Thursday 2 August 2012

Westlake Score and Review: 361 by Donald E. Westlake (T. V. Boardman, 1962); Denis McLoughlin Cover

NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog. Also featured as one of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

As anyone who's been following Existential Ennui for a while will know, I've been avidly collecting Donald E. Westlake first (and other) editions – both his "own-brand" books and his Richard Stark, Tucker Coe et al pseudonymous works – since 2010. It's got to the stage now where there are probably only a handful of Westlake novels I'm still keen to obtain in first edition or hardback, and that shortlist has shrunk even further with the acquisition of a book that was top of my list to get my greasy paws on in British first:

Published in hardback by T. V. Boardman in the UK in 1962 (the same year as the US Random House first edition), 361 was Westlake's third novel under his own name, following The Mercenaries (1960) and Killing Time (1961). (It was also his third crime novel, Westlake having infamously quit writing science fiction in favour of crime fiction in the early '60s – at least for a while.) There were a couple of reasons why I was especially keen to get hold of 361, and this edition in particular, which I bagged on eBay a matter of hours after it appeared as a "buy it now" auction. For one thing, I'd heard it was among the best of Westlake's early works – which it most definitely is; I'll return to that in a moment – and for another, this edition sports a dust jacket designed by one of the greatest artists ever to illustrate covers in the UK: Denis McLoughlin.

McLoughlin was a prolific comic book artist and illustrator, producing well over 500 dust jackets for British publisher T. V. Boardman alone. I've written about him before, notably in this post on the jackets he designed for the Westlake novels Boardman published from 1961 to 1967; his wrappers were typically striking and inventive, making intelligent use of restricted palette, chiaroscuro and bold typography. With the acquisition of the 1961 Boardman edition of The Mercenaries (signed and inscribed, no less) I blogged about as a Westlake Score in January, there were only two Boardman Westlakes left on my list. Now there's only one. (As luck would have it, no sooner had I procured my Boardman 361 than another one popped up on eBay, but while my copy is ex-library – although only with a scattering of stamps to indicate that – its jacket is in nicer nick than the other copy. Still, if you fancy your chances, the auction is, as I write, in progress.)

As for the novel itself, not only is it one of the best of the early Westlakes, but one of his finest novels full stop. Westlake would, of course, strike literary gold later in 1962 with the first Richard Stark/Parker book, The Hunter, but in many ways the groundwork for the Parker novels was laid here: stripped-back prose, short, staccato sentences, and a blunt, unglamorous depiction of violence and its consequences. There is, however, a crucial difference in style and approach: 361, like The Mercenaries and Killing Time before it, is written in the first person, narrated by a protagonist whose peculiar quirks and idiosyncrasies give the novel its distinctive character and flavour.

Ray Kelly is that lead, newly discharged from the Air Force as the story opens and on his way to New York to meet his father. Ray's dad is inexplicably nervous when the two meet up, but Ray doesn't dwell on his anxiety – until the next day, when, as they're driving out of New York heading for their home town, a tan-and-cream Chrysler pulls alongside their Oldsmobile and a guy in the Chrysler sticks his hand out the window and starts shooting at them. A month later Ray wakes up in hospital having lost an eye and, his brother Bill informs him, his father. Shortly after that, Bill stops visiting Ray, and Ray is told by a nurse that Bill's wife has been killed in a hit-and-run.

Thereafter, Ray enlists Bill's aid in trying to find out why their dad – and seemingly Bill's wife – was murdered, in the process uncovering their old man's murky past as a mob lawyer. But it's Ray's reaction to the news of the death of Bill's missus that gives the earliest indication of what an oddball character he is: "'Oh,' I said. 'I never met her.'" He's a weird, detached, fascinating creation, even more twisted in his own way than the succession of shady types and gangsters he encounters in his quest for justice and the truth. At one point, whilst attempting to extract information from a frail pensioner, he bows his head, removes his glass eye, and looks up again, uttering the words, "I can see your soul this way. It's black." Following this gruesome piece of theatre, the old feller becomes the first of the bodies on Ray's hands.

But Ray's also disarmingly funny at times – like Parker, he gets irritated by people who take their time getting to the point, and some of his his sarcastic put-downs are priceless – not to mention strangely philosophical; attending a funeral, he narrates: 

So Saturday six hired pallbearers carried the coffin from the funeral home. There was no stop at a church for the suicide; he went straight out of town to a clipped green hill with a view of Lake Champlain, and into a hole which no priest had blessed with holy water. He would have to make do with God's rain.

