It’s 1960. You walk into a bookstore–or perhaps a drugstore. There on the revolving rack, you see the above cover (the image of which I filched from ebay, sue me). You are probably going to think it’s a book about soldiers of fortune. Which in a way it is. You are not going to recognize the rather distinctive-sounding name of the author, so prominently featured on the spine, as if he were already an established player–though you may have noticed before now that Random House’s mystery division does this for many other writers you’ve never heard of, perhaps as a way of making potential book-buyers think they’re missing out on the Next Big Thing. This particular Next Big Thing, until just now, has never published a novel under his own name, but he’s lucked into a contract with the dominant publisher of that time (and this)–and a hardcover contract to boot–a break for which any aspiring writer would gladly give his or her right arm for, if he or she didn’t need it to type with. Nothing like starting at the top, though it is a long way down from there.
Though you won’t likely be aware of this, Mr. Westlake has previously published quite a large number of (shall we say) erotic novels for rather more disreputable houses under various other names, which you might likewise have found at the drugstore, or perhaps some other kind of store. He’s also published a fair few short stories of differing quality and genres in magazines–some science fiction, some crime fiction, some detective stuff, police procedurals, etc. But now he seems to have made a choice. For better or for worse, he’s going to be a guy who mainly writes about crime—and more often than not, from the perspective of criminals. Though hardly run-of-the-mill criminals. Criminals like none the literary world has ever seen before.
It’s a mob book–organized crime. Quite popular at the time, though not as popular as it’s going to be once this guy named Mario Puzo gets involved later on. Westlake doesn’t know a damned thing about organized crime (in 1960, not many do). Detailed knowledge of the Mafia’s inner workings isn’t required for this job–it might even get in the way. He does know something about people–and about choices. And he’s going to use the mob and its mercenary ‘soldiers’ as a way to tell a story about a young man who has to make some unpleasant choices he’d have just as soon not have had to make. Though as we learn, he had already made a conclusive (and perhaps fatal) choice years earlier, that is coming back to bite him on the ass now.
The protagonist/narrator of this story is named Clay–get it?. His original name was George Clayton, but now he’s just common Clay–and he’s been molded into (as he puts it) a ‘governess’–somebody who handles family-related problems for crime boss Ed Ganolese–makes sure that members of Ed’s large and complicated organization don’t do anything to cause problems for Ed, or if they do, to make the problems go away. And sometimes make the people who cause the problems go away as well.
Clay was drifting before he joined up with Ed’s outfit–got out of a brief stint in the military with no purpose in life, studied at a little known upstate NY college a few years (this is all ripped from the author’s own life, as you might possibly gather from the author bio on the dust jacket).
Then he got into an accident–ran over a waitress crossing a mountain road, while out on a joyride in a stolen car with a friend–who went through the windshield, leaving Clay as the only survivor. These mob guys, one of whom was Ganolese, happened by, and got him off the hook, expertly wiping his prints from the car, and giving him a ride home. Clay took their friendly advice to lie through his teeth to the cops, who knew he was lying, but couldn’t prove it. He tried to go back to his life, such as it was, but he found out everybody at the college also thought he was lying. Even his own father didn’t believe him, and though he knew he really was guilty of killing that woman, Clay resented the world at large for unfairly assuming he was a liar when he might have been telling the truth, like all those unjustly accused heroes in the Hitchcock movies.
Feeling like the ‘straight’ world had nothing to offer him (this is back before ‘straight’ meant that you liked girls), Clay went up to Ed the next time he saw him, and asked for a job. Ed asked him what he could do. He replied “Anything you tell me to do.” He turned out to be an untapped talent; hard-working, smart, resourceful, and tough as nails. He enjoyed all the perks of being a mob boss’s good right hand–money, women, nice clothes, a really nice car (Mercedes-Benz 190SL), flexible hours. He says he looks like a Madison Ave. junior executive type, and he does actually come across as the Mafia’s answer to Don Draper of Mad Men (I cast a 30-something Jon Hamm in the movie adaptation going on in my head, about one chapter in). So because of a tragic mistake, this previously unshaped Clay had found the role he was born to play, the life he was meant to lead. Or had he?
The story is told from Clay’s perspective, in the ever-reliable first person mode (that limits perspective, and narrows the focus). Who is he telling this story to? Don’t ask stupid questions.
As the story begins, he’s in bed with his very recently-acquired girlfriend Ella, a predictably voluptuous raven-haired goddess–not-quite-so-predictably sympathetic and understanding and decent and basically every man’s fantasy of a schoolmarm in the body of a showgirl–not too well fleshed out as a character, though the physical description sure dwells heavily on her flesh. Okay, you think, standing there in the drugstore, perhaps mildly aroused–this Westlake likes girls. A lot.
