When Donald E. Westlake passed away at the end of last year, I don’t recall seeing any mentions of this book in the numerous tributes to him and his work. I think it’s an important novel, though, because it’s part of the transition in his career, the divergence between Westlake the comic crime novelist and Richard Stark the hardboiled novelist. THE FUGITIVE PIGEON is his sixth book, originally published in 1965. I haven’t read the two Westlake novels immediately preceding it, KILLY and PITY HIM AFTERWARDS, but judging by those titles, they don’t sound like laugh riots. I know the first three novels under the Westlake name (THE MERCENARIES, KILLING TIME, and 361) are hardboiled, because I’ve read them. So I’m guessing that THE FUGITIVE PIGEON is something of a departure, a book that still has some hardboiled elements (gangsters, hit men, crooked cops) but also a considerable amount of screwball comedy. As such, it provides a template for a lot of Westlake’s later work that mixes comedy and crime.
But, now that the pontificating is out of the way, how’s the book itself, you ask? Great fun, I’m happy to report. The narrator is Charlie Poole, an unambitious young man who’s perfectly content to run a neighborhood bar in Canarsie. The bar is owned by Charlie’s Uncle Al, who’s a mid-level gangster. Occasionally, Charlie has to hold a package at the bar for somebody until it’s picked up later, and while he suspects this has something to do with his uncle’s criminal activities, he never asks for details. He doesn’t want to know.
But then late one night as he’s about to close up, two strangers come in, and Charlie quickly realizes that they’re hit men sent there to kill him. He has no idea why anybody would send killers after him, but when he manages to escape with his life, he decides that he’d better figure it out in a hurry, because the two assassins are still on his trail. This is the beginning of a whirlwind three days in which Charlie tries to find out who wants him dead and why, an investigation complicated by the fact that he has to keep dodging the two hit men. Along the way he runs into a murder (for which he’s blamed, naturally) and a beautiful young woman (for whom he falls, naturally). It’s all very fast and entertaining and sharply plotted and written, and while there’s not much of the slapstick humor that shows up in Westlake’s later books, it’s pretty funny in places, too.
I really enjoyed this one a lot. If you haven’t read Westlake before, it wouldn’t be a bad place to start. If you’re a Westlake fan but have never gotten around to reading it, I highly recommend that you do so. Either way, you’re in for a treat.