I stared at her. “Artie? Looks up to me?”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“I thought it was the other way around,” I said.
She laughed. “You don’t know yourself at all, Charlie,” she said. Looking neither to left nor right, she started the Packard rolling forward and angled it out into the traffic.
It would have been sometime in 1964 I’d guess, that Donald Westlake talked to Henry Morrison, who worked at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, about a book he was working on–he’d been trying to write it as a serious mystery/thriller involving a young man in a dangerous situation with organized crime, much like two of his earlier novels for Random House, and as Westlake put it, “It’s been coming out funny.”
Morrison urged him to control his comedic impulses. The book wouldn’t sell, he said. Wouldn’t get a paperback reprint here, or any book club editions, and since American humor doesn’t translate well, it wouldn’t get any foreign language editions, which is where maybe half Westlake’s income derived from.
Westlake went ahead with it anyway, mainly because he found he couldn’t stop himself, and Random House published it. Originally entitled The Dead Nephew, it got changed to The Fugitive Pigeon, because Lee Wright, Westlake’s talented but quirky editor at Random House, didn’t like titles with the word ‘dead’ in them.
It ended up outselling his previous serious-minded Random House mysteries by roughly a two-to-one margin. As you can see up above it got multiple foreign editions, and a fair few paperback reprints (you can see more of them here, and there were many others besides), and it was the first book Westlake ever sold to Hollywood, though the picture was never made. While it’s debatable as to whether or not this constitutes vindication for Ms. Wright, it was certainly vindication for Mr. Westlake. Morrison’s response to all this has not been preserved for posterity.
Comedy was nothing new to Westlake. Much of his earliest work was comic in nature, as a perusal of his short stories from the 1950’s shows. Some of his erotic novels written under pseudonyms had been farcical (notably So Willing, co-authored with his good friend Lawrence Block), bedrooms and farce being natural companions at all times. His Levine stories had a wryly sardonic tone to them, though they were dead serious at heart. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything Westlake ever wrote that didn’t have at least a hint of a comic undertone.
But this was the first of his crime novels to make it the overtone–to heavily emphasize that side of him, the side that saw the humor in everyone and everything, up to and including death. And as far as hard-boiled crime/mystery novels of the time were concerned, it really did mark a departure in tone, which was probably what made Morrison so nervous about it–there had been a funny mystery writer named Craig Rice (real name Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig) who had a string of funny detectives who solved funny mysteries, and as Morrison reminded Westlake, she had worn out her welcome. Funny mysteries often have a way of getting a bit too cute and cozy, and the thrills we associate with the genre can be lost amidst the hijinks.
Comical crime stories were hardly invented by Craig Rice, of course. There had always been an element of levity in the genre overall (which was written first and foremost as entertainment, let’s remember), and particularly in detective stories, going all the way back to Poe’s Dupin (“The letter was in plain sight all the time–D’OH!”). Westlake would certainly have noted how his hero Dashiell Hammett deftly blended violence and intrigue with witty banter in The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man. The hardboiled P.I. in general is never at a loss for a snappy comeback. Westlake would have likewise noted that the main thrust of those stories remained serious, in spite of the humor, which served as leavening–it was never the main ingredient.
Once a genre establishes itself, somebody is going make fun of it. That’s how you know it’s truly arrived. Hollywood produced scores of funny gangster movies from the 1930’s onwards, often starring the actors who had first made people take these movies seriously–Cagney, Robinson, Bogart, Muni–they all took turns spoofing the very archetypes they themselves had created. As far as the printed page is concerned, Richard Prather’s Shell Scott, the second biggest-selling P.I. of all time after Mike Hammer (mainly forgotten today), was winking furiously at his readers from Day One, his tongue seemingly never out of his cheek.
But sending up the cliches inevitably created by a successful genre is not quite the same thing as realizing the deeper comic potential inherent to any crime story–the confusions of identity, the absurd yet deadly situations created when some hapless schmuck gets stuck in the machinery of a mystery, and wants nothing more than to find some way out again. It’s one thing for a Shell Scott to get stuck in that machinery–he wants to be there, that’s where the action is (that’s where the dames are!)–but what if you stuck some average Tom, Dick or Charlie into the mix, forced him to play a role he never remotely sought or desired, and sat back to watch him try to wriggle his way off the hook? And how would that affect him? Could he ever really go back to what he was before?
This fall guy keeps trying to explain to the various desperate characters he encounters along the way that there’s been some mistake, he’s not who they think he is, and of course they don’t believe him–if he’s just some average schmo, what’s he doing in this kind of story? Central casting would never make such a stupid mistake.
