I like to read the dedications in books because it can often tell you who a writer’s influenced by. This book review comes out of one of those recommendations. I teach Stephen King’s Joyland (2013) to my Modern Classics seniors, and they just love that book. King dedicates the book to Donald E. Westlake, a detective fiction writer. While Westlake’s 361 is more hard-boiled than King’s Joyland, it was fascinating to see how Westlake might have influenced King in this particular genre. (Incidentally, Westlake also wrote the screenplay for The Grifters, a 1990 movie I really enjoyed).
361 (1962) is essentially about Ray Kelly’s search for revenge for the men who killed his father and took his eye out. Ray and his brother start out by trying to track down who might have wanted their father dead by going to the library to do some research (yay libraries! yay research!). But Ray’s not so sure his brother is cut out for finding vengeance: “He needs an education. He still believes in good guys and bad guys. That they’re born that way and stay that way. And that good guys always win and bad guys always lose.” This sentiment from Ray personifies a lot of characters King writes–they recognize the complexity of the world around them, but others do not (or do not want to).
Westlake uses some metafictional techniques you can see in King’s work, too. He writes “You keep waiting for something to happen, like in the paperbacks.” I laughed out loud at this one, because the author was basically throwing a wink at the reader. Later another character says “It was similar for the lead characters in the books. They suffered, they involved themselves with tense and driven people, they handled sudden death like a commodity in a secondary market. But when it was all finished, they were unchanged. What they had walked through had left no mark at all on them. It would be nice to believe that. But the writers were blandly lying. They weren’t using up their lead character, because they needed him in the next book in the series.”
Westlake’s characters are tough, but they’re human. At one point, Ray “went into the bathroom and sat on the floor and cried like a little kid. I wanted to be a little kid.” But he gets up and goes back out and does what he has to do. He has a purpose, and as Westlake observes: “every man has to have either a home or a purpose.” I found the novel to be a fun, quick read, and also even more fun to look for clues or similarities to King’s foray into this genre. I play to use some of these quotes to ask students if they think Stephen King or Donald Westlake wrote them to talk about style and writing.
Posted by Kate, VP Secondary