Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Fugitive Pigeon by Donald Westlake

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.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Cursing Stones Murder by George Bellairs

I continued my investigation into the works of George Bellairs and his detective Chief Inspector Littlejohn by reading The Cursing Stones Murder (Gifford, 1954), the book immediately following the one I reviewed a few weeks ago, and found it more to my liking, as it is more of a classic police procedural.

While scallop dredging off the coast of the Isle of Man, a boat drags up the body of a well-known philanderer along with its catch. The philanderer was believed to be in Europe, hence no one noticed his disappearance a month or more earlier. Inspector Sid Perrick fastens his suspicions on Johnny Corteen, the brother of one of the many women who had been wronged by the victim. While Corteen can’t produce an alibi for the estimated time of death, no one thinks he is capable of killing someone in cold blood either. The area church leader Archdeacon Kinrade invites Chief Inspector Littlejohn on a long overdue visit to informally investigate the crime. He does not want to cross the local police by officially requesting the assistance of Scotland Yard but thinks Littlejohn can quietly poke around a bit and get Corteen out of jail, thereby helping Corteen’s long-suffering mother.

Littlejohn has a lot to work with, the victim had antagonized anyone with an attractive wife or daughter, as well as the wives and daughters themselves. In this particular story, his investigation sidekick is the Archdeacon rather than Inspector Cromwell, his usual partner, although Cromwell shows up late in the story. In addition, Inspector Perrick is a little sensitive about Littlejohn working on his case, but recognizes Littlejohn’s seniority and position, and insists on conferring with him daily to learn what Littlejohn has found out and his suggestions for further research.

Littlejohn brought his wife and the family dog with him on this trip and they add interest and depth to what would otherwise be a straightforward police investigation. Bellairs describes the Isle of Man, where Bellairs himself relocated, as an exquisitely beautiful place, although the dangers men who make their living from the sea are also fully and terribly portrayed, with a September gale wreaking havoc at the end of the book. I am quite impressed with Inspector Littlejohn and I can see I need to keep reading the series. For fans of British detective procedurals.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Cat Screams by Todd Downing

Todd Downing (1902-1974) published nine detective novels between 1933 and 1941 before abruptly abandoning writing altogether. Most of his books were set in Mexico; his series detective is U. S. Customs Agent Hugh Rennert. See more about Downing on the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, http://gadetection.pbworks.com. See also Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing by Curtis Evans, preface by Bill Pronzini (Coachwhip Publications, 2013).

His second book The Cat Screams (Doubleday, 1934) was hailed by his publisher as a major literary occasion and it was featured as a Crime Club Book of the Month, unusual for a relatively unknown author.

Agent Hugh Rennert is on vacation, traveling via train to a resort in Mexico. He notices a young man on the train with him, who turns out to be the only son of a wealthy oil man on his way to the same resort to find an actress that he is determined to marry. His conservative father does not want an actress in the family, yet the son plans to marry her anyway. They stay at the same hotel, where the owner has a Siamese cat in heat that yowls at all hours. Other residents include the actress, a blackmailer, and a private detective sent by the conservative father to investigate the actress. It is not a happy group, even less so when one of the staff is suspected of having smallpox and the entire building is quarantined.

Almost immediately after Rennert’s arrival the deaths of visiting North Americans begin. The local police are anxious to write them off as suicides so as not to jeopardize the tourist revenue so important to the town but Rennert has his well-founded doubts. Rennert takes advantage of the police chief’s lack of English to interrogate the various hotel residents, who in my opinion were far more patient with what could be considered his interference than I would have been.

I did not find this story a scintillating read. I put it down about a third through and waited a couple of weeks to see if that would help. It didn’t. The plot moved slowly in places and rushed in others, and I thought some of the story was a little too fantastic. I am happy to have made Downing’s acquaintance, however I am not in a hurry to delve further into his works.

One final note: those people smoked a lot. A LOT! I wanted to cough just reading about everyone lighting one cigarette from the end of another. I understand that was typical of the time and place but things have certainly changed.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: I Start Counting by Audrey Erskine Lindop

Audrey Erskine Lindop (26 December 1920 – 7 November 1986) wrote about eight novels, lists of her works vary. I Start Counting (Doubleday, 1966) seems to have been the most well-known of them, based on the success of the film adaptation with Jenny Agutter in her first starring role. It won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière – International Category in 1967.

The story is narrated by Wynne Kinch, an orphaned 14-year-old in the suburban Midlands, during the free-wheeling 1960s of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Wynne is part of a blended family, living with her paternal grandfather, her aunt by marriage Lucy, and Lucy’s three children. The twins Nellie and Len are Wynne’s cousins from Lucy’s second marriage. George, Lucy’s older son from her first marriage, is no relation at all. But they are a true family, squabbling internally and coalescing at the slightest hint of external threat. Wynne has developed a walloping girlish crush on George, and he’s doing his best to wait for it to run its course.

In addition to the general angst of a self-conscious teenage girl with an embarrassing family and excess baby fat, Wynne is sad because the family recently moved to a high-rise apartment when the neighborhood where she’d lived most of her life was slated for reconstruction. She makes frequent trips to visit the old house, unbeknownst to the rest of her family, who would be horrified, as a serial killer is on the loose. So far responsible for the deaths of four girls, the strangler has given the police few clues to work with. But self-absorbed Wynne does not think twice about disappearing alone to visit the old house, with no one knowing where she is.

Wynne gradually decides for not very good reasons that George is the strangler and that she must protect him at all costs. Her bumbling eventually brings George to the attention of the police, and Wynne herself is charged with accessory to murder after the fact.

Apparently readers either love or hate this book, there seems to be no middle ground. I loved it when I first found it as a teenager years ago. I completely identified with Wynne and her inability to fit inside her skin. I found (and still find) the extended family hilarious. Of course Granddad raises mice. Keeping pigeons would be far too ordinary. The offhand mentions of mice breed shows and mice industry newsletters still evoke snickers. I identified strongly with the domestic chaos resulting from six adults sharing living space, as at the time my family of eight was wedged into a house far too small for it. Although some reviewers consider the characters poorly drawn, I can only assume they were reading a different book.

The mystery is generally not prominent, it simmers on the sidelines most of the time and seems to be a catalyst to the characters and their interactions with each other, which I consider a fascinating way to construct a suspense novel. My reaction to the identity of the strangler was first to be startled and then to ask myself how I missed it. Definitely a fair-play mystery. All in all, I still love this book.