Westlake Passes On, Is Still The Stark Kraven Krime Best!
Keep It On "The Cutie"
The Keeper of the Pit
Some months ago the mystery world saw the passing of Donald E. Westlake. Gat, I SAID cat was one tough guy at the typewriter, could slam ya down to the killing floor with his tales of hitmen who never knew from deadpanic. Stories of the sordid sorta guy who could walk after a day of mayhem into his bedroom, find his best gal dead in his bed and without thinking or blinking know in which part of Joisey to Parker.
Or the Don could put ya on the killing joke floor with crime caper comedies, be it with that Fugitive Pigeon driving every one of said book's characters cuckoo, or with his novel wherein a batcha mob boys come up against a wandering corpse intent on giving them coffin fits. With hardcase comedy laid out flat from funeral fun, AND with bang gang slammers so straight it was criminal, the man has left us one wonderful and Busy Body of work. Westlake could take a tense with suspense situation and turn it upside the hard-boiled head down, gunmoll with that straight face and a panther-fast pace. Characters in Westlake didn't much get a chance to make with the funnies themselves, be they smooth-shootin' upright even in their wrong end of the law, or living in a piece worth parodying for. They were too occupied dodging bullets on some Damsel-through plan, as if only the man in the Big House in the Sky knew howlin' hilarious it all was. Even as He slippedcha a cosMickey Finnish.
For an example of the straightforward bad-ass thriller type of Westlake, Schlock out, that is, check out any of the man's Parker books, as written by Richard Stark. Stark was a role model for Stephen King way Bach, man. KAPOW a days all ya need is to Google the entire series, no ex-con-cuses that ya need a used book dealer to "Hunter" down, The Hunter being the very first of some of crimedom's nastiest con-tinuing character novels, to the very slayfest.
For a fine fun collection of Westlake's shorter cosmickilly comic material, seek out his The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution. In fact, that story is what witch turned the ole Keep onto Westlake many a full moon and a slays back, I believe in an old Dell Hitchcock anthology. For a case hysterical of what can ghoul wrong after a murder's committed, leading up to the narrator being CON-mitted, you can't do better. Wotta wicked writer the man was. He had it all, and all ways told it in point blank prose. Humor sideways. Violence dead-on. Narrator hitmen in the murderous muddle. Dialogue slipp'ry as a cold snap that makes yer spring come way tomb late.
As old Westlake fans know, such curious and furious facts are old noose. The ghouled noose is that Hard Case Crime, arguably the best new paperback line since the early DAW Books, has just released 1960's The Cutie, the first novel Westlake published under his own name. Thing's AKA The Mercenaries. Somewhere in crime time it screams, uh, seamy stockings, I mean seems to lick thighs, dammit, likewise been known as The Smashers. Udder way, one look at the gal on the current version's Ken Laager cover and ya nude, I demean know yer in fur a good time. Okay, so she's got this lil firearm steada a kill-off caliber Thompson, and hokay she's not undressed in a bikini. Wet her that Cramps her style or naughty, ya just know she's one "Cutie" with a double-barreled deLux Interior...
Ah, butt the, ahem, trick of Hard Case Crime covers often is: some of us guys buy their books, then because of the hot pistol packing mammar, that is, mama on the, er, front, we gotta churn aROWLnd and rebuy the drool thing! Thigh, I mean, why? Cuz our first copy's cover's already been eaten. By mouths!
Naughty witch standing, the gal on our cover in question is rather a Hard Case X-ception. Yeah, yeah, the bad babe blurb sez "There are many ways to sell yourself." And yeah, fur shear,
the deceased damsel in the story does indead sell herself, butt not in any professional way. There's this reason the book was called The Mercenaries, and even though our comely corpse had a thing fur the all nightie buck, she wasn't just some dime broad.
Thing is, the "Cutie" in question isn't the woman on cover or under covers. The "Cutie" is actually what the mob guys involved call the person who set them up to knock 'em down. Story's told by "Clay," a hired gun for the New York City crime czar. Clay arranges "accidents." Keeps people in line even when the boss sez it means their dyin'. Clay's good at hit. Job's got him a Mercedes-Benz to go with his young insurance agent outta college image. And the babes seem to find him quite preem-i-yummy.
Weather or not Westlake toned some items up or down for republication, The Cutie has a nice feel for the city of its day. Even the time set gets ya, since it's August and miserable in the metropolis of the world, the kinda weather that can get even a normal insurance type all seven year itchy. Ya gotta love the start of Chapter Two: "Outside was the city, and it had halitosis. The air was hot and damp, and breathing was a conscious matter." The reader just knows something's gonna break and bust soon, and Clay will have to be the boy to pick up the pieces, even as he looks over his sweat-soaked shoulders for Johnny Law wanting to give him his own personal police-y. And it's making him all sorts of Bronx cheerful.
Here's the set-up to get up and go shootin': 2 A.M. in August heat. Clay and his gal Ella are lying abedded down and about to get UP. The doorbell rings. It's Billy-Billy, a small timer Clay knows. Guy wants in because he needs help as in, as Clay sez unlayed her, "with a capital H." Billy-Billy gets his name from being a hapless stutterer. Rather like yer reekviewer here, who has been known to rePit himself.
Seems BB's visit isa matter of life and death, er, dealing. No wonder Billy-Billy has the willie-willies. Last he knew he'd hopped the H.-bound train out on the street, then he must have nodded off derails. Comes down and to in an apartment he's never seen before, and the only udder occupant is a dead woman, her throat all blood and ragged. Billy-Billy may not be a mystery fan, althoughwhodunnit knows? But I'd butcher he knows that even if the dead dame was once a knife girl, she won't be shopping for necklaces anygore. Unless they're cut-rate and prices are slashed.