So they go right on shooting at him, and he goes right on ducking to beat the band, and it’s a difficult balancing act to pull off for a writer–go too far towards the serious, and you lose the humor–but the humor depends to some extent on us actually caring what happens to the sacrificial schlemiel, clinging desperately to life the way Harold Lloyd clung to that clock face in Safety Last. You have to make them believe he’s really in danger, as Lloyd did by clinging to actual clock faces, on actual skyscrapers, with the nets tucked well out of sight. A writer of prose fiction has to resort to less obvious and personally hazardous techniques, but the principle is the same.
Lloyd, like nearly all the great early American masters of cinematic comedy, came out of the Mack Sennett/Hal Roach schools, and in a less direct line of succession, so did Westlake–you take an inherently ridiculous situation, and you build on it, each gag topping the last, an ever-escalating cascade of comic contrivance, that makes us gasp, as well as guffaw–and as the legendary Shakespearean Edmund Kean reputedly said in his final moments, dying is easy–comedy is hard.
Westlake was going to have to work at this. His first attempt is entertaining as hell–but it doesn’t have a lot of belly laughs. It has plenty else to offer, and the belly laughs would come, but it would be a tough slog, with a few missteps along the way. Westlake always insisted he was never the class clown as a boy–he was the guy standing next to the class clown. Comedy didn’t come to him naturally. It didn’t to Harold Lloyd either. But there’s always much to be said for a clown who earns his laughs the hard way.
For this novel, Westlake goes back to the first person singular, having experimented with multiple third person protagonists in his previous Random House effort, and of course in the Parker novels. He needs to make sure we’re firmly in his hero’s camp, and the best way to get there is to have him talking to us all the way through (except for one brief interlude, and we’ll get to that).
Charlie Poole is a prototypical slacker, a perfectly nice young man in his early 20’s, nothing wrong with him except a total lack of ambition–he was whiling away his days reading science fiction magazines (hmm, wonder who that’s based on?). Since Charlie’s aunt (heh) married a minor mob boss, Charlie’s mother, despairing of ever getting him out of the house, pulled a few strings and got him a job running The Rockaway Grill, a mob-owned bar in Canarsie, located at the arse-end of Brooklyn, way back before Brooklyn became the Locus of All Hipsterdom it is today, because hip young people can’t afford to live in Greenwich Village anymore.
It’s basically a slacker’s dream job. He works from about 4pm to midnight–he can stay open later, if there’s a classic black and white movie on the Late Late Show and back in those days there pretty much always was–this is how people used to watch old movies. Customers are few and generally affable, and he has his own little apartment above the bar, so his commute involves going up or down a short flight of stairs (geez, I’m fantasizing about this job just writing about it).
He knows a few neighborhood girls from his school days who are no more ambitious than himself, and will still go out with him, and then go home with him, so his sex life proceeds in much the same mediocre fashion as the rest of his life. The only real responsibility he has is to serve as a drop-off for certain packages, the contents of which he does not inquire about, which are then picked up by certain persons, the identity of whom he does not inquire about. Charlie sees no reason any of this should ever change–he has no desire to better himself–what could be better than this?
Then one night, just as he’s closing up, these two ominous looking gentlemen who look like they stepped out of one of the gangster movies he likes to watch late at night show up and present him with a card, featuring his name and a black spot. Charlie is not that quick on the uptake at this point of the story, and it takes a bit of explanation before he grasps that they are hitters, and he’s the hit–and he still doesn’t know why, but the hitters don’t feel it’s their job to explain that.
The local patrolman happens to come in right at that point, forestalling the execution of Charlie’s execution, and before the torpedoes can zero back in on him, he’s out the second story window, clinging to the bar sign, and then the ‘away’ part of ‘Rockaway’ gives way, and he’s off and running for his very life. (Parenthetically, I should add that from this point onwards, The Rockaway Grill is referred to as The Rock Grill–it’s the little details that count in this kind of story).
Charlie scarpers for the subway, and makes it to Midtown Manhattan, over by Central Park, where his uncle the minor mob boss lives with his aunt–who is the one thing his uncle the minor mob boss most fears, so Charlie figures he’s got some leverage here. Unfortunately the hit men (whose names are Trask and Slade) figured out that’s where he was going, and beat him to the apartment door, where they talk to his uncle–and listening to them talk from a nearby stairwell, Charlie learns to his horror that his uncle already knows about the hit, which was ordered by somebody much further up the ladder, and he has no intention of doing anything about it. Charlie will have to seek sanctuary elsewhere.
