Hard Case Crime 3/09: The Cutie by Donald E. Westlake (#53)

The Cutie (AKA The Mercenaries) by Donald Westlake


Mavis St. Paul had been a rich man’s mistress. Now she was a corpse. And every cop in New York City was hunting for the two-bit punk accused of putting a knife in her.

But the punk was innocent. He’d been set up to take the fall by some cutie who was too clever by half. My job? Find that cutie–before the cutie found me.

Our narrator is Clay, a smart, educated fellow who entered into organized crime through a series of odd events, but once there, found that he liked it and was good at it–in fact, he’s risen to be the right-hand man of crime boss Ed Ganolese.

As the novel begins, Clay’s life is about to get very complicated. He’s got a junkie to protect, a murder to solve, his own fat to keep out of the fire, and perhaps worst of all, girl problems. And no one will let him get any damn sleep.

The Cutie, originally published as The Mercenaries, is Donald Westlake’s first published novel, and it gets his long and great career off to a rip-roaring pulp-fiction start. Many of the touchstones of Westlake’s career seem to have emerged fully-formed–great plot twists, betrayals, engaging characters, and a touch of the philosophical.

Perhaps most interesting to Parker fans, Westlake’s first time out he creates a world where the morality is dubious when there’s any morality at all. While The Cutie is a great read, lots of people had written crime novels that were similar in tone and characters. Westlake’s stroke of genius was paring back the prose and amping up the amorality when it was time for The Hunter a mere two years later. Clay rationalizes his actions; Parker doesn’t care. In Clay’s universe, there is at least one person, Ella, who seems to have a good heart; in Parker’s universe, there generally aren’t any.

The Cutie is recommended for anyone who likes a good crime novel, but is highly recommended to Parker fans who would like a glimpse into the origins of Parker’s universe.

Trivia: The Cutie mentions A Sound of Distant Drums. This is a title used in several Westlake and Lawrence Block novels (and some by others), usually as a fictional film. In The Cutie, it’s a Broadway play produced by Cy Grildquist, who was at one time involved with the murdered woman.

“You know anybody named Cy Grildquist?”

“Sure,” he said. “He’s got a play on Broadway right now. A Sound of Distant Drums. A good money-maker.”

“I’m glad to hear it. I’m always happy to see the arts prosper.”