Friday, December 17, 2021

Donald E. Westlake's The Cutie

Donald E. Westlake (1933-2008) was a big name in crime fiction in the late 20th century but since the crime fiction of that era doesn’t interest me much I hadn’t read any of his crime novels. But The Cutie (also published as The Mercenaries and The Smashers) was his first crime novel (prior to that he’d written sleaze fiction under various pseudonyms) and was published in 1960 I figured it might be worth a look.

Clay (the narrator) works for gangster Ed Ganolese. Clay beats people up and sometimes he kills them. It’s a living. He’s just about to get down to some enjoyable bedroom action with his girlfriend Ella when a punk named Billy-Billy turns up on his doorstep. At 2am.

Billy-Billy has been set up for a murder rap. Billy-Billy works for Ed Ganolese as well, as a dope pusher. If the cops pick up Billy-Billy he’ll start talking about a lot of things that could be embarrassing for Ganolese. Clay knows what Ed will do. He’ll tell Clay to arrange a little accident for Billy-Billy. That way he won’t be able to tell the cops anything. Surprisingly Ganolese tells Clay that Billy-Billy has important friends so instead of bumping him Clay has to protect him and keep him out of the hands of the cops. It’s pretty irritating.

The cops want Billy-Billy for the knifing murder of a broad named Mavis St Paul. Clay knows Billy-Billy could not possibly have killed her. Billy-Billy couldn’t kill anyone. The problem is that Mavis St Paul was Ernest Tesselman’s girl. Tesselman is a a big-time political fixer. If Tesselman wants the cops to jump they’ll jump. And Tesselman wants the guy who killed Mavis. If the cops start jumping that will cause a lot of aggravation and inconvenience to Ed Ganolese’s organisation.

One option would be to set up someone else as a fall guy. The cops don’t care about getting the right guy. They just want to nail someone for the murder, to get Ernest Tesselman off their backs. But Ganolese decides there’s a better way to play this. He wants Clay to find the real murderer. Clay isn’t thrilled about doing the cops’ job for them but he’s Ganolese’s boy. If that’s how Ganolese wants it played that’s how Clay will play it.

Clay is now hunting the killer, and the killer is hunting him.

Clay is an interesting anti-hero. He’s not a mere thug. Killing is only a small part of his job. He’s actually Ganolese’s right-hand man. Clay is loyal and efficient and intelligent. He’s educated and he’s civilised.

He does have a problem with his girlfriend Ella. Two problems actually. The first is that he loves her. He’s had lots of women and this has never happened before. The second problem is that Ella is not sure she approves of his line of work. It’s not the killing people thing that she has a problem with. She can rationalise that away, and she has. It’s the fact that Clay kills and doesn’t feel bad about it. He doesn’t feel anything abut it. It’s not that Clay is cold and emotionless. He’s very loving with Ella. He just happens to be able to switch off his emotions entirely when he has to kill people.

While he hunts the killer, and tries to stay alive, he has to make a decision about Ella. He has to choose between her and his job. He loves both. That’s what makes him an interesting protagonist. He really does love being a gangster. He’s the narrator and the protagonist and he’s a killer and we disapprove of him but we kinda like the guy. And his rationalisation are fascinating. He regards the organisation as simply a business. There are products and services that the moral guardians of society will not allow people to buy legally but people still want those products and services. The organisation provides them. We might disagree with Clay but his rationalisations do have a kind of internal logic to them. What matters is that up to a point at least Clay believes that he is just working for a business.

Clay also believes that he has never killed anyone who was any real loss to society. He only kills criminals. So killing people is OK if you only kill bad people, isn’t it?

Clay is neither a straightforward hero nor a straightforward villain.

Both Clay and Ella are in fact engaged in trying to find rationalisations to justify Clay’s criminal career. And both will find this to be more and more of a challenge.

There are some clever twists at the end. This is not a fair-play mystery but the solution is at least plausible and coherent.

The Cutie is really a pretty good read. I’m giving it a highly recommended rating.

1 comment:

  1. Reputedly one of the smut novels written by Larry Block when he was getting started features a character going to the cinema to see a film version of 'The Mercenaries'.