Tag Archives: comic crime novels

Review: The Busy Body

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“We got the clearance to rub him,  just day before yesterday.  I had it set up for over in Jersey.  Friday night, he’s on this bowling league, see?  And it struck me, a bowling ball, now, that looks a hell of a lot like the old fashioned kind of bomb, you know what I mean?  So I thought I’d–”

“You’re supposed to rub Menchik,” Nick Rovito reminded him, “Not the whole Bowlorama.”

“Sure, so this is better.  We can double up.  Willy goes with Engel, see, and helps him dig it up, and then Engel rubs him and leaves him in the coffin with Charlie and covers it all up again, and who’s to find Willy?   You gonna look for him in a grave?”

Nick Rovito smiled.   He didn’t do that very often,  and it made the boys around the table happy to see him do it now.  “That’s pretty nifty,” he said.  “I like the feel of that.”

Somebody else around the table said “It’s like a poetic humor, huh Nick?” and Nick Rovito said “Yeah.”

Though I suppose it very slightly resembles The Trouble With Harry  (I’ve only ever seen the Hitchcock film based on Jack Trevor Story’s–um–story),  as you can see from my choice of book covers this week, I don’t particularly have any works by other authors to compare this book with.   I’ve got the deliciously morbid Ballantine paperback reprint cover up there because I  happen to like it much better than the rather generic caricatures of the original Random House edition.

One thing that is almost always missed in visual interpretations of Westlake’s comic novels is how straight-faced they are.   Keatonesque, you might even say.   You may be laughing, but nobody in the book is, most of the time.  They are all taking the proceedings very seriously, particularly the protagonist, who is usually in mortal peril.  To do Westlake’s  style of comedy right, you have to play it like a particularly crucial hand of poker.  One where your life is at stake.

But for some reason everybody who adapted them wanted to play up the comic angle really hard, just so the audience would know they weren’t being serious about it–the same way when they adapted Richard Stark, they kept finding some way to make Parker seem like a nice guy.   And since they didn’t take the proceedings seriously, that’s why the movies were almost never funny.   And absolutely never as funny as the books.   And they pretty much always flopped, with audiences and the critics.   And for some reason, Hollywood kept making more of them, and they kept right on flopping.   But the checks they made out to Westlake kept clearing.   So the joke wasn’t on him.

The reason I’m mentioning all this is that the film Hollywood made out of The Busy Body was the first Westlake adaptation to go into general release in the U.S., and really the first film based on one of his books that got any mainstream attention.   There had been three French movies already–an anthology film that incorporated one of his short stories into it (that is literally all I know about it), Godard’s unauthorized & 99.9999% unfaithful adaptation of The Jugger  (see the previous two reviews here), and Alain Cavalier’s Mise a Sac, which transposed the events of The Score to rural France.

Westlake said he saw Mise a Sac once, on video (probably taped from a TV broadcast), at a friend’s apartment in Paris, without subtitles, and he thought it looked pretty good–I’ve seen a high quality print, with subtitles, at the Museum of Modern Art and it’s very good.  I’ll get around to reviewing it pretty soon.   The Busy Body I will never bother to post a full review of, because it’s terrible.   Ditto with Godard’s film.  I have no idea where you’d get a copy of that anthology thing, but give me time.

The Busy Body was released in March of 1967, and John Boorman’s Point Blank came out in August of the same year.   They definitely saved the best for last.   Please note that even though I’m mentioning this movie, I didn’t put an image of the poster up above.   The film is currently available on Netflix, if you’re curious.   I urge you not to buy a copy.   It’s a train wreck, made all the worse by the amazing cast they put together for it.   Sid Caesar, Richard Pryor, Robert Ryan, and the hilariously delectable Arlene Golonka, and here is the only image I choose to recall from the entire film.

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That scene isn’t from the book, and do I care?   I most emphatically do not.    Ms. Golonka’s breathtaking bod aside, the movie stinks, and Westlake thought so too.   He said after this one, William Castle finally decided to stop trying to be a director, and just produce movies.   Castle’s next production, Westlake noted ruefully, was Rosemary’s Baby.   Timing is everything.

