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 his client to curb his comedic capers. 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 every 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 (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. 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 practiced both polarities so well 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.
26 responses to “Review: The Fugitive Pigeon (AKA The Dead Nephew)”
As you rightfully noticed, the major change was in tone. Westlake lost some of his seriousness, but all the rest remained largely undisturbed. It’s still a tale of mobsters, hitmen, corrupt cops etc etc. Plus Westlake as Alan Marshall has put some into the novel: young hip people, hot sex (though maybe not so hot after all), not really bright protagonist.
And what is important: this novel is not really funny, not in a LOL funny way. Yes, there are situations, there are dumb people, but you’re not rolling on the floor, pissing under yourself from a great laugh. Probably that’s why I haven’t seen a radical change in Westlake’s direction. It’s lighter in style, sure. But it’s still that book Westlake wrote over and over. The detection method is still the same as it was in the previous books. The protagonist is not far from Clay and others.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I enjoyed it immensely. The Fugitive Pigeon is an improvement over PHA. And I can’t believe you missed tagline from hardcover edition: the gayest chase of the year! Not sure that now editors would pass it.
Yes, but I’d argue that a change in tone is a very profound change indeed–it’s the same basic story, but it’s not taking itself seriously anymore. It begins differently, it ends differently, the people react to each other differently.
I mean, you live in Russia, I live in the United States, and according to WordPress, people from 23 other countries have viewed this blog at least once–we’re all people, right? We all need to eat, sleep, love, dream, laugh, tell stories–and of course there are all the less positive emotions and drives we seem to need to give expression to as well.
But we do it differently, from place to place, and those differences are not trivial–they are profound. And we call them ‘culture’–and I’d argue a work of comedy has a different culture from a non-comedic work of fiction. It occupies a different dimension of being. Sophocles wrote about the gods and fate playing tricks on human beings, and so did Aristophanes, living in the same place and time period–but it’s not the same. It’s not remotely the same. And to be able to write well in a serious vein does not mean you can write well in a comedic vein. And it truly is remarkable to me that Westlake could be so good in both modes. The comic mode took longer to master, though.
I think the book wants to be funny, and it is–it’s amusing as all hell–but it’s not so funny that you break out loud laughing–well, you and I don’t–nothing is more subjective than what makes you laugh–maybe people were rolling around on the floor back in 1965. But today–you smile–you enjoy it–but Westlake hasn’t quite figured out how to flip that switch, trigger that involuntary response. He will, though. He needs a better comic foil. He needs Dortmunder.
Yeah, I noticed that tagline too, but does the phrase ‘like shooting fish in a barrel’ have a Russian equivalent? 😉
A change in tone is a very profound change, and still Westlake hadn’t stepped far from his usual fare. I barely know Westlake’s work after 1968 (and that means the farer we go the more should I live read these books), and probably later it would be more evident, that difference between old Westlake and Westlake-comic-writer. Now it doesn’t fully show. If I never read about Westlake becoming comic writer, I’d never know that something radical happened. After reading TFP you can’t really spot the difference. Those two crowds – one that likes Westlake comic and another that likes Westlake’s grit side – hardly would make a fight deciding what camp this novel should be in.
It’s only the beginning, I realize, not fully developed one. I think I read somewhere – some reviews, maybe? – where someone criticized Wetslake’s book for being not funny, not like some previous ones. It’s cerianly a wrong way to criticize a book. If a book is not funny, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. But some Westlake fans still don’t understand it.
We have something like that phrase about fish and a barrel, but our equivalent is as funny as yours.
I see what you mean–but look at the way the man/woman thing works here, and in the previous RH novels, and what happens to the protagonist at the end.
The Mercenaries: Involved with a woman who loves him but is asking him to give up his dishonest way of life–decides it won’t work because he can’t change, breaks it off, probably killed after the end of the book.
Killing Time: Involved with a woman who loves him but is asking him to run away with her and give up his dishonest way of life–he refuses, and is almost certainly dead at the end of the book.
361: No woman whatsoever–he survives, destroys his enemies, and achieves some level of self-knowledge, but is utterly alone and desolate at the end of the book.
Killy: Gets involved with a woman who doesn’t really seem to love anybody. Achieves self-knowledge and some measure of power, but he’s still very much alone at the end.
Pity Him Afterwards: Tricky, because there are multiple protagonists, but basically only one of them gets involved with a girl, and the relationship is too peripheral to the book as a whole to make any real difference (one of the failings of the book, in my opinion). The central character–the madman–could never possibly form a relationship with another person and dies at the end, with absolutely no self-understanding.