He heads down to to the Village, to hole up with his old friend Artie Dexter–it’s the wee wee hours of the morning now, that brief moment you can stroll through almost any part of Manhattan and be utterly alone, and actually hear your own footsteps echoing off the surrounding canyons. If you don’t believe me, come here sometime and try it. You won’t get mugged, because all the muggers are asleep too.
Authors who come to New York from Majorca once ever ten years to buy a new bathing suit always put down in their books that the big city never sleeps, but that’s what they know. New York sleeps, all right, from about four-thirty in the morning till about quarter after five. That’s maybe only forty-five minutes, not very long to be asleep, but it can seem like forever if you’re one of the few people awake during it. And it’s most noticeable in places like Times Square, that are so fully awake the rest of the day. Sixth Avenue is like that, right about 8th Street, at Village Square. The movies and bars are closed, the luncheonettes are closed, everything is closed. There’s no traffic, no pedestrians, and the streets westward radiating away like a fan are all narrow and dark and empty.
As true today as it was when Westlake typed it. Anyway, Artie is throwing a huge party in his tiny apartment, which he is always doing, being a much more ambitious slacker than Charlie. Charlie sacks out on the floor, and the next day meets Chloe Shapiro, “a sloe-eyed raven-tressed beauty in dungarees and black turtle-neck sweater,” who is the absolute best thing in the book, and far and away the most interesting, modern, timeless, complicated, baffling, and mind-numbingly desirable girl Westlake had dreamed up to this point in time, and maybe ever (and she sounds much too specific to be pure fantasy–Westlake knew some version or versions of this girl, and lusted after her, successfully or not I couldn’t say).
She’s about to have breakfast, and then sex with Artie–she’s his ‘morning-after’ girl. Hey, it’s Greenwich Village in the 1960’s, people. Compared to what’s probably going on nearby, this is a Disney film.
Whenever I read this book, I invariably cast a 20-ish Winona Ryder as Chloe. I then have to cast a 20-ish Mark Wahlberg as Charlie. And maybe Quentin Tarantino could have directed it with his typical panache, but in a somewhat less sanguinary vein than is generally his wont? And we will never see that adaptation, or probably any other. More’s the pity, but we can always unreel it in our heads.
So back at the den of iniquity, Chloe sizes Charlie up pretty well in all his glorious slackerdom, and is perhaps a bit more impressed than she lets on, figuring there’s more to him than meets the eye (there’d kind of have to be, right?). Charlie utterly fails to size Chloe up in all her glorious Village hippie chick-dom, which is not all there is to her either–in all fairness, he’s the one running for his life, but mainly she’s just smarter than him. Then he gets a little mob-related intel from Artie, who used to be connected, and off he goes to Staten Island, where dwells ‘The Farmer’ Agricola, the higher-up mob guy who put the hit on Charlie. Charlie figures he can reason with him. For some reason.
Staten Island sounds about the same as it is now–a series of little rural-suburban towns on an island that for some reason is part of New York City, though they keep threatening to do something about that, and never actually do. Charlie finds The Farmer living in an actual farmhouse, probably without any sense of irony whatsoever, but he’s not living there anymore, because somebody stabbed him in the back with a dagger in his own study just before Charlie got there, like this was a badly-played game of Clue.
Newsflash–you can’t write a Random House Murder Mystery without putting a mysterious murder in there somewhere. Westlake is rolling his eyes as much as you are, but dem’s de rules. Charlie, having failed to read the rulebook, finds himself on the hook for yet another hit-worthy offense–and it only takes one. And Trask and Slade keep popping up everywhere he goes (as they will throughout the entire book).
The Farmer’s exquisitely beautiful blonde daughter with an exquisitely beautiful blonde sense of the melodramatic, tries to murder Charlie for murdering her father, and ends up accidentally freeing him from the barn he’s being held captive in, and then it turns out Artie and Chloe came after Charlie because they belatedly realized he might be in a little trouble, and they kidnap the daughter because hey why not, and they’re off to the races.
Yes, Chloe gets to come along for the ride–come along, you say? She’s driving! With no license, or visible sense of self-preservation. And take a gander, will you, at what she’s driving.
1938 Packard Limo. “The Mechanical Sydney Greenstreet”, Charlie calls it, spending much of the remaining narrative geeking out over it, and who could blame him?