It’s strange that this was the only ‘Nephew’ book that became an actual movie–several others were optioned, including The Fugitive Pigeon, which would have been a much better choice, though maybe a bit too counter-cultural for the likes of William Castle (and not enough for the directors who dug that kind of scene).  One gets the impression that a very large part of Westlake’s income derived from studios buying the rights to this or that book and then never doing anything with it.   Most of the time, that was probably just as well.

To me, this is one of the weakest of the Nephew stories.   It’s self-evidently a comic re-telling of The Mercenaries, featuring a mob boss’ right hand man dragooned into investigating a mystery for his employer, and ending up on the chopping block himself.   It also contains elements freely recycled from The Fugitive Pigeon, which had been Westlake’s first really big seller for Random House (even outsold the Parker novels that had come out thus far).

Westlake’s comic technique is improving here, and there’s much to like about the book.   It’s a more polished work, with better gags, and improved execution overall–but there’s less conviction behind it.  He’s still figuring out how to make this kind of story work.  Enthusiasm alone won’t cut it now, but neither will mere technique.  He needs characters people will care about who are still genuinely and uniquely funny.   Characters from whom the story will flow naturally.   He doesn’t have that here.

He wrote the first comic novel more or less as a reaction against the overly serious mysteries he was expected to keep cranking out, and his relief at getting to express the humorous side of his nature is abundantly clear–as is the fact that he can easily imagine himself being in Charlie Poole’s situation (and falling in love with a girl like Chloe Shapiro, as I suspect he really did at some point in time).

But here, he’s writing about an older guy (over 30, I think) who has chosen to be somebody’s flunky for life–a second generation mobster–an organization man practically from the cradle to the grave–almost literally, in fact.   His protagonist is an empty suit, with lots of money, and no real self-understanding.   He feels no strong attachment to anybody in his life, or to his job.  Typically, in a Westlake story, this kind of character ends up dead, or about to be dead.  But this is a comedy, and not really a dark one, in spite of the subject matter–so the guy has to live.  How to work it this time?

Aloysius Eugene Engel (of Irish and Jewish parentage, going by the name) is the son of a smalltimer in the New York syndicate, whose general lack of direction in life led to him becoming a messenger boy for the rackets himself.  Engel Sr’s overbearing ambitious wife (clearly the Irish side of the family, though she’d give any Jewish mother a run for her money) noodged him into using some information he had to boost their son’s career.

Engel Jr. was therefore put in a position where he could tell the boss of the outfit, one Nick Rovito (very reminiscent of Nick Ganolese from The Mercenaries) that his right hand man was about to betray and supplant him–and in the process, Engel Jr. ended up taking the guy’s place.

In the process, Engel inadvertently killed the guy he was informing on–without really thinking about it, since the guy was about to strangle him, and Nick helpfully tossed him a gun, which he emptied at the guy with his eyes tight shut.   Nick kept the gun, with Engel’s prints on it, just in case it was needed someday.   Yeah, very reminiscent of The Mercenaries.    (And yeah, I know I said Nephews don’t kill, but the rules of imaginary sub-genres are notoriously flexible–we never see him kill anyone on purpose, and it’s clearly something he’d much rather not be doing).

The story opens in earnest with the funeral of another mob guy–a huge expensive affair for a very unimportant guy, named Charlie Brody (kind of interesting that Westlake chose to give the stiff in question the same first name as the protagonist of his previous comic crime novel–he loved morbid little injokes like that).

Charlie’s only job of any significance was to transport large quantities of narcotics sewn up in his blue suit.   Rovito just felt like there hadn’t been a good funeral in a while, and this was as good an excuse as any.   Belatedly, it’s realized that the grieving widow, a former call girl for the syndicate, has chosen that very blue suit to bury her husband in.   The suit with a quarter million dollars worth of drugs sewn into the jacket.

Engel gets tapped to go dig up Charlie and get the suit jacket.    In the process, as the opening quote makes clear, he’s supposed to whack this other mob guy who has become a problem, after the guy helps him dig it up.   But the coffin is empty, and the guy skedaddles, and Engel is now seriously in dutch with his boss.   Bad enough he had to play grave robber, but now he’s got to play detective, solve the case of the missing corpse, and retrieve the drugs–or at least find out what happened.

