The prodigious crime fiction writer Donald Westlake (1933-2008) has been a featured author of the Hard Case Crime imprint, with eight published titles to date. The Hard Case Crime brand has so far been an indicator of entertaining books, and Westlake’s reputation has seemed to have grown with time. This list summarizes my impressions of three Westlake books published in this series.
The Cutie (1960) might appear to be another for-the-paycheck mystery novel at first, but it features a main sleuth character that grows more interesting as the story progresses. George “Clay” Clayton is a high-ranking associate of the local gangsters, having joined the crew after the family head helped him escape culpability from a fatal car accident. A general problem-solver and occasional enforcer, Clay has the ability to remove his emotions from his often unpleasant activities.
Clay’s present unpleasant task arrives at his door when an syndicate heroin dealer comes seeking cover from the police, insisting that he was framed for murder. Clay must track down the true killer by gathering the pieces of the murder victim’s life. As the mysterious killer – the “cutie” of this book’s odd title – tries to cover his tracks, Clay becomes a target himself as we tries to save the organization. His introspective nature and role as the unwilling detective makes this novel a more interesting read than what I had first expected.
Clay also struggles to maintain his relationship with his girlfriend Ella, which strains under his workload, his status outside the law, and his reluctance to share the truth about exactly what he does for his boss. Ella is a solid character with her own motivations, not merely a sounding board for Clay’s speeches, and (along with a lone honest policeman) represent the larger “straight” world that doesn’t buy Clay’s act or his excuses. Laager’s cover is an example of the cover art not being accurate of the book’s contents, but if this does not bother you (it shouldn’t – it’s a tribute to the specific but misleading covers of the past), The Cutie is a recommended read. 7/10.
The Comedy is Finished (2012) is a first-time publication of a long-unpublished manuscript, believed to be written sometime in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s. It tells the story of the kidnapping of a past-it comedian by perhaps the last remaining group of hippie-radicals. The Bob Hope-inspired comedian, Koo Davis, maintained a long career in television and movies by remaining politically neutral, but often went overseas to entertain deployed military. Also like Bob Hope, Davis had relationships with multiple women at the same time, being formally married to one but quietly sending the other money. Again like Bob Hope, Davis’ brand of comedy is the constant delivery of one-liners and self-deprecating jokes. So clearly the plot of this book is “Bob Hope gets kidnapped by the Weather Underground” which sounds rather hokey-jokey, but TCiF holds deeper themes and interesting characters. Davis realizes that he’s nearing the end of his life, and tries to piece together enough meaningful moments from his past to face his fate. It’s as if one of Bob Hope’s dramatic roles turned out to be surprisingly effective, in a good movie filmed in 1977.
TCiF is a longer book, and contains room for us to get to know the motley cast of radicals. There’s the cagey but disorganized leader, the intellectual, the scary intimidator, the unbalanced hippie who walks around naked (thereby making the Manchess cover art), and the docile house-minder named Joyce. Together they form a kind of desperate group in search of a sign that their revolution isn’t over, but it’s obvious from the start that their day is somewhere in the past, now that the Vietnam War is over. Their flawed seriousness is thrown into a pitched battle against Davis’ wisecracks, as the FBI attempts to close in on them. The lead investigator, in his attempt to resuscitate his own reputation by capturing Davis alive, provides an interesting and needed perspective from beyond the confines of the circle of radicals. TCiF was a one of strongest, and most unique, entries in the HCC series. 8/10.
361 (1962) is a fast-paced tale of revenge and corruption written early in Westlake’s career. It features the tribulations of Ray Kelly, who, on his first day out of the Air Force in New York City:
- sees his father shot to death
- gets severely injured in a car wreck, breaking several bones
- loses an eye in the ordeal
Ray was actually on his way to Binghamton, and when he finally arrives he discovers that his brother Bill recently lost his wife in another car wreck, and has descended into a depression-fueled drinking binge.
Ray and Bill soon find the resolve to return to New York and track down the gangsters behind the killings – using Bill’s savings and Ray’s dogged will. They face very long odds at surviving, let alone succeeding in this mission, but are aided by a few lucky breaks and Ray’s aggression. Ray evolves from an unassuming person to a cagey near-savage with an abruptness that reminded me of Call of the Wild – but Westlake had a gangster war to fit in, as well.
Ray gets his chance at revenge, when he discovers a familial link with an old capo whose jail sentence has just ended. This is involves him being knowingly manipulated, and shuttling between the big city and small towns in upstate New York. In all, 361 is an attempt to describe a story too large for its size, especially as the main character has to learn the world of the gangsters along with the reader (in The Cutie, we had the benefit of the character’s perspective to give exposition when needed). Still it’s an interesting character study and battle against fate. 6/10.
I’m still working with a small sample size, but early Westlake books compare favorably to early Block books (which I opine about here and here): the problem-solving main characters are more desperate and myopic in 361 and The Cutie, and less aware of future plot developments than the more plotting (and frankly, author-like) protagonists of Lucky at Cards and Grifter’s Game. This makes them less in control, and more interesting – at least in case of these early one-off novels.
The Comedy is Finished had the length that gave enough room for both a multi-stage plot and a cast of changing characters, with plenty of action and humor besides. Hopefully, it is just the first example of what Westlake could do with a larger novel, and I’m optimistic about the other titles of his that remain in the HCC catalog.