So after a few twists and turns (or a lot, because it’s Chloe driving), the Farmer’s daughter makes her escape with Artie in hot pursuit (neither character is seen again), and it’s just Charlie and Chloe, following one lead after another, finally confronting an even higher-up and more improbable mobster than The Farmer Agricola–one who somehow dragoons Charlie into playing a few hands of bridge, preparatory to killing him. But then in bursts Chloe, gun in hand, “as wild and beautiful as a cheetah”, and if your heart doesn’t skip a beat, you’re dead.
After the misapprehending mob boss (something of an armchair detective himself–in fact, I think he’s a rather sneering reference to Nero Wolfe, which is probably why I always see him as Maury Chaykin) refers to Chloe as The Farmer’s Daughter, and she comes close to shooting him for what she considers an off-color remark, Charlie learns that he got fingered as a police informant inside the mob by a mob informant inside the police department. Well, that figures.
He’s got to go talk to this cop now, but first he and Chloe need some sleep. Well, they need to do something else besides sleep at this point, but neither of them wants to broach that subject just yet. The subject that does get broached is why Chloe is screwing Artie on a regular basis, when she obviously has no strong feelings towards him at all. And turns out she has a five year old daughter currently living with the grandparents in The Bronx.
“Now, one last point, and I hope I don’t make you blush. Remember puberty at 12. Married at seventeen. A mother at eighteen. I’m long since no virgin, Charlie, and I’ve got drives and needs just like anybody else So I’ve got these drives and needs, and I don’t want responsibility, so I wind up Artie Dexter’s morning-after girl. “
She’s not quite the female Charlie Poole, but she’s living in the same nether-realm between childhood and maturity. Only one gets the feeling it’s starting to pall on her a bit. Charlie, on the other hand, can’t wait to get back to Canarsie and the Rock Grill, which Chloe notes with some displeasure.
So they cruise back to the Village in the Packard, and of course one of the hitters is there waiting for Charlie, so Chloe does what any impossibly cool 1960’s Village hippie-chick would do–pretends to be drunk, sings a filthy song, and takes her top off right in front of whichever one it is, distracting him while Charlie slips into the building. Then she disguises herself as a boy, and walks in herself. Charlie is getting more bedazzled by Ms. Shapiro with every passing moment.
And after a mutually restless night spent sleeping in separate rooms, she and Charlie have it out–a recurring motif in Westlake’s writing on the whole boy/girl thing is that sexual revolution or no, the guy is still expected to make the first move most of the time, and damned if he does, damned if he don’t–that hasn’t changed much either, has it? She has decided he’s judging her for being sexually free, which isn’t at all the case, but her real beef is that he doesn’t know who he is, and doesn’t seem to want to know. She’s ready to grow up, and he isn’t. So she pointedly absents herself from his quest to regain slacker nirvana.
So Charlie must go forth bereft and Chloe-less , to seek the final answer to how he got put on that infamous black spot, and who killed The Farmer Agricola, and the reader can only mourn her absence, but some things a man really does have to do himself, or he’ll never be a man at all. And some plot synopses a blogger really does have to cut short, or he’ll never get to the point.
Following a fairly innovative chapter, in which Charlie, in the clutches of the long-thwarted Trask and Slade, finds himself being marched out on a desolate beach over near Orient Point (sheesh, there’s a lot of driving in this novel!) and abruptly switches to the third person, to tantalize the reader with the possibility that maybe this is a really dark comedy–just in the proverbial nick of time, he realizes who fingered him, and who the killer is, and that it’s the same person, and he manages to call a time out to his own demise, and all the mystery nonsense gets tied up respectably well, with about as much plausibility as one might expect at this point, which isn’t saying much. I mean, it involves a cop named Tough Tony Touhy, and the seeming end of all organized crime in New York City. Like that. Hey, none of Shakespeare’s comedies end believably either, you know.
All of this mob fol-de-rol was never anything more than a threadbare excuse to go tooling around in a 1938 Packard Limo with a sloe-eyed raven-tressed beauty who drives like a maniac–and who Charlie now realizes is worth more to him than all the Rock Grills in all the Canarsies that ever were. Turns out all he needed to snap him out of arrested adolescence was to stare death right in the face. And now he’s ready to do something far more frightening, but also potentially a lot more fun. He and Chloe do the old ‘your place or mine’ bit (my vote is for the back seat of the Packard), but first they’re going to grab a bite to eat. The End (with one final twist I won’t give away, because it’s redundant).