So here we go again–another guy who doesn’t want to be solving a mystery forced by a rather contrived set of circumstances to do precisely that–but his reaction is a bit different–see, Engel isn’t the cool competent customer that Clay in The Mercenaries is–who eventually turns out to not be as smart as he thinks he is.   Nor is he the clueless terrified schlemiel that Charlie Poole in The Fugitive Pigeon is–who finally turns out to be smarter than he thinks he is.   Engel is pretty much exactly as smart as he thinks he is–and kvetchy as a man could possibly be.   He’ll start monologuing on his grievances at the drop of a hat.

“I might as well gone to college,” said Engel, “like my mother wanted.    I might as well gone legit, and took the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.  So I got money, I got prestige, I got the respect of my community, I even got a pipe with my name on it at Kean’s, but is it worth it?  To be involved with slobs like this masochist on the floor here, is it worth it?  To go dig up graves and conk people on the head with shovels and drive a standard-shift car and get lost forty times in Brooklyn and associate with slobs like Willy Menchik at this hour of the night.   I might as well been a milkman.”

He opened the door and stepped out, still grumbling.   “I might better off been a milkman, they got a union.”

That is world-class kvetching, and another strong indicator that he is of both Jewish and Irish descent (arguably the two most gifted groups of complainers, and historically having much to complain about, in all fairness).

Engel is tall, lean, and saturnine in countenance.   His reaction to every new difficulty that arises in his life is to grouse and brood over it, with a general aura of aggrieved melancholic resignation–like he expected this to happen, because fate is determined to play an endless series of practical jokes on him, but he still has to say something about it, just to make it clear he’s not okay with this wholly undeserved treatment he’s getting from what powers there be.    Does this remind you of anyone else you’ve ever met in a Donald Westlake novel?   Let’s come back to that later.

So Engel goes to the funeral home where Charlie was prepared for his interment, and since it must be obvious by now I’m not that interested in the story of this one, let me do a bit of comparative quoting here–Parker visited a funeral home in The Jugger, which was written around the same time as this book (I’m going to hazard a guess that Westlake attended a funeral or three around then and was making mental notes amidst the mourning).

Let’s see how different the styles are–here’s Richard Stark–

The room stank of flowers and death.   Orange light bulbs shaped like wrinkled mosques shone dimly in wall fixtures on the left, gleaming on the tangled pattern of the wallpaper, muting and deadening in the thick maroon rug and the heavy dark draperies around the doorways.  To the right, rotting flowers in green wicker baskets stood around a coffinless bier; a few white rose petals had fallen on to the flat table-top of the bier and were slowly browning and curling into tiny fists.

Here’s Donald Westlake–

The sign on the front lawn that said 

AUGUSTUS MERRIWEATHER

Grief Parlor

 was three feet wide and in neon, but it was blue neon, for dignity.   Behind this sign and beyond the manicured lawn was the building, a robber baron’s town house when it was built in the latter part of the nineteenth century, its gables and bay windows all done in a rotten stucco now painted a gloomy brown.  A broad empty porch spread around the broad vacuous face of the house, and as Engel came up the slate walk he saw that this porch was full of uniformed policemen.

Stark again–

Going through the curtained doorway at the far end of the room was like time travel, like leaping across the years out of the muffled darkness of the Victorian era and into the plane geometry of IBM.  The walls of this corridor, painted grey, looked like some sort of spackled plastic in a poor imitation of stucco; the ceiling was a gridwork of white sound-proofing panels with small black holes in rows; and the floor was black composition that deadened the sound of Parker’s feet almost as much as the maroon rug in the other room.

Westlake again–

He was in a different world now, though just as dim and cluttered a one.  Out ahead of him stretched the hallway, narrow and low-ceilinged.  Two wall fixtures shaped sort of like candles contained amber light bulbs shaped sort of like candle flames, and these dim amber bulbs were the only source of light.  The walls were painted a color that was maybe coral, maybe apricot, maybe amber, maybe beige; the woodwork was done in a stain so dark as to be almost black, and the floor was carpeted in dark and torturous Persian.  If a Pharaoh had died in A.D. 1935, the inside of his pyramid would have looked like this hall.

It’s not that Westlake is so much wordier than Stark–it’s really a difference in attitude and emphasis, more than anything else.   There’s a very dry dark humor in Stark, but it’s not meant to make you chuckle–or even smile.   And he keeps it very simple (hence the name).   Westlake, by contrast, likes to throw in that bit of extra commentary, that snark-laden aside–he becomes Stark, in a sense, by suppressing the part of himself that sees the humor in everything, that wants to find that extra line (like the 1935 Pharaoh) and this suppression makes his sentences crisper, cleaner, more to the point–which works much better for a hard-boiled crime novel, but obviously much less well for a story that plays the same basic set of circumstances for laughs, and a protagonist who is far less sure of himself than Parker.

