Westlake, Donald E. 361. New York: Hard Case Crime, 2005. 207 pp.
Hard Case Crime is a great new(ish) publishing house. They specialize in hardboiled detective & crime fiction, both publishing forgotten classics and new books. They've been around for a couple of years and have published new and classic books by such notables as Stephen King, Donald Hamilton, Ed McBain, Lawrence Block and Charles Williams and a whole bunch of others that may or may not be familiar to the mass audience. Well, I've always liked hardboiled stuff but have never had a really good guide to new and classic stuff. So, finally getting around to reading one of the books from this series was a mental event for me of the highest order. Would it live up to the hype? Would I be able to use the distinctive retro cover stylings of the line as a key to excellence?
The answer is yes. The first one I've read is 361 an early novel by Donald Westlake. Westlake, of course, is notable for many other crime and detective novels, as well as some cool fantastic fiction such as the excellent Humans.
And 361 is a good one. My kinda hardboiled. Seems this guy Ray Kelley gets out of the Navy and his father picks him up from the base. They're driving around a little later and his father gets gunned down while driving the car by a guy in another car. When our man Ray gets out of the hospital, recovered from the injuries sustained when the car crashed, he and his brother vow to figure out what really happened. They end up in New York City, tangled up with the mob, learning more family secrets than they can shake a stick at. There's violence aplenty with a few more bodies, some surprising, some not. But it's not some abstract, bloodless stuff from a shoot 'em up movie. It's personal, in your face. This is a memorable novel that will stick with you with good characters portrayed in lots of shades of grey, facing pain and tragedy and more than a few moral dilemas.
First published in 1962 and mostly unavailable since then, Hard Case has done us all a great service by reprinting this novel. It's the first for me from Hard Case, but it won't be the last.