Sunday, July 13, 2008

361 by Donald E. Westlake

361 is from early in Westlake's career, before he discovered his great talent for humorous crime novels and he moved the hardboiled stuff over to appear under other names. (Most notably Richard Stark, of course.) It was originally published in 1962 -- the same year as the first Stark book, so it was a good year for hardboiled Westlake -- as the third novel under Westlake's name.

(By the way, yesterday was Westlake's 75th birthday -- so happy birthday to him, and a wish for many more.)

361 is a revenge novel, but not a straightforward one -- even that early in Westlake's writing life, he was interested in complications and things that aren't quite what they seem. Our first-persona narrator is Ray Kelly, who has just been mustered out of the Air Force. His lawyer father meets him in Manhattan, to drive him back to their home in Binghamton. But someone was looking for Kelly senior, and they're shot at from a car on the highway. Ray wakes up in a hospital bed with one eye and one father missing.

His brother Bill comes to see him there, but has to leave suddenly -- his wife was just killed in a hit-and-run back in Binghamton. Suddenly, it looks like someone is trying to wipe out the Kelly family. Bill and Ray go to ground in Manhattan, and start investigating their father's past.

It turns out the elder Kelly was a mob lawyer back in the mid-30s -- before he went off to Binghamton -- and that one of the bosses he knew best is getting out of prison in a few week. The Kelly boys put two and two together and decide to nab that boss, Eddie Kapp, when he gets out of Dannemorra. But then someone else shoots at Kapp...

361 twists on from there, following themes of family and blood in unexpected ways and always tightly focused on Ray Kelly, a man not in the habit of thinking or talking about his emotions. (And who has trouble when he's not able to be active immediately -- which happens quite a lot in 361.)

361 is more of a novel than the Stark books are, since the Stark books have a protagonist, Parker, who is eternally unchanged and unchangeable. Ray Kelly does change as 361 goes along, as he learns more about himself and his family. Like all of the other Hard Case books I've read this week, 361 is a lean, tight novel with a lot of action and suspense -- the way they used to make 'em. And it's still well worth reading for those of us who like 'em that way.

And that'll be the end of this streak of Hard Case Crime books; I'll be reading other things for the next week. But this was fun; I should do it again some time.

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