The Fugitive Pigeon: Meets the girl of his dreams, who is beautiful, funny, intelligent and tough as nails–she can always be counted on in a pinch, and experiences much of his adventure right by his side–without her, he’d never have made it. She tacitly asks him to change for her, and he decides he wants to, and at the end they are a very happy couple–probably for life. It’s as happy an ending as Westlake ever allowed himself to write. It’s a BIG difference, and the difference is this is a comedy.
I mean, Othello has the same basic plot as Much Ado About Nothing, right? Deadly jealousy triggered by the fiendish plot of a hate-driven schemer. But look how differently it turns out–because one is a tragedy, and one is a comedy. And in a comedy, people take things less seriously, and things just work out better. Iago only gets caught after it’s too late, but Don John is caught by a complete idiot of a village constable before things have gone too far for a happy ending–the rules are different. Luck favors the innocent. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune miss their mark, because the author deflects them. If I had to choose what kind of fictional reality I was going to live in, I’d choose comedy every time. The Realm of Comedy is ruled by a kind God.
Now there are dark comedies, of course–that’s a different matter. But this is a light comedy about a dark subject. It’s also a romantic comedy, and would have made a damned good picture if adapted and cast properly.
Now what makes it different from all the very similar comedies out there at the time is that it’s got these hard-boiled crime fiction trappings, which Westlake is not merely borrowing–he’s a real crime fiction author, one of the best who ever lived, so he makes all that stuff very convincing. But it’s all being filtered through a comedic lens. I mean, absolutely nobody dies in this book except The Farmer Agricola–a character WE NEVER ACTUALLY MEET.
It’s a bit too sweet. That’s probably why it isn’t as funny as it might be. It isn’t that kind of comedy (I mean, Shakespeare can be funny, but you don’t actually laugh out loud when reading him–you need great comic actors and stagings to pull that off).
What Westlake had to learn to do was balance out the elements better–make it a bit less benevolent, make the villains scarier, the perils more believable, the hero even more hapless–and yet also more credibly able to turn the tables when necessary. The great comic gods of the cinema, like Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Fields–they were not mere buffoons. They could be formidable opponents when provoked. The Clown can become The Trickster Incarnate when you force him into a corner. And you seriously do not want The Trickster as your enemy. If you don’t believe me, ask Elmer Fudd. You get Looney Tunes over there, don’t you? Oh never mind.
You have plenty of time, but yeah–you might want to get to some of the later stuff. Particularly Dortmunder, who of course came along well after 1968–this is precisely what I was talking about–the way avid fans of Westlake may know only certain aspects of him–there’s enough good work there for several completely different writers. But this blog is devoted to all the facets of his work, and to seeing how they join together to form a satisfying whole.
Oh, I forgot to mention–the artist who did the cover for the Italian edition, where the Rockaway Grill has some kind of massive art deco office tower over it had clearly never been to Canarsie. New York City has lots of dinky little neighborhoods with dinky little buildings, people! We don’t all live in skyscrapers. NOBODY in Canarsie lives in any skyscrapers, that I can promise you. Okay, there are probably some high-rise apartment buildings now, but there weren’t in 1965. Anyway, check it out.
Sometimes I am a really unperceptive reader.
A couple of days ago, I decided on a whim to revisit The Fugitive Pigeon. I had read the book several years ago, but I could not remember much of it. It seemed like a good idea to reread the book that launched Westlake’s comic writing career.
I got started, and quickly became engrossed, and the pages flew by. I was enjoying it quite a bit, recollecting the scenes, realizing that I remembered the book, but I had forgotten the serious essence beneath the often humorous situations.
But I was brought up short, not quite halfway through, suddenly aware of how inattentive I sometimes am. I was at the place where Charlie, Chloe, and Artie have kidnapped Althea, and Chloe is driving them to an address on Long Island. Westlake takes a paragraph to describe where they are going:
“Hewlett Bay Park turned out to be on the south shore of Long Island, in the midst of a little flurry of places named Hewlett. There was Hewlett Harbor and Hewlett Neck, Hewlett Bay and Hewlett Point, and even a town just called Hewlett.”
“Huh,” I thought, reading it, “that is a lot of places named Hewlett. There they all are, going to Hewlett in Chloe’s . . . Packard.”
To Hewlett in a Packard. Hewlett Packard.
How on earth did I not notice that little joke the last time I read TFP?
The thing that really shows the depths of my inattention is that for over 18 years I actually was an employee of Hewlett Packard.