Back at the funeral home, Engel blunders into exactly the same scenario Charlie Poole did before him–he wants to talk to the mortician, and finds him in his study, with a knife in his back.   And then this attractive woman sees him and starts screaming.   And then comes a scene right out of Buster Keaton, with Engel fleeing what seems to be roughly half the NYPD (there’s a cop’s funeral going on at the same time), and negotiating a series of obstacles to evade them–and by dint of desperation-fueled ingenuity, making those obstacles work in his favor–he ends by plugging an alleyway with a handy truck, leaving them all stuck in there, while he walks nonchalantly back into the funeral parlor to ask more questions–and again, doesn’t this remind you of somebody else?   Again, let’s get back to that.

He does the usual Westlake reluctant detective stuff, talking to this person and that, working up a list of suspects, meeting several attractive women with dubious agendas he can’t quite fathom at first; failing to meet his sort-of girlfriend Dolly, an ‘exotic dancer’ who works on the West Coast, just blew into town, and wants to hook up with him, and we never see her once–she keeps leaving him increasingly irate notes written in lipstick and fastened to his apartment door with false fingernails.   It’s not a romantic comedy, like The Fugitive Pigeon.   There are girls, but there is not The Girl.   Another rule of the Nephew genre that gets bent here, if not outright broken.

But if there’s one rule of the Nephew stories that holds true book after book, it’s this–the hero will end up in trouble for something he didn’t do.   Engel finds out that some businessmen have told Nick Rovito that he’s been shaking them down for money–none of which has gone to Nick.   Nick has sent two trigger-men pretty much identical in appearance and personality to Trask and Slade from The Fugitive Pigeon, only this time they’re named Gittel and Fox, same difference.

Not only are they going to whack him, but Nick Rovito pulled that murder weapon with his fingerprints on it out of storage, and used it to frame him for the death of that guy he was supposed to have conked with a shovel anyway.   What we’re seeing here is what probably just what happened to Clay from The Mercenaries right after the last paragraph in that book–only without the comic hijinks.   And probably with a much darker finish.

Engel is taken for a ride, in the good old 1930’s gangster movie sense of the term, just like Charlie Poole before him, but instead of talking his way out of it the way Charlie does, he makes a break for it at a traffic plaza, and slips away into that  labyrinthine redoubt that is Queens.

Then Engel holes up (in more ways than one) with Charlie Brody’s widow, the once and future hooker (working name Bobbi Bounds)–who offers him the comfort of her bed, and you know what, in the movie they must have figured they’d combine Bobbi the hooker/widow with Dolly the exotic dancer/girlfriend, and make it a romantic comedy, and it might have worked, but Sid Caesar and Arlene Golonka had zero chemistry and the script still stunk on ice.

There’s a lot more investigating, and running from the cops, and Gittel & Fox, and some more oddly familiar moments involving an office building full of shady businesses, and Engel using a fair ride on wheels full of joyfully screaming kids to make his getaway, and maybe it’s just time to cut to the chase.   Engel finds out who took Charlie’s body.   It wasn’t for a reason anybody would have suspected.   It involves one of the attractive women with dubious agendas.   It ties everything up neatly in a nice bow for Nick Rovito, and Engel gets offered his old job back.

And here’s where he proves himself a Nephew at last–he nixes the offer.   He’s not going to pull a George Clayton from The Mercenaries, and double down on his choice to be an organization man.   He decides working for people you can never trust is for the birds.   He’s going to try being his own man–and part of that means telling his mother goodbye–she’s been pestering him to have dinner with her all through the book–this woman who wanted him to be a big career man with the mob, but never could process what this would actually mean for him.

He’s been putting her off by threatening to move to California.   She calls his bluff this time–it’s not a bluff this time.   He hangs up on her, finds out where Dolly lives, and heads for the airport.

