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Underground Reading: 361 by Donald Westlake

This is the latest installment in our scheme to review each and every Hard Case Crime mystery in order, one every week. You can follow along here.

361Donald Westlake's 361 was originally published in 1962 and reprinted as a Hard Case crime in 2005. Unlike, say, Memory (or even The Comedy is Finished), 361 feels more a product of its time. It is a solid thriller, and a few exceptional moments, but, overall, it is rather let down by the politics and sensibilities of the era. Still, as noted in the past, even ordinary Westlake is still very good indeed.

Ray Kelly is back from the Air Force. He's young, footloose and fancy-free, but saddled with a rather pessimistic view of the latter. Rather than seeing a world of possibility, he's a little worried about what he's going to do with his life. He's got no friends, no job, no nothing - only his family to keep him grounded.

But his family is definitely there for him. Ray's dad, a lawyer, is there to greet him in New York, and despite being three years since their last meeting, the two hit it off right away. Although his dad is weirdly nervous about it, Ray even convinces him to take in the town - the pair fuss about in the city and leer at the sights for a day or two. The whole time, Ray's father behaves oddly. But it isn't until they're on their way out of the city that disaster strikes.

Two gunmen mow down Ray and his father. Ray's dad is killed on the spot and Ray himself loses an eye and a month of his life, recovering in the hospital. His brother, Bill, isn't there when he wakes up - his wife's been killed as well.

When the two brothers reunite, they immediately agree to seek out justice. The hard way.

361-1Ray and Bill aren't trained vigilantes, but they do their best. Bill, despite being the older brother, is mostly the sidekick. He's not only distracted by the grief of two deaths, but he's simply got more limits than Ray. Ray? Ray will do anything as long as he can rationalise it, and he makes that abundantly clear. They know they're not cut out for a long campaign against the Syndicate ("island-hopping", Ray calls it), so they go looking for the quick answer - turn over as many rocks as they can, as quickly as they can, until they prod the right creepy-crawly from its lair.

Under the rocks, however, lurk a lot of secrets. Ray and Bill are forced to confront the truth about their father, their mother and themselves. Ostensibly, 361 involves a lot of, well, nothing. Ray and Bill sit in hotel rooms, playing countless games of gin and getting drunk on cheap beer while waiting for something to happen. But even during those periods of inactivity (and there are a lot of them), under the surface, the two brothers are constantly at war. 361 has a few shootings and more brawls, but most of the conflict goes completely undocumented; Ray and Bill wrestling with their inner demons.

There are, as mentioned above, a few moments of absolute brilliance. Ray's a complete outsider to the world of organised crime, and his insight, often scathing, can be extremely entertaining. At one point, he's even roped into party-planning for a mob boss: buying supplies, moving furniture about, making sure everyone is dressed properly... That said, Ray's basically, a kid. He's running with the wolves (and holding his own), but still subject to the occasional moment of self-doubt:

"When I was a kid I believed in a Business Pope. I thought there was a strict mercantile hierarchy, grocery stories and movie houses near the bottom, factories and warehouses in the middle, Wall Street up near the top. And a Business Pope running the whole thing. I visualised the Business Pope as a shriveled ancient white-haired Pluto in a black leather chair. Black-capped chauffeur to the left, white-hipped nurse to the right. Every line on his face would record a decade of evil and cruelty and decay. I knew just what he would look like." (46)

The metaphor is appropriate on several levels. Not only is Ray rubbing shoulders with the Infallible Word of Business God, he's also blundered into a world filled with an arcane set of rituals - who talks, who listens, who's the boss and who gets to wear the nicest suit. 

361-2Sadly, 361 is also product of a different era. From the distance of 2013, the entire Syndicate set-up seems strangely naive, a vision of feudal criminality that has little relevance to the modern reader. This is again shocking different to Westlake's other Hard Case Crime novels that, even whilst being of an era, manage to transcend it. But in 361, the theme is the importance of family, and Westlake inextricably links that to the oddly baronial structure of mid-century organised crime. 

Ray is repeatedly subject to other characters wanging on about immigration, assimilation and family loyalty. On its own, this is merely tactless (and a bit heavy-handed), but vaguely relevant: the book is about that tension (social respectability vs. family loyalty). But the introduction of an African-American character, William Cheever, just leads to a reiteration of these key points, with the "Negro" held up as an example of people that can be neither respectable nor loyal. The racist abuse directed at William is all from "bad guys", but it is uncomfortable reading nonetheless.

Nor, sadly, does William do anything to disprove his detractors wrong. Despite Ray's stated sentiments that William is probably an ok guy, the young mob lawyer comes across as corrupt and cowardly, stupidly trying to fit in somewhere he doesn't belong. Ray may find him amiable, but he also sees him as pathetic.

361 is dated, but that doesn't make it completely irrelevant. Although Ray's external conflict takes place in a world that no longer exists, his internal wrestling - his battle to accept the secrets he learns - is still captivating. Readers should be aware that the book contains casual racism and homophobia, but, sadly, that's a risk that comes with any vintage thriller. This is (very) early Westlake, and, despite its flaws, 361 also contains occasional glimpses of the master writer that would emerge. [For seasoned Westlake fans: there's an interesting review of 361 here, which places it (his third book) in the context of his career - including a few cute inside jokes. Existential Ennui also comes to the same conclusion - although not flawless, it is a big step up over Westlake's previous two crime novels.]

The cover for 361 is by R.B. Farrell. I like the concept: Ray, in the foreground, is gritty, realistic, shadowy, dangerous. In the background, there's a cartoonish, sunshiny gathering - like a mob meeting as painted by Norman Rockwell. The irony is lovely - the ordinary man is the one bringing darkness to the criminal 'underworld'. 

All cover images from My favourite is definitely this French edition.