Maybe your former employer could come up with a computer that could track down all the implicit puns in the work of Donald Westlake? Nah, the poor thing would probably start smoking and then blow up.
I completely missed this as well. I don’t really associate HP with that era, but of course they were founded (in a garage) in 1939. I assume there was some initial discussion between the partners going on in 1938. Which is the year Chloe’s Packard was built. Actually, given the way car models work, it could have been built in ’39.
We the readers are playing checkers, and he the author is playing–well, not Chess. Too feudal. Say Canadian Checkers, or International Rules Draughts. That’s tougher than chess anyday.
Just released as an e-book. And Brother’s Keepers available for pre-order.
Yay. I say.
Looks like Mysterious Press got busy–they also just re-released The Spy in the Ointment. AND Cops and Robbers. AND High Adventure. All as ebooks. Decent enough cover art, nothing sensational. I’ll do a quick article to boost all the new editions. And then bitch about all the books still unavailable.
I’m most excited about The Spy in the Ointment, since that’s one of my two or three favorite Nephew books. The other is probably Brothers Keepers. And Help I Am Being Held Prisoner. Hard Case isn’t doing any wool-gathering either.
@Lee Trumbull – Actually, contrary to what you say, this makes you a pretty perceptive reader. I had not noticed the HP connection either, even though I think I have read the book at least three times (yep, not much of a life over here).
Your blog (which i am reading page by page from the beginning) inspired me to get the MP kindle version of this book. I started it yesterday afternoon and finished it this morning. What a delight! What a great book. Yes, a little unsophisticated and unpolished (but I kind of like that about it), but just a joy. Perfect summer reading. And so easy to be Charlie and enjoy his journey. And I loved all the pop culture references. They were all really well done and understandable in context, even if you are not familiar with them.
The one big thing that hit me as i was reading this was—and stop me if this is too obvious—I was reading The Hunter as told from the perspective of a pigeon instead of a wolf. The dynamic and the structure and the beats were all the same, but told from the opposite end of the spectrum. The Hero’s Journey as experienced by the fool rather than ( using the symbolism of the greater arcana tarot cards, I can only think that Parker is representing card number 13–Death—after all, he does come back from the dead to start the journey, and leaves pretty much everyone dead in his wake). Holding the two perspectives—and the different approaches to problem solving, which are actually essentially the same: i.e. go find the next person in line and talk to them.
By the way, they did make a movie of this book. On the surface, there is a lot that is different in the movie with regards to scenes, characters, the mob, etc., but essentially, it is the same movie. Made by non other than the master, Scorsese. After Hours, 1985, with Griffin Dunne in the role of Charlie. Check out the trailer….
I am looking forward to reading all the other nephew books. I love that term “nephew”. Can’t believe I am just now, at 62, learning it. Thanks. Your blog is a treasure!
I remember After Hours, and I see the parallels, but I doubt very much it was a conscious reworking of The Fugitive Pigeon, and if it had been, Westlake would have sued.
But your comparison of it with The Hunter–that’s interesting. My own feeling is that you find a lot of Hammett in the Stark books, but of course he’s there in the Westlakes as well (and in the one novel by Curt Clark).
Yes, I think you’re right–not too direct, but it’s there. A comic protagonist facing a comic mob. Of course, Parker was never stuck in a dumpy little bar in the outer boroughs, but he does lose the life (and wife) that he had, has to rebuild it from scratch. It takes him a lot longer to find The Girl, but that’s much less of a pressing issue for him. However, it’s not just The Hunter, but the entire Parker vs. The Outfit arc that’s played out in this short book–and in the Parkers, there’s never going to be a cop serving as the deux ex machina to save the day. No, not even Tough Tony Touhy. (Who sounds a bit Parker-esque, if you think about it).
OMG! I just randomly watched a video that followed the after hours trailer Titled “who is the mystery man at the end of After Hours”. And guess who the mystery man is? None other than Charlie Poole! The author of the video concludes that it is “Death”, and he may not be wrong about it, but if you have read The Fugitive Pigeon, and make the connection of the two, and know what Charlie was wearing, it is conclusive that Scorsese added Charlie at the very end of the movie as a nod to his inspiration.
