The Cutie by Donald Westlake

“One gets over the loss of a possession, no matter how valuable it once seemed.”

It was very sad to hear of the death of author Donald Westlake in December 2008. His death signaled an end to a wonderful writing career, and so I was pleasantly surprised to receive The Cutie from the Hard Case Crime Book Club. Published in 1960, the novel was originally titled The Mercenaries.

The Cutie arrived on Saturday. I started reading it almost the minute it was out of the box, and by Sunday, well I turned the last page with a satisfied sigh.

The novel’s protagonist, Clay works for notorious New York gangster, Ed Ganolese, and a strong bond of trust exists between the two men. One night as Clay is settling in with his luscious dancer girlfriend, Ella, the doorbell rings. On his doorstep is Billy-Billy Cantrell, a pathetic heroin addict who’s been framed for a stabbing. The dead girl is Mavis St Paul, a gold digger with a long list of lovers in her past, and her latest sugar daddy is the politically powerful Ernest Tesselman. It’s Clay’s job to get to the bottom of the murder, and within a few pages he’s up to his neck in intrigue.

Hard Case Crime delivers once again with The Cutie. The action begins on page one and doesn’t let up for a moment. There are slivers of humour here in this classic Westlake novel, but the novel’s best feature is the protagonist. He’s not a thug–but he can become one, and a great deal of his moral fibre remains undefined throughout the story; this is something that troubles his girlfriend Ella as she begins to wonder just what he is truly capable of. Clay seems easy-going and affable, never losing his cool. It’s not so much that he’s a nice man; it’s more than he’s basically unemotional and has a veneer of affability. And underneath that veneer is a man who’s capable of some dirty deeds.

The novel contains some marvelous descriptive passages of the different homes Clay passes through: Tesselman’s creepy mansion and its owner’s obsession with cannibal fish, and lawyer Clancy Marshall’s home with all the trappings of upper-middle class affluence. As Clay tries to find the killer, he observes the relationships other men have with their clueless wives, and he begins to question the viability of his relationship with Ella. Ultimately the novel isn’t just about solving the crime; it’s also about Clay coming to a realization about his own life.

Anyway, if you are a Westlake or Hard Case Crime fan, then you are in for a treat. This is pulp at its meaty best, and the novel’s timing makes it a wonderful goodbye gift from Mr. Westlake to his legion of fans.


Filed under Westlake, Donald

4 responses to “The Cutie by Donald Westlake

  1. Good review, this was very much my experience also. I enjoyed it at first, indeed much of the first half or so of the book is effective and memorable, but as we get into the final third it becomes increasingly gothic and unfortunately increasingly far-fetched. By the end, I felt I was in decidedly sub-Poe territory, in the realm of overwrritten and indeed overwrought gothic horror. The relentless awfulness of events started to become almost funny for me, which was not I think the intent. It has huge power in places, as you note, but the ending does let it down.

    Which leaves me no less keen to visit other Zola, this is an early novel after all and one does have to bear that in mind, besides which your other reviews make him a tempting writer to return to.

  2. Guy Savage

    Thanks Max: I am going to move the comment over to Therese Raquin on the wild off-chance that someone else might want to join in….

  3. I may pick this one up as my next Hard Case. My only complaint is it’s not one of their better covers, though admittedly Somebody Owes Me Money had one of the finest covers I’ve seen in ages.

  4. This month sees the release of Westlake’s LAST novel. It’s a HCC crime release. It’s called Memory.

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