When he's not offering philosophical bon mots, Ray rages around New York and the surrounding area leaving a trail of carnage in his wake. Halfway through the novel comes an explanation for his mean streak, and then an additional trauma that he accepts with his by-now expected stolidness, after which he does his best to embrace the badness within him. That he can't quite – not all the way, anyway – could be taken as an argument for nurture over nature, but it doesn't stop him meting out a furious vengeance on the man who brought such destruction on his life.

361 is a blistering, raw, visceral novel – part Peter Rabe, part Jim Thompson, but mostly just pure Westlake – and a big step up from both The Mercenaries and Killing Time, good though those books are. And speaking of Killing Time, having now reviewed The Mercenaries and 361, I reckon it's about time I reviewed the book which nestles in-between those two novels, so look out for that next week. In the meantime, the splendid Denis McLoughlin jacket for the Boardman edition of 361 has now joined his others in that Westlake/Boardman post and in the Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery – and I have a bunch more McLoughlin dust jackets (of the non-Westlake variety) waiting in the wings, all of them wrapping spy novels, of which Boardman published a scattering in amongst their more traditional crime fiction. 

But I've a number of other dust jackets to add to the gallery ahead of those, some of which, before we return to the signed editions, I'll be unveiling in the next post...


  1. 361 was my introduction to Westlake and I just adore it. There used to be a thing on his website (which at the time greeted you with the words “I believe my subject to be bewilderment” before morphing into “but I might be wrong” and allowing you entrance.) where he described the book as a cross between Hammett and Nabokov. Just brilliant.

    I particularly like the twist where he’s been going down a very dark road for much of the book, steered by his new found guardian devil and suddenly finds himself questioning why he’s doing this exactly. Really ballsy move in what’s essentially a thriller.

    (Hope that was non-spoilery enough for folks. I tried to talk around the twist rather than speak to it, but a twist is a twist.)

    Gah. I’m slightly jealous, nick.

  2. Well, that eBay auction I linked in the post has a few days yet to run, Gordon...

  3. It's a magnificent edition, easily the best, though I'm happy enough with the Hardcase Crime paperback.

    As to the book itself, yeah--this is where Westlake first fully hit his stride, and while Ray Kelly isn't meant to be as durable a character as Parker, he's just as memorable. The Mercenaries and Killing Time are good books, very readable, but they don't grip you like this one.

    Westlake's theme in his non-pseudonymic (is that a word?) novels, as I've mentioned previously, is quests of self-discovery, and a protagonist's life expectancy is determined by whether or not he can figure out his true nature in time. Kelly's story ends quite differently from those of Westlake's previous two first-person narrators, and there's a reason for that. He sees very clearly with that one eye of his. And while I don't know much about the chronology of when this or that was writtten, it does seem like Kelly, with his very human doubts and emotions, got Westlake to the point where he could see a protagonist who doesn't care to tell us anything about his feelings, and has no doubts at all. Not better, just different. In my imagination, as Kelly and his dad drive into New Jersey over the lower deck of the George Washington Bridge, Parker is striding into Manhattan from the other direction.

    I particularly enjoyed the little lecture on how organized crime tends to draw in outsiders to the American dream, Italians, Irish, Jews, Blacks, etc.

    Every character in this book is a gem, not one comes across as a cliche.

    Most atypically, there's no girl. Westlake nearly always has a love or sex interest of some kind, and that isn't just for books sales (I mean, the guy was married three times), but Kelly just doesn't have the time. In "The Hunter", you'll recall, neither does Parker. He was in a very stark mood indeed that year. Wonder what was going on in his life?

  4. Ha, I must admit, I did think of Parker when Ray and his dad were driving over the George Washington Bridge, Chris, but thank you for putting it so eloquently. Interesting notion on those quests for self-discovery, too; each of those first three Westlakes is a kind of whodunnit, but you're right: they're as much about who their protagonists are as who's doing the killing.

  5. Westlake on the connective tissue between ‘361’ and ‘The Hunter’ (from the marvellous introduction to ‘Levine’, in case either of you haven’t had the pleasure of reading it):

    “In any event, 361 was the coldest book I’d tried to write up to that time, a book in which the narrator would never once state his emotions, but in which his emotions would have to be implied by his physical actions. It was an easy mood to get into, but a hard book to write, and in the middle of it I stopped and switched to another book entirely, one I’d been thinking about for awhile, a paperback-style tough guy novel in which the entire world would be like my 361 hero; a world of unstated emotion and hard surfaces. That book was finished in September of 1961 and was published in Febuarary 1963 as The Hunter (my title!) by Pocket Books, under the pen name Richard Stark, a name I’d already used for a few of that spate of short stories from 1959.”

