The Cutie – Donald E. Westlake

3 out of 5


Westlake, man. Westlake can write a 250 page book in which nothing much actually happens and still make it a page turner; and still inject sudden and surprising notes of pathos. ‘The Cutie’ – a guy tries to point the finger at syndicate member Clay for a murder; Clay, besides proving his innocence, is tasked by his boss to find this finger pointing “cutie” – may ultimately be an average book, leaving a lot of its bits and pieces on the table, but that’s also what’s so impressive about it: that it’s average, somewhat cookie-cutter sleuthing has this immersive quality to it, and injects little drops of insight that build up to a fantastically ominous final few pages. Elsewhere, Clay is an interesting but odd choice for a lead, as he’s mostly a problem solver for mob guy Ed Ganolese, keeping his life of clean-ups and rough-ups and occasional killings as separate as possible from his air-conditioned, elevator-building apartment and whip-smart, live-in girlfriend Ella, and yet Clay is put on the trail of this cutie, and thus finds himself doing the beat detective thing that he tells his boss he’s not good at, but ends up doing a pretty fine job of it. That is the mash-up at the core of the book: Clay is a heavy who’d probably be a side-character, and who doesn’t seem to have a huge emotional arc or the smarts to carry a story, but here he is, front-and-center. And at moments, when he realizes that maybe he’d like Ella to stick around – when he has to self-justify his dedication to Ed – we see depth to this character, but it doesn’t really hit home until those last pages. Action is indirect: murder occurs, chases occur, Clay is tossed in jail; it’s all after-the-fact, though, or accepted with calm; Clay’s nerves are on edge as he’s sleepless for the first few chapters… until he’s not, and he gets his rest and continues on his way. This almost avoidance of tropes and more typical tough-talking and gun-slinging interplay is fascinating, structurally, though being in the weeds with it means that we dodge out of some more intriguing angles of the story, firstly in favor of keeping things moving, but also, perhaps, to punch up that ending. And I’ve already made note of that several times, but as I was reading The Cutie, and thoroughly enjoying its somewhat humdrum pace, and the way Westlake keeps the mystery churning, even sans direct clues, once I got to that last chapter, it hit hard, and the book suddenly felt like a brilliant, misdirecting bit of pulp. …But, I do think that should be considered with the 245ish preceding pages, hence the average rating.

Still, it’s Westlake. You should read it anyway.