Westlake Score and review: 361 by Donald E. Westlake

NB: A version of this post also appears on Existential Ennui.

As anyone who’s been following my books blog Existential Ennui for a while will know, I’ve been avidly collecting Donald E. Westlake first (and other) editions—both his “own-brand” books and his Richard Stark, Tucker Coe et al pseudonymous works—since 2010. It’s got to the stage now where there are probably only a handful of Westlake novels I’m still keen to obtain in first edition or hardback, and that shortlist has shrunk even further with the acquisition of a book that was top of my list to get my greasy paws on in British first.

Published in hardback by T. V. Boardman in the UK in 1962 (the same year as the US Random House first edition), 361 was Westlake’s third novel under his own name, following The Mercenaries (1960) and Killing Time (1961). (It was also his third crime novel, Westlake having infamously quit writing science fiction in favour of crime fiction in the early ’60s—at least for a while.) There were a couple of reasons why I was especially keen to get hold of 361, and this edition in particular, which I bagged on eBay a matter of hours after it appeared as a “buy it now” auction. For one thing, I’d heard it was among the best of Westlake’s early works—which it most definitely is; I’ll return to that in a moment—and for another, this edition sports a dust jacket designed by one of the greatest artists ever to illustrate covers in the UK: Denis McLoughlin.

McLoughlin was a prolific comic book artist and illustrator, producing well over 500 dust jackets for British publisher T. V. Boardman alone. I’ve written about him before, notably in this post on the jackets he designed for the Westlake novels Boardman published from 1961 to 1967; his wrappers were typically striking and inventive, making intelligent use of restricted palette, chiaroscuro and bold typography. With the acquisition of the 1961 Boardman edition of The Mercenaries (signed and inscribed, no less) I blogged about as a Westlake Score in January, there were only two Boardman Westlakes left on my list. Now there’s only one. (As luck would have it, no sooner had I procured my Boardman 361 than another one popped up on eBay, but while my copy is ex-library—although only with a scattering of stamps to indicate that—its jacket is in nicer nick than the other copy. Still, if you fancy your chances, the auction is, as I write, in progress.)

As for the novel itself, not only is it one of the best of the early Westlakes, but one of his finest novels full stop. Westlake would, of course, strike literary gold later in 1962 with the first Richard Stark/Parker book, The Hunter, but in many ways the groundwork for the Parker novels was laid here: stripped-back prose, short, staccato sentences, and a blunt, unglamorous depiction of violence and its consequences. There is, however, a crucial difference in style and approach: 361, like The Mercenaries and Killing Time before it, is written in the first person, narrated by a protagonist whose peculiar quirks and idiosyncrasies give the novel its distinctive character and flavor.

Ray Kelly is that lead, newly discharged from the Air Force as the story opens and on his way to New York to meet his father. Ray’s dad is inexplicably nervous when the two meet up, but Ray doesn’t dwell on his anxiety—until the next day, when, as they’re driving out of New York heading for their home town, a tan-and-cream Chrysler pulls alongside their Oldsmobile and a guy in the Chrysler sticks his hand out the window and starts shooting at them. A month later Ray wakes up in hospital having lost an eye and, his brother Bill informs him, his father. Shortly after that, Bill stops visiting Ray, and Ray is told by a nurse that Bill’s wife has been killed in a hit-and-run.

Thereafter, Ray enlists Bill’s aid in trying to find out why their dad—and seemingly Bill’s wife—was murdered, in the process uncovering their old man’s murky past as a mob lawyer. But it’s Ray’s reaction to the news of the death of Bill’s missus that gives the earliest indication of what an oddball character he is: “‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I never met her.'” He’s a weird, fascinating creation, even more twisted in his own way than the succession of shady types and gangsters he encounters in his quest for justice and the truth. At one point, whilst attempting extract information from a frail pensioner, he bows his head, removes his glass eye, and looks up again, uttering the words, “I can see your soul this way. It’s black.” Following this gruesome piece of theater, the old feller becomes the first of the bodies on Ray’s hands.

But Ray’s also disarmingly funny at times—like Parker, he gets irritated by people who take their time getting to the point, and some of his his sarcastic put-downs are priceless—not to mention strangely philosophical; attending a funeral, he narrates: 

So Saturday six hired pallbearers carried the coffin from the funeral home. There was no stop at a church for the suicide; he went straight out of town to a clipped green hill with a view of Lake Champlain, and into a hole which no priest had blessed with holy water. He would have to make do with God’s rain.

When he’s not offering philosophical bon mots, Ray rages around New York and the surrounding area leaving a trail of carnage in his wake. Halfway through the novel comes an explanation for his mean streak, and then an additional trauma that he accepts with his by-now expected stolidness, after which he does his best to embrace the badness within him. That he can’t quite—not all the way, anyway—could be taken as an argument for nurture over nature, but it doesn’t stop him meting out a furious vengeance on the man who brought such destruction on his life.

361 is a blistering, raw, visceral novel—part Peter Rabe, part Jim Thompson, but mostly just pure Westlake—and a big step up from both The Mercenaries and Killing Time, good though those books are. And speaking of Killing Time, having now reviewed The Mercenaries and 361, I reckon it’s about time I reviewed the book which nestles in-between those two novels, so look out for that next week. In the meantime, the splendid Denis McLoughlin jacket for the Boardman edition of 361 has now joined his others in that Westlake/Boardman post and in the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery.