Underground Reading: A (Hard) Case of the Mondays
Monday, August 29, 2011
It is hard to feel too blue on a Bank Holiday, but here are three more Hard Case Crime paperbacks guaranteed to cheer you up. Two 'cause they're cheerful and one because, well, no matter how rough your day is, this guy's is worse...
Clay, the hero of Donald Westlake's The Cutie (1960, reprinted 2009), is having a classically bad day - one that starts in the early hours of the morning. Clay's enjoying a little bit of special squashy time with his ladyfriend, Ella, when he's interrupted by a freaked out junkie, Billy-Billy. Billy-Billy has been framed for the murder of Mavis St. Paul, professional mistress. He knows he's screwed, and needs Clay to sort him out. Clay, as the right-hand man to mob boss Ed Ganolese, is sadly used to this sort of situation.
Ed, oddly, doesn't ask Clay to "clean the problem up" (that is, shoot Billy-Billy twice in the head). It turns out that the neighborhood junkie has important connections. Clay puts Billy-Billy into hiding and heads off on his own. However, Mavis St. Paul had some connections of her own. As well as a host of ex-lovers, she was currently boinking the head of the city's political machine. In a misguided attempt to avenge her murder, the grieving political chieftan has unleashed the police with instructions to take down Ed Ganolese.
Clay is at the center of the storm as Ganolese orders him to sort the situation out. The only way to get the cops to go away is to solve the murder. Clay, cold-hearted bastard and seasoned killer that he is, finds himself on the side of the angels, making him a very unlikely hero.
The book's original title was The Mercenaries, and Clay is, ostensibly, a shining example of the breed. He's well-paid and well-appointed, moving with shark-like smoothness through the city's corrupt waters. But nothing's ever that simple with Donald Westlake. Clay's a creature of deep loyalties. His connection with Ganolese is based on an emotional debt, not a monetary one. He's also loyal to Ella, who patiently applies pressure on her lover to quit his criminal life.
The combination of tricky detective work and ever-increasing tension makes The Cutie another Westlake masterpiece. The ambiguous ending leaves the reader wondering. Clay's lifestyle is unsustainable. Sooner or later, Ella or Ganolese will win his soul wholly, and until then, he's living hour by hour.
In Somebody Owes Me Money (1969, reprinted 2008), Mr. Westlake shifts gears and writes a snappy comedy. Cab driver Chet Conway loves to play the horses, and when a mysterious fare gives him a tip for a tip, Chet puts his last remaining credit down with his bookie. Purple Pecunia (sic) gallops to a win and Chet dashes to pick up his cash... only to find the bloody corpse of Tommy the Bookie.
Poor unlucky/lucky Chet. As he remarks, if he weren't so eloquent, he never would've charmed the passenger. And if he had never charmed the passenger, he never would've received the tip and wound up in such a mess. Chet's immediately accused of the murder, then let off. Then, he's promptly kidnapped by gangs - two of them - each of them convinced that Chet is working for the opposition. Finally, Tommy's sister flies to town from Vegas to avenge her brother's death.
Chet just wants his money. Even when things get heated, his motivation is perfectly clear. He has no idea what this is all about - he doesn't actually care. The gangsters and the cops and the adulterers and the Vegas vixens can all do their own thing. Leave him out of it. And, of course, give him his money.
In all fairness to Chet, the Vegas vixen (she's actually a blackjack dealer), Abigail, gives him a new motivation. Abi (like Chet/Chester, she insists on the diminutive) is determined to play private investigator and drags the mostly-unwilling Chet along for the ride. While she stirs and schemes, Chet patiently drives her from place to place, noshing on danishes, bemoaning his empty wallet and sneaking peeks at his pretty passenger. Their repartee is terrific. Abi's no sidekick or second-wheel, she's the driving (no pun intended) force of their partnership and the two develop a genuine fondness for one another that's a joy to read.
In fact, from start to finish, Somebody Owes Me Money is a pleasure. Chet's so-called "eloquence" is really a sort of blinkered chutzpah that makes him as unnaturally fearless as any hard-boiled PI. Even when the bullets start flying, Chet never really feels like he's in danger. This is all a silly mistake and if someone would just give him his money, it will all go away. My favorite scene is when Chet (recovering from a shot that grazed him) is visited, consecutively, by every major player in the book, resulting in a series of Nero Wolfe jokes. Eventually, all the mobster rivals show up at the same time to much hullaballoo. Chet can't be bothered to deal with them all, so while the rivals face off in the living room, he strolls into the kitchen and calmly makes a sandwich.
