The Fugitive Pigeon by Donald Westlake (Random House, 1965) is one of the MWA Grand Master’s comic mysteries. I’ve read Westlake’s Parker books, written under the name Richard Stark, and loved them, but never got around to his capers, of which there are many. This story is one of the early ones.
Charlie Poole is a bum and knows it. His father vanished early in his life and his mother worked hard to raise Charlie, but Charlie has not shown the slightest interest in accepting adult responsibilities at age 24. After not being able to hold a job for more than two or three months, his uncle by marriage gives him a job running a bar in Canarsie in remote Brooklyn. The bar steadily loses money and Charlie worries about it but his Mob-connected uncle explains that it is supposed to lose money, only Charlie never quite understands the logic behind it all. Once in awhile Charlie accepts a package from a courier and then turns it over to someone with the proper code words but other than that Charlie leads a quiet life, providing drinks as requested and watching television, then going upstairs to the nice small apartment that is provided as part of the job.
Until one night when a couple of serious-looking men enter the bar at closing time and attempt to kill Charlie. Charlie escapes and runs to his uncle, who refuses to talk to him, telling him the uncle doesn’t know what Charlie has done to antagonize the Mob but the uncle can’t afford to get involved. Charlie is convinced that if he can get to the man who ordered his demise that he can explain that he hasn’t done whatever it is they think he’s done.
Charlie evades the goons again by the thinnest of hairs to find Artie Dexter, the only friend he can think of who might be awake at 4:00 in the morning; fortunately Artie is holding an all-night party. Once everyone gets some sleep, Artie is prepared to drive Charlie to visit Mr. Big on Long Island to explain his innocence. Charlie and Artie arrive at the palatial estate to find Mr. Big recently murdered and everyone believing Charlie is the culprit. Artie and Charlie once again bolt by a miracle, this time taking Mr. Big’s daughter as hostage.
The ensuing car chases all over New York are fun, and his meeting with Mr. Big’s boss, an avid bridge player who resents the interruption of his weekly card game, is a hoot. As usual, Westlake can’t put a foot wrong. A great quick read.