Reading Donald Westlake’s ‘361’
361 / “Look up 361 in any Thesaurus and you’ll find this: ‘Destruction of life; violent death; killing.’ “
I picked up a handful of Hard Case Crime books on clearance, a couple of the authors being ones I recognized, but they sat on the shelf for a couple years before I got around to reading one of them. I started Donald Westlake’s “361” mainly because it was the one sitting closest to me while I was having some computer issues. A few bugs had caused serious delays in my computer’s ability to even idle without freezing, so while I tried to troubleshoot that, I needed something to do.
Being in a significant reading slump the last few months, I didn’t have much faith in Westlake’s ability to keep me engaged. Nothing I picked up interested me, and nothing I was reading already seemed worth grabbing. This would do, I thought, for a momentary distraction while my computer struggled to open a single web page. But I was wrong. This was perfect. This was just what I needed.
The jacket gave away the setup, but that only heightened the suspense as Westlake’s narrator, Ray Kelly, walked you through the first chapter. I’ve missed this style of writing, the rough and to the point pulp narration. Kelly himself has no patience for people throughout the book, and it comes across in everything he does and relays to the reader.
As the history of the plot unfolds you can feel the tension and mystery of all the directions it could go, the uncertainty of the Ray Kelly as he pushes forward through what he’s being told, struggling to sort out the lies, the misdirection, the motives that led to his blinding, his father’s death and destruction of the family he thought was his.
What sets this apart from the other pulp novels I’ve read is that Ray didn’t choose this course for himself in the sense that he isn’t a professional detective or criminal. He was just a guy who was discharged from the Air Force, happy to be reunited with his father and heading home.
In a way, that makes Ray just like Ed Johnson, the private detective who tries to help him but is (as perhaps as the most realistically written private detective in the history of pulps novels) terrifyingly out of his league when he learns his client is getting involved with violent criminals; and Eddie Kapp, the gangster who holds the secret to the death of Ray’s father, and who until Ray came along was content to retire to Florida and leave the underworld behind.
But where Johnson refuses to push on and leaves Ray on his own, and Kapp throws himself gleefully back into the New York mob scene, Ray is simply a scared, hurt man, who has had everything taken from him. He wants justice and is willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve it.
Unlike the characters in similar books who suddenly find themselves at home in the darkness where their vengeance lies hidden, Ray has no interest in that life. He’s simply a man who wants to go home, but is willing to kill any man who tries to stop him.
Thanks to the Violent World of Parker for explaining the title and sharing the original cover art.