dumb characters. (And I have to imagine that, before Westlake, nobody else was combining those things in just that way.) It's reassuring to know that the author emerged fully formed from the literary womb. In fact, it's only in later portions that The Cutie shows signs of inexperience -- even as one character practically confesses before our eyes, Westlake tries to force us down the wrong path by having Clay continually remind us who the "only" suspects are. When the solution is finally revealed, it's actually a relief.
On top of this, however, the author offers an ending that reinforces the notion (spoken throughout) that emotion has no place in business. I never saw it coming. Westlake fans will undoubtedly enjoy this reprinting of yet another early novel by Hard Case Crime. And fans of the author's Dortmunder series will appreciate that Westlake already has a character stealing a car with M.D. plates.
Clay, the hero of Donald Westlake's The Cutie (1960, reprinted 2009), is having a classically bad day - one that starts in the early hours of the morning. Clay's enjoying a little bit of special squashy time with his ladyfriend, Ella, when he's interrupted by a freaked out junkie, Billy-Billy. Billy-Billy has been framed for the murder of Mavis St. Paul, professional mistress. He knows he's screwed, and needs Clay to sort him out. Clay, as the right-hand man to mob boss Ed Ganolese, is sadly used to this sort of situation.
Ed, oddly, doesn't ask Clay to "clean the problem up" (that is, shoot Billy-Billy twice in the head). It turns out that the neighborhood junkie has important connections. Clay puts Billy-Billy into hiding and heads off on his own. However, Mavis St. Paul had some connections of her own. As well as a host of ex-lovers, she was currently boinking the head of the city's political machine. In a misguided attempt to avenge her murder, the grieving political chieftan has unleashed the police with instructions to take down Ed Ganolese.
Clay is at the center of the storm as Ganolese orders him to sort the situation out. The only way to get the cops to go away is to solve the murder. Clay, cold-hearted bastard and seasoned killer that he is, finds himself on the side of the angels, making him a very unlikely hero.
The book's original title was The Mercenaries, and Clay is, ostensibly, a shining example of the breed. He's well-paid and well-appointed, moving with shark-like smoothness through the city's corrupt waters. But nothing's ever that simple with Donald Westlake. Clay's a creature of deep loyalties. His connection with Ganolese is based on an emotional debt, not a monetary one. He's also loyal to Ella, who patiently applies pressure on her lover to quit his criminal life.
The combination of tricky detective work and ever-increasing tension makes The Cutie another Westlake masterpiece. The ambiguous ending leaves the reader wondering. Clay's lifestyle is unsustainable. Sooner or later, Ella or Ganolese will win his soul wholly, and until then, he's living hour by hour.
on August 14, 2013
Clay's night sleep is disturbed by the familiar heroin addict named Billy-Billy Cantell asking Clay for help. Clay works for the organization (read: mafia) as an "accident man": he arranges accidents on the orders of his boss Ed Ganolese. Cantell is scared to death: he woke up in a strange apartment with a dead girl lying behind him. Hardly having time to escape before the arrival of the police, Billy-Billy leaves in a flat hat with his name and fingerprints all over the apartment. Small-time dealer and user sure did not kill the girl, and Clay believes him: someone framed Billy. In another situation, Clay would simply arranged an "accident" for the addict, so Billy during the police interrogation wouldn't betray the secrets of the organization (Cantell is not just user, but also a heroin dealer and also works for the organization), but Billy during the war met impotrant people from the European organization, and you can not just kill him now.
The police immediately visit Clay's apartment, where he hid Billy, but when the cops leave, Billy escapes through the window already. Now, half of New York City Police is looking for a two-bit user who, they believe, killed the girl, Mavis St. Paul, who was the mistress of an influential old man with big connections. And Ed Ganolese tells Clay to find Billy before he will make great wrongs. And in addition to Billy, Clay must find that cutie, who framed Billy and brought so much trouble for the organization.
The beginning of the novel may seem a bit familiar, but, believe me, this is only the beginning, further in the novel there will be a lot of surprises, so that everything will turn upside down. «The Cutie» is Westlake's debut novel under his own name (he wrote several softcore novels before that one), and what a debut it is! Westlake writes sparingly, with humor, but let humore not to fool you: the book is very grim, and the finale is starless night.
