Don’t know if these facts are related or not, but three weeks after I picked up a batch of Hard Case Crime paperbacks on the cheap at my local Dollar General, I read that Dorchester Publishing, the company responsible for printing and distributing this line of crime fiction, plans to axe its small mass-market paperbacks in favor of eBooks and print-on-demand trades. Sour news for lovers of pulp fiction in a snazzy retro print format — as Charles Ardai’s Hard Case had become a reliable source over the past six years for both modern (writers like Stephen King, David Schow, and Max Allen Collins) and obscure (forgotten gems by the likes of Lawrence Block, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Ed McBain) hard-boiled fiction.
Just finished one of the latter this past weekend, in fact: Donald E. Westlake’s 361, a dark and dirty revenge thriller that was first published the same year as Westlake’s first Parker novel, The Hunter. The book tells the first person story of returning veteran Ray Kelly, whose reunion with his lawyer father is ruined big time when a Chrysler carrying hit men takes out the old man and leave Ray with only one eye.
Ray and his whiny older brother Bill dig into the hit and, in so doing, uncover a host of uncomfortable truths. The seemingly respectable lawyer who Ray has called his father had ties to the New York mob, but this proves only the surface secret. As in the best hard-boiled fiction, the further our hero pieces things together, the darker the whole construction gets.
Though it’s an early work, Westlake’s novel proves to be both assured and compelling, leanly written and packed with violent double-dealings. Its most striking element is an acknowledgment of the way that violence changes its hero. “Every man has to either have a home or a purpose,” Ray says at one point — and both of these have changed drastically for him. Our one-eyed vet may be tough, but unlike so many paperback protagonists of his day, he has serious doubts about his capacity to kill the man responsible for the killings. Though we know he ultimately will do so, the book still leaves us wondering about how our hero’ll handle it in the years ahead. Not the kind of question we had about Mike Hammer at the end of I, The Jury, say: in its recognition of this question, 361 is like a Kennedy Era variation on Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven.
A taut little read and typical of the best finds in Hard Case’s library. Here’s hoping the series finds another publisher for its mean little paperbacks.