361 by Donald Westlake

361 by Donald E. Westlake | Strand Magazine

It was the third book published under the Donald Westlake name with the first two being, The Mercenaries and Killing Time. It was first published in 1962 by Random House and more recently republished by Hard Case. Westlake himself has described the book as the “first one in which [he] did any experimenting.” He wrote it with an eye towards the writing of Dashiell Hammett, Vladimir Nabokov, and Peter Rabe and he wanted to make the reader feel emotion in a scene without describing it directly.

This novel feels very different from any other Westlake novel that I have so far read. It does not have the humor found in his later novels. But, it is firmly planted in the hardboiled tradition of the fifties pulp novels and I enjoyed it for that reason. It is dark in nature and in pretty much every scene the reader can feel dark angry storm clouds in the distance.

The book opens with the narrator, Ray Kelly, finishing his stint in the Air Force and getting ready to enter civilian life. He just spent several years on duty in Germany. He walks out of the Air Force Base in Brooklyn, not far from Coney Island, and boards a bus. When “another guy with two suitcases came on,” they avoided “looking at one another. I’d never seen him before, but he was another new civvy. We acted like we’d both just been circumcised and if we talked to each other everybody would know.” What a great opening. With just a few paragraphs, Westlake places the character in time and place and mood. And, there’s that matter of fact regular-joe tone from the narrator that continues throughout the book.

Ray is going to see his father and his brother’s wife (who he has never met). He meets his father at a hotel in Manhattan. When they met, they “cried like a couple of women, and kept punching each other to prove we were men.” Ray wants to go get a beer and his father is reluctant to even leave the hotel. Ray figures that dad is just tired from the drive and the heat. Dad then wanted to go right back to the room again and get some sleep for the next day’s drive to Binghamton where they lived. But, after Ray’s insistence, they go out and look at Times Square and Ray is disappointed because he expected it to be unique like Munich was unique.

There’s an interesting clue as to the time period when they get in the car the next day and Ray’s father shows off that the car has power windows and an air conditioner. As they head towards Binghamton, a tan-and-cream Chrysler pulls up next to them and the guy on their side stuck out his hand with a gun and just started shooting. Ray wakes up days later minus an eye and with his ankles completely battered so he always walked with a limp. Dad needs to be buried.

Ray and his brother Bill decide that the locals are not going to get to the bottom of this and start investigating. They find that dear old dad twenty years earlier when they lived in NYC had been somehow affiliated with mobsters. These two innocents stumble around interviewing old law partners and try to figure out who had their father killed. They are out for vengeance and nothing better get in their way. In the course of their investigation, they stumble on some family secrets and are involved in a huge mob war between warring factions.

This is a tough-nosed mobster type story. It feels like many of the mob stories of the fifties. Go ahead and read it.

For my reviews and information about other Hard Case Crime books: click here

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