This mystery man, who we only see for one second in the very last shot of the movie, is seen from the back. He is wearing a black raincoat (the type that has a liner) and a white shirt. This is what Charlie wore for the last third of the book. But here is the kicker—the definitive proof that it is Charlie—the sleeves of his white shirt are sticking out too far. The overcoat, which belonged to the much shorter Artie, is too small for the wearer. Mic drop. Go watch it yourself and see what you think:
I think you might be crazier than I am. 😐
With all due deference and respect, you might want to pick the mic back up again:
nope. Mic stays down. Artie was still smaller than Charlie. It may have fit him, but the sleeves would still be too short. If you have ever put on a coat that was a size or two too small you would see this is true. Scorsese would have possibly exaggerated this to send the message. If it were death, his sleeves are always too long and hide his hands….
Well, this is really a question for a Scorsese blog, of which I felt sure there must be many, but all I can find is a lot of scattered articles on general film blogs. Seriously? No Scorsese Review? Is somebody waiting for the great man to die, then review all his work in order, then ask a lot of smartass questions, that Marty’s not around to answer anymore? That would be so cool.
Also, do you think Chloe might be the first appearance in literature of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”?
That’s a term I had not heretofore encountered. Let me just Google–ah! I see what you mean, and no. She would not be the first appearance by a very long shot. Haven’t you ever watched any screwball comedies? (Bringing Up Baby comes to mind). Plenty of examples in silent film as well.
Westlake was very influenced by John D. MacDonald, and there’s a classic example of the MPDG in Macdonald’s The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything–which was published a few years before The Fugitive Pigeon No doubt there are hundreds of other paperback originals from that general era with similarly daffy dream girls, and Westlake didn’t read them all, but unlikely he didn’t read one of MacDonald’s rare attempts at comedy. I’ve yet to read it myself, I saw the TV movie with Robert Hayes and Pam Dawber, and if that’s even remotely faithful to the original, I suspect Mr. Westlake had a fair critiques to make.
Chloe certainly evokes–and intentionally so–that general type of stock character, but then Westlake turns around and shows us she’s anything but unchanging–she’s developing right before our eyes, becoming more than just a fantasy (I mean, the fantasy begins with her preparing to fuck his friend while he’s there, so not really the classic example of the form to start with). She’s not there only to inspire the young hero–she’s a person in her own right, with her own problems, her own doubts, and at the end, they are both embracing maturity, as well as each other. I mean, she’s got a kid, who is living with her parents–talk about a buzzkill.
So we get to enjoy the fantasy, with her driving like a maniac, pointing guns at people, singing a bawdy ballad on the street–but also the underlying reality that she herself is a developing human being, who is hoping to find somebody ready to take the leap into full adulthood with her, and Charlie has to measure up, or she’ll go find somebody else.
Taking old ideas and making them new again was a Westlake specialty. That’s what this is. Manic Pixie Real Girl. Which beats the dream variety any day. Not to mention the inflatable kind.
Fred, You are, and I say this with the greatest of respect, a brilliant analyst.
And I do a lot of thinking about things and read a LOT of analysis. I look for meaning and connections and you are one of the few who do it right.
Of course, you are right about Chloe. The fact that she starts that way (and her driving style is a clear indicator of her MPDG status) and does grow really is part of the brilliance of Donald Westlake. Although it was the right thing to do to not write one, I would have loved to have seen a sequel to this book. Did Chloe and Charlie really just go settle down and have babies behind the white picket fence? It seems, after this adventure, that sort of life would be impossible for both of them. I wonder what life and adventures Mr. Westlake would have dreamed up for them.
I have read “The Girl…” by John D. And I did not get that so much. I felt the book was so much more serious and angst-y in that Travis McGee social criticism kind of way. I read it after working my way through the whole McGee series, so maybe I was biased. There did not seem to be any lighthearted or fun spirit to the book. I may have to go back and re read.
I wonder what your thoughts would be regarding the opposite of the MPDG in the Westlake books—of course, I am referring to the “Girl with the Silver Eyes” from the Hammet stories. She is a very memorable and compelling character that really stuck with me. Instead of being the MPDG that inspires/supports/leads men to and adventure that changes their lives for the better, She’s the Circe/Siren that leads men to their doom. Any thoughts?
Oh, and PS, I think the guy who did the video is the crazy one. I just happened to have all the information to draw the correct conclusion. My wife can’t believe I watched the video to the end.
I think MacDonald’s book is definitely meant to be comic in nature–but MacDonald isn’t really a comic writer, so not surprised to learn it’s more serious than the silly TV movie they made out of it, many years later. All the same, it’s about a watch that stops time, and the girl basically jumps into bed with the hero right away, correct? (I think he was possibly riffing on Jim Thompson’s The Golden Gizmo, but that’s another subject). Please note Charlie and Chloe have yet to do the deed when the book ends, though it’s not far off.