Mr. Westlake doesn't cheat on the mystery aspect either. The solution was a sneaky one, but the clues are there to make it solvable. The problem is, Chet and Abi are so engaging that they maks it hard to play detective. Still, the cheerful duo bounce from one suspect to another, eliminating possibilities and eventually concluding in a high-stakes card game with the Whoddunit (something I think Nero Wolfe would appreciate).
Kill Now, Pay Later (1960, reprinted 2007) is by Robert Terrall, who is also Robert Kyle and John Gonzales and occasionally even Brett Halliday (leading to a lovely situation where Mr. Terrall blurbed himself). Those were the golden days of pseudonyms.
The story features Ben Gates, a hulking-yet-charming PI in the mold of Richard Prather's Shell Scott. Gates loves a wise-crack, loves the ladies and loves getting himself into increasingly ridiculous situations. Gates isn't afraid of guns or a bit of the rough stuff, but lurking behind his craggy exterior is a razor sharp mind.
In Kill Now, Pay Later, Gates is working a very soft gig - hired by some rich folks to loom at a wedding and make sure that no one steals the presents. There's a bit of temptation (mostly in the form of an inebriated bridesmaid with a good eye for jewellery), but Gates stands strong. That is, until someone drugs his coffee. Much to his embarrassment, he passes out. When he wakes up, some gifts are missing and - worse yet - two people are dead. A thief named Moran snuck into the house and surprised the matron of the house while looting the safe. She dies of a heart attack, he dies of "being shot a lot and then falling over a balcony". All while Gates was dozing on the sofa. His reputation is utterly ruined, and the local police get their kicks by smearing his name in the paper.
Naturally, Gates sets out to find the real villain(s). Someone set him up, and he's extremely displeased. It isn't a straightforward process as the police are determined to push him out of the picture. Gates not only needs to stay a step ahead of them - he needs to stay out of their sight entirely. Although the larger mystery is fairly impressive, Gates' finest detective work takes place in the first half of the book, when (with a staggering hangover), he quickly slaps together the facts required to bully himself onto the case. It is ballsy, cunning and a little bit desperate - but as an example of lightning-fast deduction, Gates' work is only a half-pace behind Sherlock Holmes'.
Of course, this being a that sort of PI novel, there's plenty going on outside of the mystery. First, there's Shelley, the drunken bridesmaid (and fiancée of the rich folks' wastrel son):
"It was a demure dress, but there was nothing demure about what was inside it. The dress had been engineered to be worn with high-heels, and the shock waves set up an interesting play of movement, chiefly in an up-and-down direction, but accompanied with a slight amount of sway." (11)
There's also Hilda, the part-time maid who brought Gates the doped coffee:
"She settled on a sort of hassock, tucking one foot under her. She had fewer buttons on her shirt than I had thought at first. Even with close scrutiny, and this is a matter which I like to give close scrutiny, I could only count one." (48)
And, of course, Anna DeLong - the rich man's secretary with a mysteeeerious past:
"I stopped in the bedroom doorway. She had dropped the wrapper. She lifted her hands about her head and stretched. I believe this is known as the hard sell." (130)
As far as buxom red herrings go, Kill Now, Pay Later is a veritable fish market. But Ben Gates someone manages to soldier on, bravely interrogating all the suspects to the best of his ability. The whole thing is a bit silly, but it never steps over the line, as Mr. Terrall plays everything as a light-hearted romp rather than deep noir passion. Gates' deft juggling of the three women (two good, one bad, none ugly) is played for smiles, not leers.
Although Mr. Terrall, as demonstrated above, has a gift for the one liner, Gates still stands in the shadow of Shell Scott - probably the finest of the wise-cracking goofball detectives. Mr. Terrall also throws in enough realism to give the case a hard edge. Although Gates maintains a certain aloof, sarcastic air throughout, the atmosphere changes as the book builds. By the end, it isn't about Gates' reputation, as Kill Now, Pay Later turns into something a bit seedy and serious. It makes for a better mystery, but a less jovial story. Still, when it comes down to it, this is yet another example of Hard Case Crime bringing a lost PI great back into the light of publication.
The Cutie's cover, by Ken Laager, is a little misleading about the content, but is an excellent piece of "bad girl" cover art. Tonally, it is spot on - a little grimy, very hard. Michael Koelsch's cover for Somebody Owes Me Money also nails the book's tone - goofy, fun, quite sweet, really. The real eye-opener of the threesome is Robert McGinnis' salacious art for Kill Now, Pay Later. I don't think there are any redheads in the book's cast of characters, but, frankly, I don't care. In a nifty turn of events, Mr. McGinnis also did the cover for the book's original printing (as shown above).