But hey, did I say slayback when that most of Westlake's mobboys don't have much of a scents of humus? Clay does, scumtimes. Like when he has to deal with police person Grimes, which is soon. B-B's scares-ly told Clay his sad whacked out story than there's this knock at the door, and the cops are behind it. Their lad Grimes of crimes gives Clay the grilling but good. Seems a tip-off's led them to Clay, who has by now hidden B-B behind the bar in his den. Looks like Clay's own name will soon be mud, and he too will be ducking Billy-Billy clubs from behind bars. Not that he doesn't give Grimes comic re-grief through-out the book. When told B-B perp a' non-straighted the murder, Clay tells Grimes " Billy-Billy doesn't have the strength to kill time." Up to you reading it to learn if Grimes up and clocks him.
Soon after in chapter one we learn Clay has a history with Grimes. You'll love Clay's theory on the four types of cops: fanatic, honest-but-reasonable, bought and rented. Grimes, he sez, is of the second type, who are rugged when they've got something on you. Which means, insurance guy look on Clay or not, Grimes would dearly love to send him to the All-State pen.
Pen or no pen, even Clay hasn't an inkling B-B's already abscroundreled from the cops and H.eaded out for parts unknown. Grimes and his gang leave, and Clay and Ella show signs of wondering if their relationship will last. The old tough-guy who can't retire number...how can any one woman "stick" with a mobman whose job is to BANG! any holed body?
The plot in a rifle shell? Billy-B. is a personal favorite of a man he befriended back in the war. Man became head of the European arm of the mob. Here with U.S., Clay's boss runs the Big O in the city they named twice that ain't always so nice. Big boss from abroad doesn't want B-B nailed for the girl's demise, and no one goes against the big boss when Organization orders are on his say-Mafioso.
So it's up to Clay to find Billy, who could be hiding in any of the city's junkie Burroughs. Plus he has to find and put down the killer of one Mavis St. Paul, who's been aROWLnd town awhile as an ass fur sinnin', I SAID "aspiring" actress. Trail leads from old roomies to ex-lovers of various degrees of show biz savvy. Too bad all Mavis ever got to see of the stage was curtains.
The book's a nice lil piece of its crimes and times. A club Clay checks out seems to favor comedians imitating Mort Sahl and Orson Bean. Okay, the Keep's bean abutter, uh, been about some years of leers and jeers, but such references to other modern readers may not stand up. Oh well, Clay seems well-informed, might even be inclined to tell that ya mention of his time's con-temporary satirists, by 2009, might take a-Bruce-ing.
Book also has some nice observations by Clay upon the day's cars, about which he has a few tails. Not that that's a STOP sign he's gonna face all scummers' fists AND bullets and not successfully DODGE e'm. Man's determined to take things to a high-octane FIN-ish. And spooking of rear enders, you'll love when Clay and the gang have to dispose of a body, so they take it on a last ride out to the Joisey boonies, dump the corpus delect-died and strap broom-like gadgets to the back'a the car. Whereupon they drive away and their tracks are no more and much less gore. Hey, Clay never said working for the Organization wasn't whisk-y!
The Cutie is Hard Case's fourth Westlake. The earlier ones include Somebody Owes Me Money, one of the man's more humorous books, the story of a cabby cheated of his money by various and scumdry criminal types. Anybody who has ever read Westlake but not Owes Me should enjoy it most fare-ly. And boy does our hero the cabby give the bad guys holy hail!
The other HCC Westlakes? There's 361, one of the Don's straighter crime numbers. Lad returning from the service is picked up by his pop. Dad's driving them along, they're minding their own business and blam!, along scums a car weapons blazing at 'em. Dad dies, and by Jesus Chrysler the son has to track down the killers and the reason they made his homecoming such a gundowner. Then there's Lemons Never Lie, starring Grofield, Parker's old cold-cashgrab cohort . Grofield and some new partners in crime attempt to rob a brewery of its payroll. The heist quickly hops heads south, meadless tomb slay. Old Parker readers would certainly say Parker would think his old bud wiser...
So, new to Westlake or not, many's the crime fiction reader should get a slam bang out of The Cutie. Heck, it's even book-ended. Opens with the doorbell ringing, ends with same bell ringing again outside Clay's door. And no, I won't tell ya if his galfriend, whom he now wants to marry, does or doesn't when asked tell Clay to go to Ella. Won't even say if that bell con-seals an ending that will have you raisin' James M. Cain. If I did, ya might send some rat-a-tat prose to riddle me with a friggin' Thompson...
Instead, lemme redhot recommend The Cutie, and it's solution as to who he or she is, and by the time Clay got through, was. Heck, I'll even endorse Westlake's sky-fi stories, like "The Question"able one he did with Laurence M. Jan-ifer of "Bloodworld." Or "Murder In Space," where, being Westlake, the man proves no matter the crime, time or space, homicide is ALWAYS galax-seedy.
Murder of fact, and as the closer, I'll even mention some Westlake on film to check out. Man's been done by directors as die-versed as Peter Yates and John Boorman. For professional violence ala Parker, watch PAYBACK, then grab Boorman's POINT BLANK...featuring an oily Sid Haig!.. starring Lee Marvin, and sit yerself right up close to the Blew-away-ray. For crime capers to comedie for, try maybe the one with Robert Redford, you might even laugh yer HOT ROCK's off. (I suggested the movie version of THE BUSY BODY to Clay's cop pal Grimes once, and he had me subjected to a strip search and Sid Caesar!)