Now, did you take any of that seriously? No, and neither did Westlake, which is why he ended up having to write it as a comedy. Thing is, not needing to take the constraints of the narrative too seriously was oddly liberating–he originally told the skeptical Henry Morrison that he was almost done with the funny mystery anyway, he might as well finish it, he’d just do one and get it out of his system, but of course any chance of that prediction coming true ended when he and Random House saw the book sales–I suspect that even if the book had flopped, his whimsical impulses would have remained difficult to suppress, but having made his first really big success under his own name, the floodgates were flung wide open, and now he just had to figure out how to make this work for him.
Because The Fugitive Pigeon, as much fun as it is, is not a great book. It succeeded by dint of sheer anarchic energy and invention, and by virtue of being essentially all by itself in a market overpopulated by earnest somber world-weary detectives–whose plots, when you get right down to it, are not much less nonsensical. That’s what Westlake was trying to tell Morrison–it’s all nonsense anyway, so why not just go with that, make something of it?
His later attempts at comedy got better and better (with the occasional misfire)–to me, what none of them quite have to the same extent as this one is that sense of joyous discovery, of making up the rules as you go along, of doing something just to see how it would work, which is the signal distinction of this book. And which, when you get right down to it, is the joy of genre fiction as a whole–when it’s done right. When it’s not just cranked out mechanically, to fit an existing template, but rather refuses to stay within the lines–using the form as a guideline, but never letting it become a prison–and letting the reader figure it all out as he or she goes along. The very constraints of a genre can be oddly liberating, if you just allow them to be. Nobody ever knew this better than Donald Westlake.
And just for lagniappe, as he goes along, Westlake has Charlie, who had after all mainly been living what passed for his life through various forms of popular fiction, toss one pop cultural reference after another at the reader, as part of his attempt to describe his experiences–surprisingly, most of his references are still recognizable today.
From start to finish, Charlie mentions High Sierra, Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, Billy Strayhorn, Charles Addams, Liberace, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Dale Carnegie, Disney heroines, The Belles of St. Trinians, Madame Defarge, Playboy, Sidney Greenstreet, The Three Stooges, Anita Ekberg, Peanuts (Charlie Brown and Lucy), Disneyland, Carol Reed, Kiss of Death, Victor Mature, Richard Widmark, It’s a Gift, W.C. Fields, Baby LeRoy, Errol Flynn, Hail to the Bastard King of England, Roger Bannister, The Hayes Office, Cary Grant, Brand X, Volto the Grapenuts Martian, Sally Rand, Merry Anders, Barbara Nichols, John Wayne, Robert Ryan, Superman, and Spy Smasher. If you knew all of those without clicking or googling, you should stop reading this blog and try out for Jeopardy!
And all of this in the first 164 pages of my Ballantine paperback edition. No pop cultural references at all in the remaining 13 pages–in which Charlie embraces adulthood (and Chloe). Hmm–wonder if there’s a subtextual message buried in there somewhere?
By the bye, the Bastard King of England ref is technically Chloe’s, since she’s the one singing the song–on a public sidewalk–in the middle of the night–right before she strips to her bra. And if you are easily shocked, I must urge you to by no means click on that link or you will be thoroughly scandalized (and have I mentioned not enough of you are clicking on the links? I spend a lot of time looking all this stuff up, you know. Like minutes, even. For shame.)
So what happened to that movie they never made? According to Westlake, a lot of bad scripts–Hollywood had forgotten how to do this kind of story right in the 1960’s. And he got a pittance for the rights. A learning experience in that regard as well. But what he’d stumbled upon was a lot more important than any movie anybody could have made. Lots of writers have done both serious and funny books, and succeeded at both–but how many of them have done both approaches so well and so innovatively that people will never stop arguing which constitutes that writer’s true legacy? Will the real Donald Westlake please stand up?
When Morrison told Westlake to stay serious, he remembered saying this in response–“Well, it’s going fast, it’s not going to take that long, it’ll be this aberration, I’ll just do it once, and I’ll do it right. But I need a breath of air, here. I’m feeling as if the form is a stupid form. And I have to have fun with it for once.”
By ‘the form’, he clearly meant murder mysteries, not crime fiction as a whole. The mystery was a form Westlake could never quite master, and never quite get comfortable with, and never quite take seriously–but he could never quite shake it, either. And as evidence of that, I present the next book on our list–another Richard Stark, and guess who’s playing the shamus this time? Reluctantly, of course. But with a deadly efficiency that Charlie Poole could only envy (the dame in this one, not so much).
Edifying as his romp with Charlie and Chloe had been, Westlake in the Mid-60’s was still at his absolute peak when hardboiled as all hell, and the next book has long been recognized as one of his very best. By everybody other than Westlake himself–who hated it. Will we ever figure this guy out? Stay tuned.