A sequel to something like this sounds like a good idea, and of course Westlake could have easily gotten the go-ahead from Random House, given the unexpectedly high sales for this book. But the Nephews, in general, do not lend themselves to sequels. The problem is, they are single-use characters–once you’ve resolved their issues–in Charlie’s case, his extended adolescence, enabled by The Rock Grill–there’s nothing left to write about.
In a later review, I compare Westlake Nephews with Harold Lloyd’s “The Boy” character–and once “The Boy” gets together with “The Girl”, that’s the end of the story. Lloyd just creates a new character and repeats the process. Not even Preston Sturges could figure out a way around that conundrum. Lloyd did one movie (Hot Water) about an already-married man, and it’s not one of his more fondly remembered efforts. But it’s also not a sequel. You have to respect the limitations of each form you work in, just as much as the potentials.
Westlake did not, by and large, use the Siren/Circe femme fatale character much in his stories. Here and there he played with the meme, but never too seriously. And, I have to say, never too successfully. He didn’t really believe in it. He liked women too much, I’d say, to really believe that Doom comes in a female form. (Dis)honorable mention for Parker’s wife Lynn, in The Hunter, but she does what she does out of blind panic–she’s not evil, just weak. It’s clear that her remorse is wholly sincere, but it’s too late. You only betray Parker once. He won’t give you a second chance. He’s her doom, not the other way around. The male equivalent of a Femme Fatale. (Macho Morte?)
Hammett was something of a misogynist, though not without many redeeming qualities, so that expresses his own deep suspicion of women, even though the woman he stayed married to most of his life was probably the single best thing that ever happened to him, and what did he do? Leave her for Lillian Hellman (and many others beside), and let’s just say the man was better at writing than he was at living. Something that could be said of many a writer.
I think that the Siren represents something self-destructive in Hammett’s own nature, not the woman herself–but The Girl With the Silver Eyes remains a powerful story, all the same. I vastly prefer The Dain Curse–where the girl who believes herself doomed, as well as doom for others, is made to see herself more clearly by The Op–who talks to her like a fellow human, faced with the same confusions, and I wish I’d read that novel sooner. It would have been good to know I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
One more thing–there is nothing at all wrong with fantasies. Our unfulfilled desires (which is what fantasies are meant to sate, however imperfectly) tell us a great deal about ourselves, when viewed honestly. There is nothing wrong with wishing for some Manic Pixie to come and sweep you out of your humdrum existence, leading you into a world of adventure and romance (and usually danger, just to make it more credible). Women have pretty much the same fantasies, with variations. But the best storytellers are never content with wish-fulfillment alone. There has to be something more to it than that.
But one more caveat occurs to me–Charlie’s life isn’t uprooted by Chloe Shapiro–life as he knew it ends as soon as Trask and Slade walk into the bar. He’s already in a state of flux when he meets her, which is, you might argue, the reason he’s able to eventually recognize her as part of the solution to problems he had before he became a fugitive pigeon. He created those problems himself, he resolves them himself, and then he’s ready to go after The Girl. But The Girl definitely adds a great deal to the story, doesn’t she? I’d argue she’s the single best part of it. But Charlie still has to stand on his own, before he can stand before her as an equal.
I like your perspective on this— that Westlake loved women and it shaped his treatment of female characters. In the Stark books, There are a few bad apples, but they are mostly unappealing from the start (such as the waitress in “Getaway”). Bett Harlow is maybe a nod in that direction, but she is more just a manipulative brat who doesn’t really know what she is dealing with.
I’ll have to go back and re-read the Daine Curse. That is a very interesting perspective on it. I kind of read it as an afterthought—an outlier to the Canon.
So sad that once Hammet hooked up with Hellman, he stopped writing. Or maybe he was just writing for her.
I think he was going to hit that block with or without Hellman. He definitely jumpstarted her career (I’m not a huge fan, but I don’t know most of her work–I think there’s an underlying disingenuousness to her writing–and her personality–that sometimes she makes work for her, but more often not–she couldn’t face herself squarely in the mirror, as Hammett does at his best). If he’d never met her, we’d know him, but if she’d never met him, I don’t know as she would have made much of a splash. They used each other, but she was the better user. And I think they did love each other. In a lost sort of way. Read his daughter Jo’s book about him–I think that’s the most telling analysis of the relationship. He was prouder of her than his books, I believe–and had reason to be.
