Like Ian Rankin (whose Black & Blue I recently reviewed and which, okay, was more teacher education Common Core navel-gazing than actual review), I’ve read a lot of Elmore Leonard since I began this little experiment without actually penning a full review. This is the fifth of his books I’ve read since September (and the tenth overall), and while I’ve loved each and every one of them, this is the first one I’ve engaged with on an emotional level. That immediately elevates it to the upper echelon of Leonard’s not-inconsiderable bibliography.
So, for the uninitiated, what’s so great about Leonard? Let’s start here: Without fear of hyperbole, he’s the greatest crime writer of the 20th Century. Better than Chandler, better than Hammett, better than Ellroy, full stop, hands down. Better even – whisper it – than Agatha Christie (although I think I’d be more likely to classify her as a mystery writer). Leonard didn’t invent the genre, but he polished it to a high sheen. If you love crime novels – or even if you just appreciate them from a distance – Elmore does everything you love about them as well as it can be done. Tough guys? Check. Street-smart broads? You know it. Double crosses and long cons? Done and done, without breaking a sweat. Whip-smart dialogue that practically crackles on the page? Absolutely. And it’s all accomplished in unadorned prose that, like Kurt Vonnegut’s best work, seems effortless but is nearly impossible to replicate. (The quotes in blue peppered throughout the rest of this review are some of Leonard’s best tips for being a good writer.)
My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.
All of this is present and accounted for in Unknown Man #89, only with some added emotional heft. Jack Ryan is a Detroit process server – so charming and ingratiating that the served often don’t mind – who’s hired by a New Orleans businessman named Mr. Perez to track down the recipient of some shares of stock. The stockholder turns up in the local morgue – toetagged with the words in the book’s title – and Ryan is then tasked by Perez with tracking down the deceased’s next of kin, his alcoholic wife, Denise.
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
Ryan eventually learns she’s living outside Detroit, and when he sets up shop there, he coincidentally runs into her at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (which is, to be fair, the only phony note in the whole book). She’s cleaned up and tidied up, and what follows is a relatively quiet, surprisingly touching sequence where Ryan and Denise get to know each other, all without Ryan ever revealing who he is or why he’s there, choosing instead to enjoy his time with Denise rather than pursuing the job Perez set for him. Perez, of course, has developed plans of his own, and sets himself to stealing the shares of stock – and the money they represent – for himself. What follows is a series of feints and counter-feints, as Ryan and Denise set about double-crossing Perez with the help of a minor-league, big-hat-wearing criminal named Virgil Royal and a Detroit cop named Dick Speed.
Write the book the way it should be written, then give it to somebody to put in the commas and shit.
In some ways it’s boilerplate Leonard. Ryan is a tough-talker, Denise is too cool for school, and Perez (and his hired muscle, Raymond Gidre) are colorful con men who threaten their enemies by dangling them out a window. Virgil is sort of a dummy, and his sidekick Tunafish is one step down from that. But complicating things is the emotional gravity that has largely been absent from Leonard’s earlier works. Perez’s first gambit to steal the money from Denise is actually to hire Virgil (like I said, double- and triple-crosses, and no allegiance save one is solid) to get her drunk and have her sign the papers. The scene is, in a word, heartbreaking. We first meet Denise in Detroit as a miserable drunk, and her transformation to the optimistic artist Ryan encounters in Rochester is dramatic. But with one ill-intentioned, eminently selfish move, Denise is reduced once again to her messy, belligerent former self. Ryan handles this with panache, kicking Virgil out of Denise’s apartment, sobering her up, and leaving with her for Florida the next day, where the two of them can get out from under Perez’s suffocating influence. The halting romance that ensues is balanced on the knife edge between pragmatic and sentimental. It’s a graceful sequence that looks nothing like anything Leonard had previously written. It’s just a lull, though, as Ryan and Denise realize there’s a reckoning waiting for them in Detroit, and it needs to be resolved before they can ever truly settle down. Blood will be shed.
I won’t read a book that starts with a description of the weather.
As my first proper Elmore Leonard review, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the dialogue. It exists on another plane, the one where the characters might as well be speaking lines transcribed directly from a voice recorder planted in some seedy bar on the wrong side of the tracks. I could share any number of exchanges, but I’m partial to this one between Ryan and Virgil, as Ryan prepares to initiate the next part of his plan:
‘I don’t see you doing much,’ Ryan said. ‘You want something, but I don’t see you breaking your ass especially to get it.’
‘I’m being patient,’ Virgil said, ‘waiting till everybody make up their mind. You want a real drink this time?’
‘No, this is fine.’ Ryan still had half a Coke. He watched Virgil nod to the waitress. She was over at the bar where several black guys were sitting with their hats on, glancing at themselves in the bar mirror as they talked and jived around. ‘What’s this, the hat club?’ Ryan said. ‘There’s some pretty ones, but they can’t touch yours.’
Virgil was looking at him from beneath the slightly, nicely curved brim of his uptown Stetson. ‘I get my money, what’s owed me, I’ll give it to you,’ he said.
‘I’ll take it,’ Ryan said, ‘and everybody’ll be happy. If we can get you to do a little work.’
‘What kind of work?’
‘First, how much we talking about? What you say Bobby owes you?’
‘Half of what I heard he got is nothing.’
‘No, I’m telling you. Round it off, ten grand,’ Virgil said. ‘Now you tell me, how much we talking about? The whole deal.’
There’s a rhythm and cadence to all of Leonard’s dialogue – playful, but with the internal logic of really good jazz. It rings true, and unlike a lot of dialogue, it just sounds good when read aloud.
Unknown Man #89 ends, as many of Leonard’s novels do, in a way that can best be termed “cautiously optimistic.” The bad guys get their comeuppance, the good guys get their reward – although it might look different than they thought it would – and the moral of the story, if there is one, seems to be this: “Be careful who you trust.” But this ending resonates more for me than in Leonard’s other books because, for the first time, the main characters have suffered enough for us to want them to be happy.
Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks (2010)