Cutie from the title of the novel is by no means the girl from the cover, but the man, who framed the unfortunate Cantell, and later gave more than one trouble to organization. Westlake, which tells the story from Clay's point of view, strikingly demonstrates, step by step, cutie's tricks, so we are on one side with Clay and his boss, Ed, and also want to capture the villain immedietly.
Here is a quote from the dialogue, when Clay and Ed discuss the cutie:
«"Okay, "said Ed. "Okay, okay. He asked for it. He went a little too far this time, Clay, he got a little too cute for his own good. The cops have Billy-Billy now, and that means they'll close the goddam case . That means he's ours, Clay. That son of a bitch is ours, we don't have to turn him over to the law at all. "
"That's right," I said. "I hadn't thought about that."
"Neither did he, the bastard. But I'm thinking about it. Clay, I want that son of a bitch more than ever now. I want him right in front of me. He's mine, Clay. You get him and you deliver him to me. That little cutie has got just a bit too goddam cute for his own good."»
Westlake in his novel finds a balance between the classic detective story and a thriller about the mafia. Clay in the middle of the novel tells to his beloved Ella how he got into the organization and how he, a pretty and educated man, became a mercenary and hitman for a criminal boss. Clay is not deluded about himself: he is who does what he is asked, he is a murderer, but only when it is necessary for bussiness. The heaviest choice Clay will need to be done is choosing between personal life and work.
«The Cutie» is a novel of immense power, coldly written, a poem in prose about that there are no good people at all. But good books there are, and this is one of them.
George "Clay" Clayton has a comfortable apartment, a devoted girlfriend, and a job he likens to playing governess for one of New York City's most powerful hoods. He doesn't sweat the amorality of his criminal, occasional deadly lifestyle. He prefers to ignore any such emotion.
"You can turn your feelings off and on?" his girl asks him.
"Not on, Ella," he replies. "Only off."
Donald E. Westlake's 1960 crime novel is ostensible pulp fiction, with a missing junkie, some dead bodies, and a killer whose sights are set on our dark protagonist. But it's really a character-study-cum-morality-tale about a hood whose choice of lifestyle may be getting in the way of his future happiness - and well-being.
For me, that was where the novel scores. Clay doesn't enjoy his livelihood so much that he turns us off. In fact, his street smarts and ability to call on organizational muscle make him a likably competent main character. He has a skewed morality, or maybe it makes a kind of sense. As he points out more than once, everyone is taking from someone in life, or else they are being took. He doesn't do his job for kicks, and he doesn't feel too bad about the consequences. At least until Ella starts asking questions. Ella is a woman who can stir lost emotions.
"You want a woman who would marry a syndicate gangster?" Ella asks.
"I want a woman who will marry me," he replies.
The part of the book that doesn't work as well is the mystery itself. I guess as an excuse to examine Clay's life in a state of being turned upside-down, it keeps things interesting. Westlake shows off an ability for pacing even though much of the narrative seems in the form of Manhattan street directions, with a lot of walking and talking and a minimal amount of real action. If I could judge this book on its last three pages alone, it would be a five-star classic. But there are too many odd holes and unexplained issues. The mystery's big resolution, while surprising, is too left-field to be satisfying.
What kept me reading, beyond the interestingly different if not very deep protagonist, was the sense I was in the hands of an author in Westlake who knew where he was going, and wasn't afraid of losing me with a couple of odd turns. It's okay for what it does, a sharp character study disguised as a somewhat lackluster mystery. If you like pulp fiction or tough-guy literature, it's worth a read and may prove hard to put down despite some softness in the story.
on June 30, 2014
Original publication date: 1960
... My first call was to Archie Freihofer. The names on my list were mostly men, rich men who liked expensive tail. Archie, being overseer of the joie de vivre girls, was the obvious guy to know these people.
“I read about you in the papers, baby,” Archie cooed, when I told him who I was. “You got a good press agent.”
“And you got a lousy sense of humor,” I told him. “Listen, I’ve got some more checking for you to do.”
I don't know where Westlake paid his dues (he himself claimed Hammett and Rabe as masters), but his first novel already has masterly strokes, particularly his pitch-perfect dialogue:
“Yeah, I know how it is. But you haven’t seen Mavis since she left you for this Morgan character?”
“Morgan, Martin, something like that. Started with an M. Had something to do with television.”
“Yeah, but have you seen her at all since then?”
“Mavis? No, of course not. I don’t know why she ever hooked up with me in the first place. She didn’t want to break into the nightclub circuit. She was an actress, not an entertainer. And she couldn’t sing a note.”
