The Fugitive Pigeon by Donald E. Westlake – A Book Review

I have a fascination for fairly old books that smell like books, but more importantly with quirky titles. I will buy a book purely for fulfilling these criteria even if it isn’t a book I would normally enjoy. Perhaps the rational is that if the title manages to grab my attention or amuse me then surely the book will also. This collection started with a book titled ‘Eating People is Wrong’ by Malcolm Bradbury first published in 1959; despite my love for this book I haven’t actually read it in its entirety. I tried once a few years back and it seemed over my head and not wanting to lose my love of the book I stopped reading intending to read it another time; I’m thinking soon.

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A newer addition to my small collection is ‘The Fugitive Pigeon; by Donald E. Westlake first published in 1965. This was a charity shop find, the book itself is in great condition, hardback and still in its original sleeve; it smells incredible too. It has a wonderful quirky cover and somewhere in the back of my mind I was sure Westlake was an author I ought to remember.  I bought it a while back and have only just got around to reading it and I’m so glad I did.

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Westlake it turns out has over a hundred pieces of written work to his name, fiction, non-fiction, and screen plays. There are several movies based on his work as well, films including Payback and Parker. I knew I knew that name.

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The novel is firmly in the comic crime fiction genre, it’s light, clever and fast moving. There’s some great imagery without long winded descriptions. Some people may disagree but I would say Westlake’s description style has a lot in common with Wodehouse, the humorously insulting manner seems to echo Wodehouse, perhaps not as refined or clever, but still entertaining. For example the following delightful descriptions:

‘Uncle Al is a big hefty guy, about two-thirds bone and muscle, about one-third spaghetti.’

‘Up till then I’d assumed that “Gross” was the man’s name, but it was his description. He looked like something that had finally come up out of its cave because it had eaten the last of the phosphorescent little fish in the cold pool at the bottom of the cavern. He looked like something that had better keep moving because if it stood still someone would drag it out back and bury it. He looked like a big white sponge with various diseases at work on the inside…’

It’s the sort of book you could read all at once. The novel is written in first person as the lovable but unambitious and inept protagonist Charlie Poole tries to clear his name with a crime syndicate he inadvertently gets involved with. The characters are really likable and human with a hint of caricature about them. The plot romps along at lightning speed, there’s never a dull moment and there are plenty of light-hearted insights from Charlie.

‘Making a getaway by subway is not good for the nerves. The train just barely gets rolling pretty good when it slows down again, and stops, and the doors slide open in a very ominous way with nobody near them. Two killers do not get on board, and the doors close, and the train starts forward, only to go through the whole thing again two or three minutes later.’

The only negative I found with this book was the over use of place name’s throughout New York. Perhaps it’s because they are meaningless to me as one who has never been to New York, and quite probably it would add a whole new level to the book if I understood the references. One thing I found particularly impressive about this book, is how well it has aged (not just physically). It doesn’t seem at all dated, apart from a distinct lack of using technology everything else seems perfectly plausible, there’s no reference to events of the time that anchor it to a date, it could easily be set much closer to current times and that is quite an impressive feat for a 50 year old piece of crime fiction.

This is yet another success for my weekly book goal. I thoroughly enjoyed the story and am going to look out for more of Westlake’s work which is really the highest compliment that can be payed to any author.

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