  6. Aha, straight from the horse's mouth. D'you know, I do actually own Levine, and I read that intro (although not the stories yet), blogging about it in this post, but in the interim completely forgot about it. Thanks for that, Gordon!

  7. No worries. It took me awhile to get beyond the introduction too. (I really wish Westlake had written a memoir about the writing life or something to that effect. The intro here is so interesting and about the nuts and bolts of being a working writer.)

    I really enjoyed the novellas though. Levine almost unique amongst fictional cops in that his great antagonist is his own health. Westlake made the mundane interesting in ways that many of his contemporaries seemed to struggle with.

    (which is one of the things I like about 361, I think –just to bring the discussion back around—it’s such an outrageous story, but it focuses in on the mundane and allows the narrative to feel almost commonplace.)

  8. That zooming in on the mundane and the pedestrian is what I liked about the first of Westlake's Tucker Coe novels, Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, as well. The gangsters Mitch interviews aren't flamboyant or leering psychos; they're believably ordinary, with all the humdrum problems that beset each of us in our lives. And I guess the Parker novels play on that too: heisters who approach their work AS work, and who, when they're not working, exhibit all-too-human flaws and succumb to all-too-human vices.

  9. What wouldn't we all give for Westlake to have written a memoir? So much you have to guess at. Like when did he meet Abby Adams? A long time before he married her, evidently--maybe a decade? There's a story right there, though probably none of anyone's business, and maybe that's why we don't have a memoir.

    Anyway, he obviously had not met her by the point in time he was writing his bleak early masterpieces (which for me are "361", "The Hunter", and "Memory"). He's in the process of escaping the soft-porn ghetto he got his start in, finding his voice, and trying to figure out how he can make a good living doing the one thing he loves best. He's in the midst of his own process of self-discovery, and he doesn't know how it's going to come out yet. I mean, his first two novels both have first-person narrators, and things are looking pretty bad for both of them at the end (they both figure things out a bit too late). He lightened up quite a bit later in the 60's--that may not have been just because the publishers didn't want so many downer books.

    For the record, though, he was writing comic short stories before any of those novels came out. He wanted to develop that other voice as well, but as the saying goes, dying is easy, comedy is hard. Well, harder. :)

    Gordon, I have not yet gotten to Levine, as I work my way methodically through the Westlake canon. Thanks so much for providing that quote. Though it does seem to be a bit off in the chronology, since "The Hunter" was published in 1962. He was probably a whole lot less obsessed with these details than us.

    But mundane details in fiction are, in fact, his stock in trade. Nick's right there. You believe in these tough guys, in a way you don't believe in many others in this genre, because the details are so convincing, because Westlake is doing more here than simple macho wish-fulfillment. It's not about how big the guns are, or how much money is stolen, or how high the death list goes. It's about putting you there. It's about life.

  10. We'll never get a Westlake autobiography (at least, I'm assuming we won't), but a biography is long overdue. That was something I was discussing with Book Glutton a while back: a Westlake biog wouldn't, I don't think, be a massive seller, but it would certainly wash its face (as they say).

    On The Hunter, Trent checked in the Catalog of Copyright Entries, and it does say in there that it was published in December 1962. I've gotta say, though, I still have a lingering suspicion that Westlake's right: every copy of the Pocket edition of The Hunter that I've seen states in the indicia that its first printing was December 1962 but that it was PUBLISHED February 1963. Only a couple of months, you might think, and therefore nothing more than a trifling matter: but it becomes slightly more of a pressing matter when you consider the looming 50th anniversary of Parker...

  11. Ah, so printed up in late '62, but not released until early '63--given the backlog Pocket would have had, that makes sense.

    As to the anniversary--well, there's the writing, there's the printing, and there's the actual appearance of "The Hunter" on drugstore racks. I guess I'm with Westlake on this--until people can actually buy and read the book, it isn't real yet. You haven't shot your wad, so to speak. ;)

  12. Heh heh. Now why do I get the feeling Trent's gonna pop up at some point to slap me down...? Mind you, he's moving house at the moment, so this discussion might slip his notice...

