Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Three Hard Cases

I recently read three books from Hard Case Crime, and decided I might as well consider them all together:

The Cutie by Donald E. Westlake

This is a very early Westlake novel -- from 1960, making it the first Westlake book to be published under his own name, rather than being a soft-corn porn book written pseudononymously -- that was originally, and through most of its reprintings, called The Mercenaries. It's not a novel about mercenaries, though, so I can see how that title may have annoyed Westlake over the years.

Clay -- just Clay, though his full legal name does come up later in the novel -- is a fixer for mob boss Ed Ganolese in New York, which is usually a pretty cushy job. But, very late one night, a junkie and low-level drug dealer called Billy-Billy Cantrell (he stutters) shows up on Clay's doorstep with a tale of woe. Someone doped Billy-Billy -- not difficult -- and left him in an apartment with a dead woman, from which he managed to flee just ahead of the arriving police. It was obvious a set-up, since the cops already "know" it was Billy-Bill and are looking for him -- they arrive at Clay's apartment not much later.

Normally, Clay would just turn Billy-Billy over to the cops -- or make him "disappear" -- but there are extenuating circumstances, so the junkie must be kept safe, and Clay needs to find the "cutie" who set up the frame. Through some suitably noirish proceedings, he does -- but Westlake has a great ending for Clay's story, right up to the last line.

The Cutie is Westlake in what would later be the mode of his alter ego, Richard Stark -- tough and no-nonsense, full of sudden death and nasty customers -- rather than the kind of books Westlake wrote under his own name (most of the time) later in his career. But it's still recognizably a Westlake book, and it's quite accomplished for a first novel and what was a cheap paperback original fifty years ago.

Killing Castro by Lawrence Block

And this is another early book by a later Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster, though a more obscure one -- I'd hadn't even heard of it before Hard Case announced plans to reprint it. It was originally published in 1961 -- two years after the revolution, the same year as the Bay of Pigs "invasion," and a year before the missile crisis -- under a pen name that Block never used before or since. (The details: Monarch published Fidel Castro Assassinated by "Lee Duncan.") It's pretty clear that Killing Castro was a quickie, knocked out at speed to hit a news cycle, but it's a solid thriller, even if it feels slightly alternate-historical at this remove.

A group of Cuban revolutionaries -- no, not the Marxist Castro revolutionaries, revolutionaries against Castro, and likely somewhat to his right, though that's not what anyone cares about -- gathers five American men and brings them to Cuba to take part in an assassination attempt on Castro, whose rule is still fairly new and (the revolutionaries fervently hope) shaky.

The five men are all very different, with serviceable but off-the-rack motivations, and they don't entirely get along with each other. They also, in best Gardner Fox fashion, soon break up to work on different assassination attempts separately, with no coordination. (One begins to suspect that these revolutionaries are not the most organized possible, nor that their likelihood of success is high.) There are assassination attempts, as there must be in a novel like this, but Block was enough of a pro (even then) to give himself ways out.

Interestingly, Killing Castro has almost precisely the same kind of ending as The Cutie, which I don't want to describe further than that. (You might read one or the other book, after all, and, as it is, I might just have "spoiled" the one you didn't read yet.) I think this is probably just a typical paperback thriller ending, particularly since criminals weren't supposed to get particularly happy endings in the fiction of the early '60s.

Killing Castro isn't quite as successful as The Cutie, and it's harder to see the mature Block in it than it is to see the mature Westlake in The Cutie. But it's cleanly written and sharply plotted, and even a reader who knows that Castro wasn't assassinated in 1961 will find himself wrapped up in the story.

The Dead Man's Brother by Roger Zelazny

Dead Man's Brother is also an old novel unearthed, but -- unlike the two books above -- it was never published the first time around, nor is it from a writer known for his thrillers. Zelazny probably wrote this in the early '70s -- an afterword from his son Trent pegs 1970 as the earliest it could be written, and, from the style and background of the story, I don't believe it was conceived much later than that -- and aparrently sent to his agent at some point. For whatever reason, it was never published, and it was forgotten until last year, more than a decade after Zelazny's death in 1995.

It's an international thriller, in which Ovid Wiley, art smuggler gone straight as a dealer, is caught up in murder and intrigue after he finds the body of his old partner in his New York gallery the morning after a party. The NYPD assumes he killed Carl Bernini, mostly because (in that old-fashioned NYPD way) assuming anything else would be more work, and Wiley will make a perfectly good person to send away for the crime. But then the CIA jumps in, and sends Wiley off to investigate a priest who embezzled three million dollars from the Vatican and then disappeared -- because Wiley is incredibly lucky, and they thus think he can make headway that they couldn't.

Dead Man's Brother goes on like that, with a sequence of thriller-novel plot points that seem to make sense at the time, but don't actually add up to form a coherent world. Once things start cross-connecting, it gets even more odd -- it's always easy to follow, but it doesn't consistently make sense.

In fact, Dead Man's Brother reads in places like the first draft it probably was; Zelazny also has Wiley and the narrative voice alike avoid contractions for no obvious reason, which subtly wrong-foots the supposedly zippy and tension-filled story, and he also makes Wiley prone to ruminate at length about various things without integrating those ruminations well. This book really does read like a try-out for a potential series, with a lot of things thrown in to see if they work (or fit) and an expectation that a further draft later would give the book better organization and focus.

All that is true, but still: Dead Man's Brother is a new Roger Zelazny novel, more than ten years after we had any hope of one. His distinctive voice is muffled here -- as he works in an idiom we didn't expect, and also taking into account early-draft issues -- but it is still Zelazny's voice. Any fan of his work will want to get and read Dead Man's Brother.

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