Tuesday, August 20, 2013

RIP, Elmore Leonard

This morning, we lost one of the best when Elmore Leonard passed away after complications from a stroke.  In tribute to old Dutch, here are reviews of three Elmore Leonard books I've read in the last couple years.

52 Pickup52 Pickup by Elmore Leonard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Blackmailers have factory owner Harry Mitchell over a barrel. Either he pays them $105,000 a year or they turn over an incriminating film to the police and press, and more, if he doesn't pay up. Too bad Harry Mitchell has ideas of his own...

Elmore Leonard sure knows how to weave a serpentine tale, doesn't he? He takes a story that seems simple on the surface, that of some blackmailers hitting up a pigeon for money, and turns it into something else all together. It was written in 1974 but has a certain timelessness to it.

Harry Mitchell is the usual Leonard protagonist: cool, capable, and not entirely spotless. The way he handles the blackmailers set the stage for later Leonard protagonists like Chili Palmer and Raylan Givens. I like that Leonard made Barbara's behavior toward Harry believable after she found out he had an affair. About my only complaint with the story is that I wish Barbara would ahve gotten a crack at getting some payback on Alan.

The bad guys are an unsavory crew, as to be expected. I didn't expect some of them to go out the way they did, though. That's one of the reasons I mean to read more Elmore Leonard in 2012. He manages to surprise me in each outing. As usual with Leonard, the dialogue is as smooth as fine Scotch.

While it may be slightly less polished than some of his later works, all of the Leonard hallmarks are there: double crosses, slick dialogue, and fairly believable situations. I couldn't wait for the blackmailers to get what was coming to them and Leonard did not disappoint. Very highly recommended.

Swag Swag by Elmore Leonard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When used car salesman Frank Ryan catches Ernest Stickley stealing a car off his lot, ideas start going through his head. Soon, Ryan and Stickley are armed robbers and damn good ones. Things go smoothly until someone offers them a crack at even bigger money...

Like many Elmore Leonard books, Swag is a fast-moving crime story. The two main characters, Ryan and Stick, are cast from one of Leonard' standard molds: the criminals who aren't as smart as they think they are. They're a bit of an odd couple. Stick's nervous and not all that confident while Ryan is overconfident and thinks he knows everything. They were pretty likeable as far as armed robbers go but I kept thinking about how Richard Stark's Parker would mop the floor with them.

The bad guys were suitably bad, both Sportree and the cops. As he does a lot of the time, Leonard makes the antagonists almost as interesting as the protagonists. Once complications start surfacing, they come in droves, from Arlene witnessing one of their early robberies, to Stick having to shoot two men, to Billy Ruiz. The ending was surprising but was also perfect.

Leonard's smooth-flowing dialogue and twisting plot were the stars of the show, as they normally are in one of his books. I loved that Frank Ryan had his rules of robbery, just like Elmore Leonard has his rules of writing.

It wasn't perfect but I liked it quite a bit. It was a good way to spend a Sunday evening.

The Moonshine WarThe Moonshine War by Elmore Leonard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bootlegger Son Martin has 150 barrels of whiskey his dad made stashed away somewhere and his old war buddy, Frank Long, now a crooked prohibition agent, has his sights set on them. Will Son cave in under the pressure and hand over the whiskey or will he put Long and his cronies into the ground?

Reading an Elmore Leonard book is like bullshitting with an old friend on their front porch. In this case, it would be whiskey we'd be drinking instead of a couple frosty beers.

Rural Kentucky in the 1930's is far from Elmore Leonard's usual haunts but after watching several seasons of Justified, I figured he could handle it. I was right.

The Moonshine War plays out like a lot of Elmore Leonard books. The promise of violence keeps building until the glorious shitstorm at the end. Frank Long trying to strongarm Son Martin out of his valuable whiskey is more of the same. It went a little differently than I thought it would near the end, which is always a plus for me.

The country dialog is very well done and drives the plot forward. Like in most Leonard books, Son Martin is just a little slicker than Frank Long and the others.

Son reminds me of Raylan Givens a bit of Raylan was running moonshine instead of being a US Marshall. He's a conflicted character, his young wife dying from the flu while he was in the army leaving him somewhat directionless. He's got a bit of that Givens inner rage going as well. When his neighbors started turning on him when he wouldn't roll over for Long and the others, I knew the violence was coming. The Moonshine War actually feels like a western more than anything else.

Any gripes? Not a one besides wanting to read more about Son Martin. 3.5 stars.

Thanks for the memories, Elmore.  There won't be another one like you.

1 comment:

  1. I liked GET SHORTY and MAXIMUM BOB the very very best, but even at his personal worst he was streets better than most.