11 April 2009

Mercenary territory

HCC-053, Hard Case's March release, is The Cutie by the late Donald E. Westlake. This was his first novel, originally published in 1960 as The Mercenaries. Hard Case is known for its covers, and this one--by Ken Laager--features a dangerous-looking redhead in a cocktail dress and heels loading a revolver while standing in front of a briefcase full of cash. Great cover, very much in the style and tone of the series, but having absolutely nothing to do with the story. There's no sexy gun moll, no femme fatale, no dangerous dame. There's no big wad of cash either, and the only important weapons are a knife and a .45 automatic. There's just another great Westlake story, this one about an organization man, a hard, smart, smooth lieutenant to an NYC crime boss, who finds his life turned upside down when a junky named Billy-Billy shows up on his doorstep. What consistently amazes me about D.E.W. is his consistent excellence. You are almost never disappointed by his novels and that's the case whether you like the hard-boiled or the humorous ones. He was an amazing talent, something the Hard Case folks know, as they've re-printed four of them (one as Richard Stark). I understand the desire to have cool covers, and much of the reason I collect the books is so I can eventually display the cover art. But this time the incongruity between the art and the story is so great it caused me irritation and clouded my read-through of the book. In the story, a "cutie" is organization slang for an adversary, one who has upset the carefully ordered world and bosses and workers, someone who will be getting their comeuppance soon. There are dancers, showgirls, hookers, and hot chicks aplenty in Westlake's world of The Mercenaries. None but the bad guy are called "cutie." But once the cover goes up on the shelf I'm sure I'll forget my annoyance and enjoy its lurid pulp appeal. After all, you can't judge a book by its cover.

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