It seems as if Donald Westlake has always been with us. When one
has a career that has straddled six decades, one tends to leave
that sort of impression. Westlake also seemed to have burst on the
scene as a grandmaster; looking at his early work, one is struck by
the richness of its voice, even as he was still finding and
developing it. While he has built his career on smartly written,
lighter crime fiction, one must not forget that he has a dark side
that is not limited to his regular offerings under his Richard
Stark pseudonym. This is by no means a recent development; it is
easy to forget that some of Westlake's early work was extremely
dark and foreboding.
Westlake's 361, an early example of his grim and gritty side, has
been reissued by the rapidly-becoming-indispensable Hard Case Crime
imprint. That any of Westlake's work should be out of print is an
unpardonable omission, and to see this grim book --- originally
published in 1962 --- back on the rack after an absence of too many
years is a welcome occurrence, indeed.
It begins with young Ray Kelly, fresh out of a stint with the Air
Force, being picked up by his father for a reunion of sorts. The
reunion is cut short when Kelly's father is murdered in front of
him. Kelly, himself grievously injured, begins an obsessive hunt
for the men who killed his father and changed his life forever.
Aided by his brother Bill, Kelly begins a tortuous journey through
their father's past, a past that is littered with deceit and
disappointment. The subtle focus here, however, is the
transformation of Kelly from a peacetime Air Force veteran who is
eager and excited with life's prospects to a violent and ruthless
killer who knows no limits in his pursuit of revenge.
Westlake's developing mastery of dialogue is on display here. While
his reach exceeds his grasp at times, it is instructive to watch
Westlake's talent unfolding, in many ways for the first time, on
the pages of 361. One also finds here that Westlake, then as now,
is a keen observer of the culture and mores of the surroundings ---
to wit, New York and its upstate suburbs --- that have served as a
rich and ready backdrop for his novels.
While an early work of Westlake's, 361 is not a deficient one, but
rather an unacknowledged minor classic that hopefully will be
accorded its proper recognition. Recommended.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 24, 2011