The doorbell rings. It’s a stuttering halfwit named Billy Billy Cantell–an associate of Clay’s, sort of. A pusher who works for the Ganolese syndicate. He’s desperate. The law is after him. He’s been framed for killing a woman named Mavis St. Paul–a crime Clay knows this born patsy is constitutionally and even physically incapable of. Clay figures maybe Ed will want Billy Billy bumped just so the cops will stop investigating, but Ed says the guy has connections, and they have to try and get him off. Clay is the trouble shooter in the organization, so it’s his job to find out who set Billy Billy up–and then deliver that ‘cutie’ to Ed for punishment.
You won’t know this back in 1960, standing there in the drugstore (remember the drugstore?), but the novel you’re holding was originally called The Cutie–referring to the murderer Clay is looking for, whose actions precipitate the events of the narrative. Random House decided that title wouldn’t do, hence The Mercenaries, which refers to nearly everybody in the book, and particularly its protagonist. Many many years later, it will be republished in paperback under the original title–with cover art featuring a curvy redhead in a little black dress, loading a revolver, and looking suspiciously like the actress Marg Helgenberger, who I’m guessing was not compensated for the uncredited use of her likeness, but that’s an old trick with crime paperbacks. There are no redheads, with or without firearms, in the novel. The cutie referred to in the title is not a woman. It’s misleading, but what the hell. Thank you for the affordable reprint, Hard Case Crime.
So anyhow, Clay, the jack of all trades, gets a new one. Detective. He doesn’t like it. He’s not comfortable in this role he’s been pushed into, though he learns it fast–has to, because the titular cutie is out to kill him as well, before he can solve the mystery. The irony that he is out to prove the innocence of a guy who actually was framed for killing a woman does not seem to occur to him. He’s got to go talk to a bunch of people who knew the woman who got killed–some of whom are also going to die, as the killer tries to cover his tracks. He’s going to learn a lot about this woman, who was herself something of a mercenary–an aspiring actress/singer, who attached herself to various men in an attempt to further her career. It’s a bit reminiscent of Laura–but only a bit. For one thing, this girl isn’t very sympathetic, and for another she’s very definitely dead. Reading about Clay’s various interviews with people in the entertainment world of New York City, you might guess Westlake has some knowledge of that world, and perhaps somewhat ambivalent feelings about it. You glance back at the author bio again, and what do you know–he did a stint in summer stock. The bio won’t mention that he married an actress, or how that marriage turned out, but you don’t really need to know that.
So it’s a detective novel, which is what Random House’s mystery division typically publishes–but the detective in question is 1)A crook and 2)Not interested in a permanent career change. He’s Ed’s ‘Good Right Hand’, his errand boy, and this is just the errand he’s running right now. Ella tells Clay he could be his own boy instead of Ed’s, but he’s steadfastly loyal to his employer–not so much a personal loyalty, though. He’s loyal to the organization. He doesn’t want to be his own boy. Too much responsibility. He will do what he’s told, always. If he’s told to kill, he kills–without emotion. Clay is very emphatic about this–emotion is a bad thing to bring into your work. He tells us he just switches it off when it gets in the way of doing what has to be done–it’s very zen, in a sense–like the samurai ethos. If you kill someone without emotion, because your rightful lord commands it, you’re not really a murderer. You’re no more guilty than the sword you swing, or the gun you shoot. And no more the master of your own fate, but Clay says he’s fine with that. He says it maybe a few times too often to be fully convincing.
And his argument, which is not without its merits, is that everybody is like him–the syndicate is just a business–when Ella protests that there are legal businesses, he responds thusly–
“Sure there are–and they operate the same way we do. They fight and claw for the customer’s dollar. They do their damnedest to get rid of the competition. They try to produce something the consumer is going to buy. Within their organization, if somebody isn’t producing, they fire him. And you know when they do most of their firing? At Christmastime, if you want to talk about morality. They fire at Christmastime, because January is a bad month for business. When we fire somebody, we do it permanently, that’s the only difference. We do it permanently because we can’t afford to have somebody outside the organization who knows too much about organization matters. And don’t tell me the big corporations don’t wish they could fire permanently too, rather than see their ex-employees going over to the competition to spread the word on what Amalgamated Incorporated is planning to do next year.”
He makes a lot of angry self-defensive speeches like this in the course of the book, to Ella, to the cops, to the reader–basically to anybody who’ll listen. Who is he trying to persuade here? Everything he says is true as far as it goes, but is it a good argument for sticking with an organization whose employees may literally get the axe? Clay is exceptionally smart and self-aware, but he’s also portrayed to us as selectively blind to the full significance of his own pronouncements. He’s a stranger to himself.
