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BWW Review: ELMORE LEONARD: FOUR NOVELS OF THE 1970s is a Decidedly Mixed Bag


Among the heavy hitters in American crime fiction, the late Elmore Leonard was something of a 'tweener': not quite as purely entertaining as Donald Westlake, not as morally serious as Patricia Highsmith or Ross MacDonald, not as stylistically compelling or iconic as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett or as close to the no-nonsense bone as James M. Cain (who probably makes for the best comparison).

So, while he has something to offer on all these levels, I never read him (at least his crime fiction--I'm in the small minority who prefer his earlier westerns) without remembering there's someone else who does it a little bit better.

At least to date, though, he seems to be the last of the line. With the possible exception of James Ellroy (a huffer-and-puffer whose reputation is a true mystery), it's hard to imagine any popular crime writer who has emerged since the novels in the Library of America's new collection established Leonard in the seventies being given similarly august treatment another thirty or forty years down the line.

And he's hardly a wash. There is good stuff here. It's just that I'd rather not have to work quite so hard to find the sweet spots those other writers--not to mention many lesser lights devoid of the arty status Leonard certainly chased (while, of course, vehemently denying any such pretense)--delivered on page after page.

True confession, though: For me, all of Leonard's considerable skills--as craftsman, story-teller, keen observer of social mores--are undercut by his lack of commitment to, well, anything.

Here, for instance, is a line from the collection's opener, 1974's Fifty-Two Pickup:

In bed she was a woman. Cini had been a girl, dressed or naked. Cini seemed a long time ago. And if she were alive she could be forgotten. But because she was dead he had to remember her.

By itself that line (among many others) could have come from Ross MacDonald in his "angst-in-the-suburbs" mode. But MacDonald would have made "Cini," who, as Leonard mentions, is dead, the center of something--her death would have represented some kind of moral dilemma for the cheating husband whose perspective we share (and who is now getting back with his wife), rather than a purely practical one brought on by the fact that her killers are also blackmailers who have set him up for her murder.

In order to do that, Leonard would have to care about somebody. If not Cini, the mistress (who, despite her awful fate, exists only as a plot point), then perhaps the protagonist? Maybe we could sweat with him? Understand just how he got himself into this fix (as opposed to having it "explained")? Or figure out why we should care if the answer is that he's not the most terrible person in the world and he just got bored?

Perhaps even figure out why he cheated on his smart, beautiful, faithful, wife, even so?

Well, no, none of that.

Like a lot of Leonard's sympathetic women--which is pretty much all his women who aren't soul-less sluts--the wife in Fifty-Two Pickup is way more sinned against than sinning. But don't worry--she gets mad for a little bit (humanizes her!), but she stands by her man, not because that's what such a woman would do, necessarily, but because it serves the suspense of the story rather well.

And it is suspenseful. Maybe not heart-pounding, but certainly swift and sure. Leonard was nothing if not skillful.

The skill rarely engages, though.

Modern crime fiction--or maybe just modern life--does not demand a moral center. If the author isn't willing to supply one, then what's left is the matter of style (Leonard's craft was expert to a fault, but, in this era at least, he rarely produced any truly memorable language) and the reader's natural sympathies.

I mean, Given how monstrous the villains here usually are, there's no way any normal person would want them to succeed!

This was already Leonard's fall-back position and has since become a trope of modernity as well.

Evil has fangs. If not literal then at least figurative.

By the time Leonard turned to crime fiction we had probably tipped too far in the wrong direction to turn back, but what this collection mostly does is remind me that he helped us take the long, easy fall at the last moment when it's inevitablity might have been challenged.

Devoid of real seriousness, then, what's left is passage after passage asking us to identify with the likes of the main character in 1976's Swag:

Maybe, Stick told himself, this was the kind of life he always wanted but never realized it before. Hold up one or two places a week, make more money than he could spend, and live in a thirty-unit L-shaped authentic California apartment building that had a private swimming pool and patio in the crotch of the L and was full of career ladies laying around waiting for it.

It sounded good.

Didn't it?

Yeah, Stick guessed it did.

Actually, like Stick himself, it sounds kind of boring--and it's an attitude that literally dominates both Swag and 1977's Unknown Man No. 89 and, frankly, turns each into a bit of a slog.

To be fair, Leonard himself doesn't pretend this sort of character is anyway interesting unless he does something stupid or criminal (or, preferably, both). And, since he specialized in the type, that's a relief.

He at least doesn't fall into the trap of making them any bigger and better than they are.

The only problem--and it's already a persistent one in these early days--is that such people aren't all that interesting even when they're being stupid and criminal.

That was probably why Leonard, like many a hard-case before and since, didn't really find a way forward until he arrived at his somewhat more complicated take on "the heroine."

That happens in the final book here, 1978's The Switch, and it's none too soon. Having decided his not-so-good good guys and not-so-bad bad guys (one or the other of which will inevitably be threatened by one of those really evil dudes I mentioned above) would be distinguished entirely by their "not-so" qualities, the "Dickens of Detroit" was probably on the verge of becoming a permanent second-rater when he hit his stride with the character of Mickey Dawson.

Finally, in this fourth book, I found myself all the way inside the head of somebody I could relate to--a fellow human being who was as tired of Elmore Leonard's men as I was!

The Switch is not quite a masterpiece. It's still a little on the glib side (a quality Leonard would never really lose--that commitment thing again).

But Mickey is a memorable character. I was actually worried about her.

Kidnapped--by a not-so-bad bad guy who has teamed up with an evil dude who is at least rather more cleverly disguised than usual and another evil dude who is really, really evil but also really, really stupid--then abandoned by a rich husband who was about to divorce her anyway, she comes alive on the page.

At that point, it was amazing how much faster the pages turned just because she, unlike every other character in this collection--isn't merely trying to extricate herself from a cosmically (and it must be admitted, comically) hellish circumstance--but is actually going somewhere.

The transition, from a housewife who has trouble standing up for herself on even the most trivial matters, to a self-assured woman getting high with her kidnapper and plotting to turn the table's on her husband, is believable and, yes, thrilling.

All of which leaves us....where?

Leonard's many admirers tend to variously refer to his world view as "realistic" or "amoral" or "edgy."

I'll grant all that.

But nothing dates faster than realism, in part because yesterday's edge tends to make for tomorrow's dull blade.

And, as someone who has real trouble telling the difference between amoral and "dull," it was nice to find all that directionless skill applied, for once, to scenes containing a recognizable human being worth caring about.

Early in The Switch, Mickey Dawson asks herself, What am I doing here?...But if I weren't here, where would I be?

Unlike every other character in the four books collected here, she actually ends up answering that question, which transcends the considerable physical danger converging on her.

So while we're asking ourselves "Will she live?" we're also able to ask a more serious and interesting question.

Will she grow?

No amount of craft can make for truly compelling reading--can lift even Elmore Leonard above a chore--unless somebody like that pops up at least once in a while.

So, while I support the Library's controversial decision to honor Leonard with this and future volumes (and support it a little more because they have Ross MacDonald in the works!), I guess my advice for anyone who wants to read these particular stories as anything other than an academic exercise is to pick this up cheap (can't beat the feel of LOA's beautifully bound volumes in the hand) and skip to The Switch.

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From This Author John Walker Ross

John Walker Ross is a graduate of Florida State and lives somewhere in the Florida Panhandle where he has variously toiled in advertising and legal (read more...)