- by Donald Westlake
- Publisher – Hard Case Crime
- Copyright 1962
- 207 pages
Rating – 8/10
Summary – Westlake delivers a terrific, hardboiled novel about a young man who musters out of the Air Force and finds that he can’t go home again. He ends up in the middle of a Mafia war in New York. Chaos ensues. It’s fun, easy reading – a perfect beach book.
Review – I found this one at America’s Thrift Store for $1. I really wanted a small paperback for the beach and the price was right, so I took bought it despite the mysterious stains on some of the pages. Stains or not, 361’s a terrific read.
Ray Kelly’s the All-American boy – 23-years old and just getting out of the Air Force. Ray meets his father in Manhattan; they spend the night in a hotel and the next day they start head toward the family home in Binghamton, New York –
Thirty-eight miles outside New York City, when we had the road to ourselves, a tan-and-cream Chrysler pulled up next to us, and the guy on our side stuck his hand out with a gun in it and started shooting. Dad looked at me, and his eyes were huge and terrified. He opened his mouth and said, “Cap” in a high strange voice. Then blood gushed out of his mouth like red vomit. He fell staring in my lap, and the car swung off the road into a bridge support (page 18).
The clipped, spare style in the above quote give you a good idea of Westlake’s prose. The lack of foreshadowing in this scene jars you, grabs your attention. It is not the last time in 361 that Westlake abruptly introduces violence and death.
After the wreck, when Ray finally gets out of the hospital, he starts looking for payback.
Layers of Deceit
Ray finds that his father’s law practice had caused the father to rub shoulders with the Mafia. Some of the events that led to the shooting took place decades before (in the 1930s) when the father was just a young man. Westlake’s plot reminds me of the standard plot the Ross Macdonald recycled so many times – someone did something terrible in the past and – years later – those misdeeds come back to haunt later generations.
The book turns on two plots twists. The first (about halfway through), I didn’t see coming. The second, I guessed. But even excluding the “big” twists, Westlake keeps you off balance and the pace is always fast.
Ray & Bill
Ray eventually teams up with his older brother, Bill. Unlike Ray (who is a true, alpha male), Bill is more laid back and is a follower. While Ray was in the Air Force, Bill married and became a father. Westlake uses Bill to provide a nice contrast, which allows him to develop Ray’s character. Bill also provides someone with whom Ray can interact, allowing Westlake to tell some of the story through dialogue, rather than just explaining what Ray is thinking all of the time.
Of course, the book centers on Ray. He’s an ambivalent character, and Westlake’s rendering isn’t always believable. Given his youth, Ray seems a little too bright and – at times – he can be an unlikable smart aleck.
A Hardboiled, “Guy” Book
As with most hard-boiled fiction, 361 will appeal to guys. I doubt that women will like it that much. The only female characters in the book are peripheral characters. But there’s tons of stuff that guys like – fighting, shooting, card playing, smoking, and (especially) drinking. For instance, in Chapter 17 Ray and another character go to a bar and each man has five double scotches while they talk.
Westlake adds to the hardboiled mood through Ray’s world-weary, dry remarks –
Dannemora is a little town. In most of it, you wouldn’t know there was a penitentiary around at all. The town doesn’t look dirty enough, or mean enough. But the penitentiary’s there, a high long wall next to the sidewalk along the street. The sidewalk’s cracked and frost-heaved over there. On the other side, it’s cleaned and there’s half a dozen bars with neon signs that say Budweiser and Genesee. National and local beers on tap. Bill had Budweiser and I had Genesee. It tasted like beer (page 94).
361 is well-executed, hardboiled fiction. It’s unbelievable, but offers an interesting plot, good characters, and plenty of action. You won’t find the secret of life in 361, but you will enjoy the ride.