Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Cutie by Donald E. Westlake (originally The Mercenaries, also published as The Smashers) (Hard Case Crime)

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.

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