Saturday, September 5, 2009

361 by Donald E. Westlake (Hard Case Crime)

Since September 2009 marks the fifth anniversary of Hard Case Crime, I will be reprinting my reviews of the first 40 books from my old (and now mostly defunct) Craig's Book Club site — 2 for the first 10 days, and 1 a day for the next 20. I hope you enjoy this refresher course in the variety of crime fiction that this fascinating publisher has to offer.

Just when Raymond Kelly was returning from military service, just when he was ready to settle down and spend some time with his family — his brother, his father, his brother's wife whom he's heard all about and is excited to see in person for the first time — just then, that's when it all went wrong.

One occasion of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and a month later he wakes up in a hospital room minus a father, a sister-in-law and an eye. With no family left but his brother, Bill, they set to find out who is responsible and wind up discovering a little more about their family than they ever guessed, including the surprising significance of their father's last word. But blood must avenge blood, so Ray and Bill spend a lot of the novel playing a Holmes and Watson with attitude.

The prose in 361 is so fast that I had to slow down my reading just to keep up. It is a fascinating example of the development of Westlake's craft. Most of the Westlake I've read came from a much later period of his career (1980s or later), and I've not read any of the Richard Stark novels, but this book seems like it would suit Parker fans more than those of his comic mysteries. The many fans of other Hard Case Crime novels, however, will eat it right up.

Only his third novel, 361 is not as solid and confident (or as funny) as the only other earlier work I had read — the Edgar Award–winning God Save the Mark, published just five years later in 1967. What carries it along wonderfully, however, besides the pure power of the storytelling, is the sense that, behind the typewriter is a writer intensely trying to make an impression on the reader. And, as usual, he succeeds.

One thing was decidedly familiar, reminding me of the Donald E. Westlake style his fans know and love: the number of surprises present in this story allow for plenty of leeway in telling the story. You start to think he's going one way, and he goes another. Or he'll spring something unexpected, hiding it within a paragraph of description or "stage business" (as opposed to giving it its own paragraph like most writers do), thus guaranteeing that the reader does a mental "double-take." That's the kind of writing that makes me celebrate. And that's the kind of writing you can expect from 361.

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