Writing in the 60’s, Westlake is working in an already well-defined genre, so he’s going to make use of all the classic tropes–like the rich blonde seductress–but he’s always going to do something different with them. He’s going to put a little something extra on the pitch, every time.
Fred, I agree with you; however, i dont see what happened to him so much as a block, but as a diversion of energy and creative drive. Hellman was that to him. Who knows where his energy was diverted. I think he tried to tell the story of that in his last unfinished novel but ran out of energy there as well.
Maybe, but he was writing a book when he was stationed in the Aleutians during the war (something he insisted on, at his age, and in his fragile state of health, nobody was going to make him go–he wanted to). And nothing came of it. Never finished it, and what we have of it isn’t that impressive, however revealing. Can’t blame Hellman for that.
I think he met her when he was already nearing the end of his rope, and she inspired the last viable piece of fiction he wrote, namely The Thin Man. If he hadn’t met her, there would have been other women–but women were never really the problem. He was having an affair with a young redhead in San Francisco, who inspired Brigid O’Shaughnessy (her looks, not her personality), years earlier, when he was still not at his peak as a writer, but highly productive. So if a pretty young wife and a hot young mistress weren’t enough to tire him out…..
Writers burn out sometimes. There’s no point blaming anyone for it. Westlake identified with Hammett for many reasons, not least of which was the fact that he was also probably sometimes in fragile health (but wasn’t drinking himself to death in spite of that). But Westlake kept writing, and that’s the key. Hammett got so wealthy with all the movie deals that he didn’t have to work–he womanized, he drank, he bought stuff he didn’t need, and certain muscles began to atrophy.
Left-wing politics was probably a bigger diversion than Hellman, though she was part of that. And a lot of Hammett’s rep comes from his genuine courage when it came to speaking up for his beliefs.
Tolstoy didn’t write anything of importance for much of the latter part of his life. He got distracted by trying to save humankind. Personally, I’d have rather another few novels, but his ideas did inspire a few odd people like Gandhi.
Artists are not cows. You can’t milk them whenever you want. And even cows run dry sometimes. Some artists produce work throughout their lives, others have a brief spurt of creative energy, then fall silent.
When it comes to crime fiction authors, it’s very common for the ones who wrote for the pulps or did paperback originals to burn out. Peter Rabe, who Westlake admired very much, produced nearly all the work he’s remembered for between 1955 and 1962 (he did two Mafia novels later, during the Godfather craze, and they’re damned interesting, but not up to his previous standard). He got work as a college prof., and later he had a bit of a comeback, but most of his life he was not producing fiction. Jim Thompson’s best work came between ’52 and ’67. Like Rabe, he ended up doing novelizations of Hollywood product–he actually wrote an Ironside novelization (Westlake must have shuddered when he saw it.)
Markets change, styles change, publishing niches (like paperback originals) can just go away. Your body changes as you age, your brain changes with it. Your financial status changes–for better or worse–or both. You find other things you want to do more–screw a million girls, drink really good liquor, save the world–or all three! You didn’t come into the world with “writer” tatooed on your forehead–and you leave it just another stiff, no matter how good you were.
Because Hammett’s work was so influential, it seems strange to us that he produced all of what we know him for in a bit over a decade, but that’s not unusual. In crime fiction, pulp fiction, it’s almost a cliche. It was that era of fiction that produced him, but the difference is, he more than anyone else defines that era. We think of him as a Great American Writer, as we should–but don’t many writers who turned out hugely influential books end up producing very little over the course of a lifetime? We have two novels from Harper Lee. Her childhood pal Truman didn’t do all that much better. Who was J.D. Salinger’s Lillian Hellman?
Do I think she was good for Hammett? That’s a very complex question, but more to the point–it’s none of my damn business. Our choices define who we are, and he had a right to make his. I think he was good for her professionally, but maybe not personally, but again–her choice. Not mine. Most great (or even good) writers are not, in the main, well-adjusted people. That’s why they write. To try and adjust. Sometimes it works. More often it doesn’t.
The simplest answer is that his writing was inspired by the life he led before he became a writer, due to ill health–if he’d stayed healthy, he probably would have remained a detective. After years of not living that life anymore, his inspiration ran out. He didn’t want to write about the life he was living as a famous rich author. The Thin Man really does tell you the whole story. He didn’t like who he was anymore, but he didn’t know what to do about it. Except drink. Would a different woman have gotten him out of his slump? Did Hellman enable him? Maybe. But he was already in the slump when he met her. And possible he just would have died even sooner.