“Your father. You think you know him. You forget he lived a lot of years before he started you. All of a sudden you find out you never knew who the hell he was.”
Ok, so I’m a self-confessed Hard Case Crime fan, and a few years back I decided to take the plunge and join the Hard Case Crime Book Club. It’s an old-fashioned idea, but what it boils down to is that HCC sends me a book each month. Just about the time I am starting to wonder: “Isn’t it time for this month’s Hard Case Crime to arrive?” well, there it is. Getting a book you didn’t actually preselect can lead to disappointments (of course buying books off the shelf doesn’t spare readers this fate necessarily), but for the most part, I’ve really enjoyed the highly readable selection. I imagine Charles Ardai (founder and editor of Hard Case Crime) slaving over a stack of manuscripts trying to decide which ones will make the cut, and since HCC books tend to grab me on page one, I think that Ardai probably rejects any novels that start off slowly.
361 from Donald Westlake starts off really strongly with the return of Ray Kelly. It’s the 60s, and 23-year-old Ray has just got out of the Air Force. He arrives in New York expecting to be picked up by his brother, Bill, but instead he’s supposed to take a cab and meet his father at a hotel.
Ray has spent three years in the Air Force, and he’s eager to get back and see the sights. His father, however, seems nervous and jittery, reluctant to go outside. Ray chalks this up to fatigue, but the next day, they are ambushed in the car. Ray’s father is killed and Ray ends up in the hospital. Weeks later he is released and he’s looking for revenge.
Although 361 starts out with a blast, it fizzles when Ray hooks up with his brother Bill. Ray goes off on a vengeance rampage with Bill as a somewhat reluctant side-kick. As Ray searches for the truth, the novel spins on itself as Ray goes fishing for leads and information. Instead of increasing tension as the plot develops ,the novel enters the doldrums with too many leads and too few developments.
Westlake’s crime fiction is hit-or-miss for me. Westlake without humour leaves me with just another crime novel that’s not so different from dozens of other authors–hence I am not a fan of the Richard Stark novels, but I loved The Cutie and Somebody Owes Me Money. I love dark, bitter noir, but Westlake without humour isn’t dark or bitter enough for my tastes. With humour, Westlake gives the crimes a light, bizarre touch that I find refreshing, and his protagonists for these books are people I want to read about for a few hours. In 361, Ray Kelly remains a rather uninteresting anti-hero–in spite of the tragedy that hits him early in the book. But that’s ok, I’m currently reading Hard Case Crime’s Fake ID by Jason Starr and it’s a terrific crime novel.