“So I’ve heard. What was she like, anyway? What kind of a girl was she?”
He grinned at me. “Oh, she was a sharp girl,” he said. “She knew what she wanted, that girl did.”
“And what was it she wanted?”
“Money,” he said. “That’s all, just money. And lots of it.”
It's almost as if, knowing how well he could do dialogue, he contrived a plot in which a 'young executive' in the Outfit has to investigate a murder by interviewing as many people as he can, sometimes twice. The solution to the mystery is nothing special. And the attempt to have a twist at the end ("The doorbell rang.") will not bear a moment's scrutiny. Still, it is an enjoyable debut.
on May 13, 2014
Always have been a fan of Donald E. Westlake. That said this is a great example of his work at a time when I was but an eight year old child. A true American novel which holds up as well today as it did in the 60's. Loved it.
Billy-Billy Cantrell is involved in narcotics, as a junkie and as a retailer on New York City's Lower East Side. Heroin is his thing...Bigtime!. He's a "meek, nervous, quiet little guy whose only offense is dope." One evening he shoots up and falls asleep in a doorway. When he wakes up, in a drug induced stupor, he finds himself in the apartment of Mavis St. Paul, who until very recently was a would-be actress and singer. Now, Ms. St. Paul is a fresh corpse. Cantrell is no killer. He doesn't ever carry a weapon and has no memory of leaving his doorway, let alone making his way to the Upper East Side apartment. As he flees the scene in terror, he sees a police car pull up in front of the St. Paul residence. Someone had called in the crime and set him up. Unfortunately, he left behind his fingerprints and his hat.
Cantrell knocks on George "Clay" Clayton's door in the early morning hours and tells him he's been "patsied." Clay, our narrator, is the "right-hand man and trouble shooter for crime czar Ed Ganolese." His appearance doesn't fit his job description, however. He looks more like a respectable insurance salesman than a hit man. But then, the organization he works for is run like a top-notch business enterprise and Clay would fit right in as a junior executive.
Usually, in a situation like this, Ganolese would tell Clay to make Billy-Billy disappear. The addict knows too much about the narcotics business and all the police would have to do to get him talking is put him in a cell and deprive him of a fix. When Clay contacts Ganolese, the boss tells him that Billy-Billy has some powerful friends in the European organization - people he met while soldiering during WII. ("The Cutie" was published for the first time in 1960 as "The Mercenaries"). These friends want Cantrell to remain alive and well...or as well as possible, given his line of work and favorite pastime. But the police want to close the case. The victim also has some powerful friends who are pressuring the commissioner to arrest Cantrell and throw away the key. The solution: to find the "cutie" who murdered Ms. St. Paul and set-up Billy-Billy, who must leave town ASAP. Clay is supposed to drive him to a safe house in New England. When the police knock on Clay's door, Cantrell escapes through the bathroom window. Will Clay be able to find him before the cops do?
As Clay investigates he finds out more and more about Mavis St. Paul, aka Mary Komak, her shady past and long list of lovers. Apparently, she had a most mercenary attitude toward men. When the cutie murders again and then tries to kill Clay, the situation becomes desperate, with the wise guy always just a step ahead of him.
Complicating Clay's life further is his dancer girlfriend Ella, who loves him but is reasonably ambivalent about his career. Although he is wedded to his work, he thinks about the morality of his lifestyle throughout this very noir crime novel.
The author's writing is tight and the narrative's pace is fast. The humor is wry. The ending is a wowser!!!
This is Donald E. Westlake's debut novel and, although not my favorite, I really liked the book and found myself riveted on many occasions. To the author's credit, "The Cutie" stands up well after 49 years. Mr. Westlake, who recently died, was a three-time Edgar Award winner, one of only two writers to win Edgars in three different categories: 1968, Best Novel, "God Save the Mark"; 1990, Best Short Story, "Too Many Crooks"; and 1991, Best Motion Picture Screenplay,"The Grifters." The Mystery Writers of America named Westlake a Grand Master in 1993, the highest honor bestowed by the society. Once again, kudos to Hard Case Crime for paying tribute to the author and publishing this book.
on April 12, 2013
If you like gritty, "noir" crime novels, this series is for you! Various authors contribute stories, and so far all have been well worth the money (usually less than $5). These are quick reads and provide a twist at the end.