And so, it seems, are many other people in the narrative–nobody is quite what he or she seems to be, except maybe Ella and this one honest cop named Grimes who dislikes Clay because he’s “a penny-ante crook with half an education, half a conscience, and half a mind.” Clay responds to this observation with one of his “Everybody’s a crook” speeches–he knows full well a lot of policeman are crooks, since Ed has so many on the payroll, but he also knows Grimes isn’t one of them. He knows he’s smart–why did that crack cut him so deep?
As the story winds down, the mystery is solved–the genre demands it. I have been known to guess the murderer occasionally–for example, the first Matthew Scudder novel Westlake’s longtime buddy Lawrence Block published in 1976–might as well have put a neon sign up over the character saying “THIS IS THE KILLER”. Westlake does a much better job with the sleight of hand here, distracting the reader from what should be obvious, so I didn’t crack the case with this one. As murder mysteries go, it’s reasonably clever, without being too complicated to be plausible. Who killed Mavis St. Paul is not what the book is really about, of course. That’s true of most good mysteries, really. The Mystery is the MacGuffin. What’s the point being hidden behind it?
Here, it seems to be people with divided identities–a murderer who wasn’t who he claimed to be, a victim who was living a long series of lies that finally caught up with her, and the reluctant detective himself, who talks a good game, but keeps missing the point of his own lectures. The other key theme is emotion–how we suppress it to do what needs be done, but that just means hiding from ourselves and how we really feel about what we’re doing, and who we’re doing it for. Clay’s probably right that we’re all dishonest in one way or another, but he’s wrong to think that it doesn’t matter what kind of crook you are. In that, he was kidding himself, and as the book ends, we’re led to believe he’s figured it out a bit late–the doorbell rings again, and the strong implication, that he himself is trying like hell not to believe, is that he’s about to get fired ‘permanently’.
So we have a likable attractive protagonist, somebody the reader can easily identify with, who wins, gets the job done, catches the killer, does just what his boss told him to do, under exceptionally challenging circumstances, and was properly acknowledged as the valued employee he is–and he’s probably about to die. Though, one supposes, if the book had sold really well, maybe he’d have run for the fire escape (the convenient presence of which has been established earlier in the story), and lived to equivocate another day. Perhaps he could have become a 60’s version of Daniel Port, a character created by a writer Westlake strongly admired–but reportedly Westlake didn’t admire those particular novels that much, and The Mercenaries may be in part his revisionist take on the Port series.
Clay’s won the game, and he’s lost everything–even Ella, who he knows he’s in love with, and who clearly loves him. Just before the doorbell rings that final time, he’s ended their relationship (without even telling her to her face that it’s over) because she’s confusing him. She wants him to be somebody else, his own boy, and much as he was thinking she might be somebody he’d consider leaving the syndicate for, as he muses over the way ‘The Cutie’ ended up–and why–Clay decides he can’t change his spots so late in the game. He calls one of Ed’s boys to send up a girl–any girl, so long as she’s forgettable. He’s finally made his choice. So why was it the wrong one?
Here’s what I think–Clay isn’t being punished for being a crook, or a killer, or forsaking true love for a series of empty hook-ups, or anything like that. Those are all just symptoms of the real problem–that he’s a company man. He gave up his individuality. He compromised his identity, subordinated it to a higher authority, so he wouldn’t have to make his own choices anymore–or live with their consequences (like a dead waitress on a mountain road). You, standing there in the drugstore, thumbing your way through this whole novel, while the clerk pointedly ignores you, might figure he was just unlucky, or it’s a standard ‘noir’ ending, like in those French movies you see at the art houses now and again–we’re all doomed, because fate is against us, and no doubt Sartre or Camus would put it better–but that’s not the message here. We’re not all necessarily doomed. Sure, everybody dies sooner or later, but that’s not the same thing. We’re doomed because we make bad choices. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” You have to figure a guy who did summer stock would know that line.
And if we’re doomed because we make bad choices, it stands to reason that if we made good choices–ah, what’s the point, you figure, as you put the book back in the revolving rack, and head for the door, before the manager starts giving you the fisheye for not buying anything. You see this one other guy there at the lunch counter (they still had lunch counters in drugstores back then)–skinny, dark hair, glasses, late 20’s–giving you a bit of a fisheye as you walk out. What’s his problem, you wonder, but you forget all about him as you walk out into the majesty of New York City–and just for a moment, you think about how alive this guy Westlake made the city feel. So full of characters, situations, possibilities. Maybe next time you see his name on the cover you’ll actually buy the book and take it home. Then again, maybe not. Life is full of choices.