361 is a terse little book which hits hard and fast, and doesn’t let up until you’ve run out of pages. Ray Kelly gets out of the Air Force, and prepares to enter civilian life again. All that changes when his life is thrown upside-down; after his father arrives to take him home, a car drives up next to theirs and opens fire. Waking up in the hospital to find he’s lost an eye and a father, Ray and his brother Bill prepare to serve vengeance on the unknown killers.
It sounds so straightforward, but Westlake has plenty of surprises up his sleeve. Just when you think you know what’s coming next, the rug is pulled out from under you with a rapid surprise. In some cases, Westlake builds up the feeling of straightforwardness so expectations set in, right before he drops another surprise in your lap. Heck, the first chapter is a great example—things are going fairly smoothly, perhaps even a bit dully, until the last page, where Ray very calmly reports the car driving up and his father’s death. It’s a marvelous effect, keeping the reader on their toes and keeping the plot rapidly flexible.
This is what you should think of when words like “hardboiled,” “mystery,” and “thriller” are tossed around. It’s a perfect revenge tale, the story of a man with everything taken from him trying to get back at those who wronged him. The action doesn’t really slow down, as there are plenty of fistfights and gunfights, near-escapes and frightfully random twists, all at a breakneck pace. Westlake uses a lot of short, choppy sentences, which adds to the speedy pacing; it doesn’t hurt that it charts in at just over two-hundred pages.
It’s a grim story that doesn’t cut any corners, full of twists and turns. Not only is it a fast read, but it’s also highly enjoyable. It, like most of the other Hard Case offerings, doesn’t push any envelopes or expand the boundaries. But it’s a book that grips you and demands to be finished. And, really, who could ask for anything more.
I have to say, the only thing I really remember about this book is its introductory hook—you know, the parts that I reviewed. Which is, ironically, the opposite problem I have with Lemons Never Lie by Richard Stark, Westlake’s “harder” alias: I remember its ending, but not much else. (I should probably re-read and review that one.) Having since read and enjoyed Somebody Owes Me Money, I’ve seen Westlake’s comic mystery charm… which isn’t on display here. 361 is an early Westlake crime thriller—before he polished his style, back when he was just playing with other people’s tropes—and while I remember liking it, I find it very forgettable (in that I did).
Though, I still get a huge kick out of the cover: Ray lurking in the shadows, pulling out his Luger, while a couple of suits and their doxies are out partying in the ’70s yellow and orange hotel room. I wish I could find a good image of an earlier printing; the only one I found was just “361” in big letters covered by a bloodstain. Bah.