Lex Talionis

361 by Donald Westlake (1962): Ray Kelly finishes his European stint in the U.S. Air Force and returns home to meet his father in New York City before returning to their hometown in Upstate New York. And then hell breaks loose, and keeps breaking loose for the rest of the novel.

An early novel from thriller maestro Westlake, 361 offers a lot of hardboiled thrills and reversals in its 200 pages. The strength of the novel lies in its plot, and in Westlake’s sympathetic, somewhat genre-busting characterization of Ray Kelly. Events force him to be a tough guy. That doesn’t mean he likes it, or likes committing violence. Kelly throws up a lot both before and after moments of violence, though there are subtler bits of characterization as well.

One can see, in Kelly’s characterization, Westlake working against the dominant mode of hardbitten, almost sadistic protagonists of similar novels of the 1950’s and 1960’s that include the super-popular Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. Indeed, during a lull in the action Kelly tries to kill time by reading some (unnamed) paperback thrillers, only to discover that he can’t suspend his disbelief at how violence has no lasting psychological effects on the protagonists. It’s a lovely, subtle moment of metacommentary on the genre that Westlake would soon be an acknowledged, boundary-pushing master of. Recommended.

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