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Reading Donald Westlake’s ‘361’

361 / “Look up 361 in any Thesaurus and you’ll find this: ‘Destruction of life; violent death; killing.’ “

361 Donald Westlake original cover by  Denis McLoughlinI 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.

361 Donald Westlake Hard Case CrimeIn 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.

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Thanks to the Violent World of Parker for explaining the title and sharing the original cover art.

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Reading “Darkness, Take My Hand”

Had “Darkness, Take My Hand”, the second book in Dennis Lehane’s  ‘Kenzie & Gennaro’ series, not been in the same volume as the first book, I may have taken a break to read some other things before jumping back into the world of these Dorchester private investigators.

Of course, had the plot of the second book not picked up significantly about halfway through, I don’t know when book three would have hit my reading list.

Darkness, Take My Hand Dennis LehaneTypically, I don’t like this type of story.  I’m getting sick of it.  TV has done it to death with the untouchable villain whose lifelong game plan has been to get back at our protagonist for some long forgotten trespass, oftentimes committed by a parent or mutual mentor.  Until that reveal, our protagonist was seemingly pulled into the entire plot by accident.  And you know what? Stop.  Just stop.

It’s ok to have a case without rooting it deep within your character’s personal histories.  As readers and viewers of any story, we want to experience the world these characters inhabit but you should insult your audience with stories contrived to make us believe the entire universe revolves around those characters.

But… Ok, if you’re going to do it, I suppose, this time, at least, it was done pretty well.

I figured out who the mystery guy was before the big reveal, but I think, as readers, we were meant to figure it out ahead of the characters.  Once the story got to that point it was obvious because deep down, that wasn’t the mystery.

Between books one and two, Patrick started up a new relationship, and it was the few pages of his frantic sprint over the icy streets of Boston when she was in danger that had me more on the edge of my seat then the ultimate conclusion to the case itself.

With that in mind, maybe I was wrong about this book.  Maybe I was wrong about what the real story was?  The reason I picked up the ‘Kenzie & Gennaro’ series in the first place was to experience Lehane’s Boston through his characters.  The real story in “Darkness, Take My Hand” was the fallout of those decisions that Patrick and Angie had made in the previous book and how it affected both differently.  Perhaps the story wasn’t about hunting a killer, but learning to accept and move past those choices Patrick and Angie made and must continue to make to survive in their line of work.  Otherwise, they would allow themselves to be consumed entirely by it, as many of the characters ultimately were.

It’s actually a quote from “A Drink Before the War” that sums up what is truly at the heart of this novel:

“It never works that way. Once that ugliness has been forced into you, it becomes part of your blood, dilutes it, races through your heart and back out again, staining everything as it goes. The ugliness never goes away, never comes out, no matter what you do. Anyone who thinks otherwise is naive. All you can do is hope to control it.”

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Reading “A Drink Before the War”

Early on Dennis Lehane writes, “It’s a place where the people are grateful for the seasons, because at least they confirm that time is actually moving on.” After reading the book, I’m not sure time has moved on, not for the Boston of his novels and not for the world we find ourselves living in today.

As a reader, I opened  “A Drink Before the War” expecting an honest look inside Boston, the real Boston; I wanted gritty and working class, honest, drunk, and proud of every crack in the sidewalk because that was the sidewalk in your neighborhood, in front of your house, and every busted knuckle from the shifts you pulled to pay for that house.

That much I’d been told to expect about reading Dennis Lehane.

I’d watched Mystic River a few times and even read “Gone, Baby Gone” (book 4 in the series that ‘Drink’ starts out) before seeing that movie.  So I thought I knew what to expect as a reader.

A Drink Before the War & Darkness, Take My HandAs a writer, I went into this book needing something very specific to help me and looked to Lehane just as I look to Loren Estleman’s ‘Amos Walker’ series and Robert Parker’s ‘Spencer’ books.  Lehane and Estleman are very similar writers in that their cities, Boston and Detroit, become characters just as important as the detectives and the crooked businessmen and bent politicians their heroes run up against.

I found what I was looking for, enough that I’ve already started the second in the ‘Kenzie & Gennaro’ series, “Darkness, Take My Hand”.  (It helped that the edition I have includes the first two books in one volume, but more importantly, it restarts the page numbers so I can accurately update my reading status on Good reads.)

What I didn’t expect (and seems to be a pattern now after the correlations to the Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil) was how current some of the subject matter would still be twenty years after it was written.

“A Drink Before the War” was originally published just a couple years after the 1992 riots in Los Angeles that erupted after the Rodney King verdict.  Lehane referenced the riots but also went into great detail in describing the racism and segregation that was woven into the fabric of the Boston neighborhoods he wrote about.  So much of what drives his characters throughout the book is directly tied into race and the anger and violence that are reactions to the clearly divided worlds.

It’s terrifying to read a book written twenty years ago which was so firmly rooted in its present day and realize that it could just as easily have been written today.

Change every mention of Los Angeles to Ferguson or Baltimore, and make every reference of Rodney King instead about Michael Brown or Freddie Gray, or any of the growing number of black men being beaten or killed by police who are not held accountable.  And then, as you continue to read, and it makes you sick that nothing has changed and by how familiar it all sounds, imagine what it must be like for the people trapped in that world.

“You hear it most when politicians who live in places like Hyannis Port and Beacon Hill and Wellesley make decisions that affect people who live in Dorchester and Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, and then step back and say there isn’t a war going on. There is a war going on. It’s happening in playgrounds, not health clubs… And as long as it doesn’t push through the heavy oak doors where they fight with prep school educations and filibusters and two-martini lunches, it will never actually exist.”

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