361 by Donald Westlake

I was familiar with the humorous Donald Westlake, the creator of John Dortmunder, who is the most clever and least lucky thief in crime fiction. You want a good laugh and a terrific mystery, look for John Dortmunder. Or Joe Gores’s DKA series. Good giggles there, too.

However, 361 is not that Donald Westlake. No grins or tickles in this book. 361 is a searing, raw, emotional novel, not for a reader looking for happy endings.

Published in the UK in 1962, 361 was Westlake’s third novel under his own name, following The Mercenaries (1960) and Killing Time (1961). It is among the best of Westlake’s early works, some believe it is one of his finest novels.

Westlake would, of course, strike literary gold later in 1962 with the first Richard Stark/Parker book, The Hunter, but in many ways the groundwork for the Parker novels was laid here: stripped-back prose, short, clipped sentences, and a blunt, realistic depiction of violence and its consequences. 361, like The Mercenaries and Killing Time before it, is written in the first person, narrated by a protagonist whose peculiar oddities and eccentricities give the novel its distinctive character and flavor.

Ray Kelly is newly discharged from the Air Force as the story opens, going to New York to meet his father. Ray’s dad is inexplicably nervous when the two meet up, but Ray doesn’t dwell on his anxiety—until the next day, when, as they’re driving out of New York heading for their home town, a tan-and-cream Chrysler pulls alongside their Oldsmobile and a guy in the Chrysler sticks his hand out the window and starts shooting at them. A month later Ray wakes up in hospital having lost an eye and, his brother Bill informs him, his father. Shortly after that, Bill stops visiting Ray, and Ray is told by a nurse that Bill’s wife has been killed in a hit-and-run.

Thereafter, Ray enlists Bill’s aid in trying to find out why their dad—and seemingly Bill’s wife—was murdered, in the process uncovering their old man’s murky past as a mob lawyer. But it’s Ray’s reaction to the news of the death of Bill’s missus that gives the earliest indication of what an oddball character he is: “‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I never met her.’” He’s a peculiar, intriguing character, perhaps even more twisted in his own way than the shifty types and gangsters he encounters in his quest for justice and the truth. At one point, whilst attempting extract
information from a frail pensioner, he bows his head, removes his glass eye, and looks up again, uttering the words, “I can see your soul this way. It’s black.” Following this gruesome piece of theater, the old man becomes the first of the bodies on Ray’s hands.

But Ray’s also surprisingly funny at times—he gets irritated by people who take their time getting to the point, and some of his his sarcastic put-downs are priceless—not to mention strangely philosophical; attending a funeral, he narrates:

So Saturday six hired pallbearers carried the coffin from the funeral home. There was no stop at a church for the suicide; he went straight out of town to a clipped green hill with a view of Lake Champlain, and into a hole which no priest had blessed with holy water. He would have to make do with God’s rain.

This taken care of, Ray runs around New York and surrounding areas leaving a bloodbath behind him. We learn the reason for his mean streak, and then an additional trauma that he accepts with his by-now expected emotionlessness, after which he does his best to embrace the badness within him. That he can’t quite—not all the way, anyway, but it doesn’t stop him delivering a fitting vengeance on the man who brought so much destruction on his life.

Incidentally, look up “361” in any Thesaurus and you’ll find this: destruction of life; violent death; killing. Pretty descriptive.

Westlake’s characters have feelings but that are never celebrated at the expense of the plot. This clear-eyed attitude is refreshing and addictive, but it’s also probably why Westlake never had a breakthrough bestseller: the average reader needs more obvious sentimental emotional engagement than Westlake was willing to provide. 361 is the most extreme example of this emotional distance. Westlake himself said that it was almost a technical exercise in creating emotion without speaking of it. This is the kind of mystery I prefer. The books in which we learn what the character is wearing, who his/her friends are, or have long philosophical talks with him/herself are not my favorite. (I’m thinking of Sara Paretsky or Sue Grafton – I gave up on them long ago).

Westlake had over a hundred novels and non-fiction books to his credit. He was a three-time Edgar Award winner, one of only three writers (the others are Joe Gores and William L. DeAndrea) to win Edgars in three different categories (1968, Best Novel, God Save the Mark; 1990, Best Short Story, “Too Many Crooks”; 1991, Best Motion Picture Screenplay, The Grifters). In 1993, the Mystery Writers of America named Westlake a Grand Master, the highest honor bestowed by the society.

By the way, The Grifters, with John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, and Annette Bening, is one of my all-time favorite movies. It is based on a novel by Jim Thompson, which I have read, and it is one of the few movies that didn’t disappoint me in its film adaptation. Read the book, read the movie, or else.

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Filed under Literary Genres, Mystery

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