cbr11bingo – Reader’s Choice, replacing “Two Heads Are Better than One.”
Donald Westlake has one of those “writer’s writer” reputations, so I’ve always meant to check out his work. This is one of his earliest novels, originally published under the title “The Mercenaries” and re-issued by Hard Case Crime. The main character and narrator is George “Clay” Clayton, right-hand man for crime boss Ed Ganolese. As Clay and his live-in girlfriend are settling in to bed one night, they are disturbed by a knock on the door. On the other side is small-time drug dealer and stutterer Billy-Billy Cantell, who says he’s been set up for murder. He woke up in a strange place with a dead woman on the floor, stabbed to death with a knife. He just made it out ahead of the cops. And now he’s asking Clay for help. And that means Clay is in a jam.
For reasons not entirely clear to Clay his boss believes Billy-Billy and wants him protected at all costs. To do so Clay will have to figure out who the dead girl was, why someone wanted her dead, and why on earth they took the trouble to set up a nobody like Billy-Billy.
The Cutie functions perfectly as a guided tour of the criminal underworld, as Clay navigates a community of drug dealers, pimps, union bosses, and crooked cops while dodging suspicion himself. Though he’s no detective, he does alright, figuring out how to investigate as he goes along. Though the mystery isn’t really the point, Westlake does come up with a satisfactorily surprising conclusion, with an ironic twist thrown in for good measure.