Westlake had probably spent some time in California by now, relating to his new sideline of selling books to Hollywood, and this marks the beginning of yet another dichotomy in his books–the part of him that was a loyal New Yorker to the bitter end–and the part that was oddly attracted to the West Coast.   Usually New York won, but not always–in this case, Engel finds out that a relentless police detective has it in for him (geez, you trap half the police force in a blind alley they take it so personal), and intends to see him dead or permanently jailed.   So that tips the balance in favor of California–like I said, a very loyal New Yorker, but loyalty has its limits.

Needless to say, in the movie, made for a mainstream audience that would have a whole lot of mothers in it, Engel does not coldly abandon his mom, and they are all happily reconciled; Engel, his mother, and the Bobbi/Dolly amalgram.   And that is the very last thing I shall ever have to say about that movie.   Unless it comes up in the comments section.

I admire the skill with which Westlake put this all together–but I don’t really love the book.   Again, it’s the characters.  Most of them come across as cleverly reworked cliches, and a cleverly reworked cliche is a cliche nonetheless.   They don’t have much in the way of soul, and I don’t think you’re even supposed to care about them–I mean, the hero telling his mother ‘good-bye forever’ (his exact words!) over the telephone kind of tips you off to that.

It’s Westlake experimenting with the comic form–he’d made the main characters very warm and empathetic in his first comedy, so now he’s going to try going the other way with it.   It doesn’t work as well.   I’m also pretty sure it didn’t sell as well, and Westlake was not in a financial position to say the hell with that.

But it does show some potential–it’s funnier, for one thing.   Too much sympathy can be bad for comedy.   You have to measure out the ingredients just right.    Great comedy always has an edge to it.   But it also needs great memorable characters–Bertie Wooster and Jeeves come to mind.   Yes, you love them, you root for them–but you also know they aren’t ever going to change.   Bertie will always be a silly ass layabout who gets himself into trouble with some oddly-named young lady or other; Jeeves will always be a laconic Machiavellian schemer, manipulating his hapless employer at will to make him stop wearing those ridiculous Etonian spats, or to take Jeeves to Florida for a spot of Tarpon-fishing.

It’s like the mantra the Seinfeld writing staff always held to–“No hugging, no learning.”   Because that may warm the cockles of your heart, but it won’t tickle your funny bone.   Truly funny people don’t have to be nice all the time–we’ll love them just for making us laugh.

The problem with Engel isn’t that he’s not as easy for us to sympathize with as Charlie Poole, but that he’s harder for Westlake to empathize with–because until everything fell apart, he was perfectly happy to throw away his life being a cog in a machine.   Because this is a comedy, he has a change of heart and of mind, extracts himself bloodlessly from his employers, and strikes out for terra incognita, to make a life for himself (possibly with an exotic dancer, but that’s not really the point here).   Charlie embraces maturity (and Chloe, who vividly symbolizes it for him), but Engel just sort of passively accepts it.   It’s better than the alternative.

But that all being said–Engel is still a seminal creation for Westlake–a prototype, if you will.   Because as I have kept hinting throughout this review, he promises greater things–he just needs a bit more of  a backbone (not too much more)–a suitably individualistic profession to practice–perhaps a few equally comic colleagues–a girlfriend he can rely on, who bakes a mean tuna casserole–and a set of burglar tools.

Yeah, you heard me right.   Aloysius Engel is John Dortmunder in embryo.   Did you ever wonder why we’re told Dortmunder used to be married to a showgirl whose professional name was ‘Honeybun Bazoom’?   A character we never met?   I often think Westlake’s favorite jokes were always the ones only he was in on.    Or so he thought.   Didn’t count on internet review blogs helmed by people with way too much spare time, did you, Mr. Westlake?   Though I guess you did kind of anticipate us with Wally Knurr.   Credit where credit is due.

And what is due next here is my review of what many consider The.  Best.  Parker.  Novel.   EVER.

Let’s just say that seven isn’t Parker’s lucky number–but if you were following these books as they came out in the 60’s, you were feeling pretty damn lucky when you spotted this one on the revolving book rack.  Sex.  Violence.   Football.  Tiny psychos with huge Napoleon complexes.  Big psychos with tiny–um–never mind.   It’s a good one.  And heavily reviewed.  Can I possibly find anything to say about it that hasn’t been said a hundred times before?   Maybe not, but I’ll go down swinging.

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Review: The Fugitive Pigeon (AKA The Dead Nephew)

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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 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.

38_Packard-1608-12-Schwartz_DV-10-MB_01

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.

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