Thursday, May 11, 2006

A Master Class

361, by Donald E. Westlake, Read by L.J. Ganser, BBC Audiobooks America, 2005

Among the second generation of tough guy crime and mystery writers, few have been as prolific and as consistently good as Donald E. Westlake. With over one hundred books in more than forty years, as well as numerous screenplays (including the Oscar-nominated The Grifters) and works under his various pen names, Westlake is still going, still penning crime novels renowned for their no-frills, take-no-prisoners straightforwardness and mordant humor.

361 is as stripped down in its telling as it is in its title. The numerals refer to the Roget’s entry for “Destruction of life; violent death” of which this book demonstrates an abundance. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but chapter one’s rather easy-going start is brutally shattered before it’s even over. The story is told by 23 year old Ray Kelly, who is just getting out of a stint in the Air Force.

When Ray has a reunion with his dad who came to pick him up in New York City, this is the pat and apt depiction of that emotional moment: “We cried like a couple of women, and kept punching each other to prove we were men.” The reunion is shorter than short. They have one night in Manhattan, then the next day on the drive home, a car pulls up alongside he and his father and gunfire erupts. Ray’s dad wrecks the car and the next thing our narrator knows, he’s in the hospital. One of his eyes is gone and he’s as broken as if he was put through a blender. His father never makes it.

What animates Ray from here on out is simple vengeance (as well as a blinking curiosity — why did those men shoot his father and himself?) And as in all tragedies, Ray learns by the book’s end that simple vengeance isn’t so simple, neither in execution nor in what it comes to mean in the greater scheme of things.

He is aided in his quest by his brother Bill whose wife died in some not so clear circumstances possibly related to the murder of their father. The dirty secrets about their father the pair begin to unravel prove to be harder for Bill to cope with than Ray. There are many fights between the two of them, Ray’s single-mindedness often frightening Bill either into submission or revolt (in both senses of that word). These mysteries, as well, prove to be of more consequence for our narrator than his brother. We are lead on a path that takes us to crime bosses, turf wars, the sordid past of Ray and Bill’s parents both, and ultimately to a questioning of Ray’s very identity.

361 has the toughness of Hammett or Chandler, a flat sort of affectless muscularity, unlike Hemingway, especially late Hem when the vigor of his youth was spent. There is no romanticizing being strong or manly, Ray just hits someone when they need hitting just as the Continental Op or Marlowe might. When Ray gets angry at Bill and they have a fist fight, he takes out his glass eye and puts it on the dresser before whipping his older brother. The simplicity of this gesture practically takes the fight out of Bill before the first punch is thrown. Later Ray again pops it out and gives an old man a heart attack, accidentally it happens, but he uses the eye to good effect. It’s that kind of a tough book — and it’s only Westlake’s third.

What’s nice about noirs like this as opposed to straight mysteries is that while there is a bit of a mystery, a bigger picture we’re missing, it isn’t what drives the story. What drives things is one simple motive: revenge. And when the book’s overriding justification for the motive gets a good switch halfway through it is just as satisfying as when the prime suspect in a mystery ends up dead. Expectations derailed in fiction are almost always deeply gratifying. A second enormous twist at the book’s end allows the shape of the mystery at the book’s heart to come to light and it’s tight and powerful in just the right measure.

Westlake’s novel has the kind of coiled energy that makes reading a propelling experience. You are moved along by the book’s dash until the last few pages and never once is there a slackening of tension or a spare moment. At every turn, when you expect a certain direction, Westlake is almost sure to surprise. Today’s predictable, bloated mystery and crime writers could take a page from a master’s playbook.

L.J. Ganser reads like a William Dufris protégé, dropping into accents and voices and giving us a rounded reading that keeps us on familiar ground. No-nonsense books like this often feature rapid back and forth dialogue with little attribution and read in flat narration things can get confusing pronto. Ganser keeps us nicely on track.

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