  13. Nick: to say nothing of the fact that there’s movie looming that’s potentially going to create as much debate as the Cruise/Reacher thing, given who’s playing Parker. (I was just on Amazon and noticed that IDW are re-releasing their adaptation of The Hunter as a movie tie-in edition.)

    On the mundane ‘issue’, I think that Westlake has as much in common with Le Carre (The Spy who came in from the cold is a ridiculous story when you stop to think about it, only saved by it’s adherence to the mundane.) and George V. Higgins who really was a revelation with his tales of bad guys who had to take out the trash before they went off to whack someone, less they incur the wrath of the wife… as he does with his then contemporaneous peers.

  14. ::sigh::--if only they could get Parker as dead solid right as they got George Smiley with those two Alec Guinness miniseries. But in many ways, Parker is an even more enigmatic and unfathomable creation than Le Carre's spymaster. A damned tough nut for any actor to crack, so why the hell did they give it to Statham, who could probably crack real nuts with his hands and feet, but as an actor--and that director--and that screenwriter--and that hat--don't get me started. :\

  15. See, this is what I mean: come time for the trailer of the Parker film (whatever it ends up being called) we're going to see cursing which dwarfs the Cruise-as-Reacher 'debate'


  16. Reacher? (googles). Oh--yeah, Cruise in that role is definitely a reach. Are the books really good? Because the Wikipedia article definitely puts the phrase 'macho wish-fulfillment' into my mind.

    I think about what Darwyn Cooke said in Trent and Nick's interview, and I sigh a bit. You know, about how it's a bit hard to sell the idea of a guy who mainly uses little guns he throws away, steals relatively small amounts of money, and doesn't actually kill that many people by the standards of the genre. Parker is a minimalist. Not much call for them in the action genre nowadays.

    Nothing succeeds like excess these days, and in that sense, maybe Cruise was the right choice. In that sense only. But how the hell should I know? I have no dog in that fight. And I may temporarily exile myself from VWOP when the fight about "Parker" starts in earnest. Trent will have no shortage of traffic then, that's for damn sure.

  17. I’ve no idea about the quality of the Reacher books, to be honest. They’ve never looked like the sort of thing that I’d be interested in. (neither has Stephen Leather’s work, much as the current storm in a teacup interests me in its implications.)

    I suspect that Parker will be a hard character to characterize well because it’s going to be very tempting to do the alpha male, macho version of the character
    (which certainly seems to be the way they’re going, given the casting) but Parker’s always been methodical, analytical, circumspect. In a way I’m reminded of a Paul Greengrass quote --about Bourne—“a considered character in an unconsidered world.”.

    I forgot that that Cooke was interviewed over at VWOP. Will check that out now.

  18. WHAT?? You haven't read our Darwyn Cooke interview yet?! Clearly I need to bang on about it even more than I already have!

  19. I was aware of you softly moaning about something on the internet but, to be fair, there's a lot of content to view. :)

    (and I'm getting to it now! a Darwyn Cooke interview is an evergreen product.)

  20. True. Apart from when it crashes Trent's site due to overwhelming levels of traffic...

  21. Gordon, they certainly need a large powerful-looking guy who can credibly play a frighteningly hard tough individual. Robert Duvall is one of the greatest movie actors of all time, and it's still hard to take him seriously as an otherly-named Parker in "The Outfit" (and his motivation in the script is all wrong, which is a much worse problem).

    You do need somebody who is credibly dangerous to men without being a cliche action figure type, and credibly attractive to women, without being a posing prettyboy. And yeah, for any casting director today, that job is a nightmare, but there have been many actors in the past who could have done the job well, and there must be some out there now, but probably none of them are big names.

    The only actor who ever pulled it off was Lee Marvin. And they did get the basic motivation right in that film, as far as it went--he's just robbing and killing other crooks, but of course he didn't steal anything from the straight world until the second novel, and he rarely killed 'civilians.' Because it's messy and attention-grabbing.

    The great thing was that they didn't feel the need to over explain. Let people make up their own minds about how they feel about how Parker is, and what Parker does.

    It's no coincidence that they chose "Flashfire" for this new film--and I will bet you a hundred they cut the scene where he robs the movie theater, and threatens the cashier. The notion of a guy robbing a bank or other legit business, keeping the money, and not paying for it in any way--makes the suits nervous. In more ways than one, I suspect. ;)