Sunday, April 24, 2011

City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit (1980)

Elmore Leonard is a writer everyone needs to look into sooner or later. Anyone who cares about good writing owes it to oneself—he's easy to read and amazing at his craft, his words literally hard-boiled down to pebbles and rocks of meaning washed bone clean by narrative momentum. His dialogue, in particular, can make a fascinating study, as he simply takes out the words that people don't say and leaves only the rest, which is remarkably different from how most people reconstruct conversations, even in memory, let alone writing it down. Yet the lines ring like fragments of melody. "Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip," is how he puts it in advice to writers. Leonard started out writing westerns (day job writing advertising copy, maybe that's how he got so pithy), then moved on to crime novels set in Detroit, in Florida, and finally in Los Angeles. He might even have one or two set in New Orleans now. Most people's favorites by him seem to be the first one or two they've read. I'm no exception there, and for that reason probably as much as any I tend to favor his Detroit novels, of which the subtitle here makes obvious this is one. That subtitle also underlines the lasting influence westerns have had on Leonard, both the ones he wrote and the ones he read and saw at the movies—the profound influence, indeed, that westerns have had on crime fiction generally (and American detective fiction particularly). Raymond Chandler's man going down a mean street, after all, has always been basically just a 20th-century urban update of certain species of frontier stories. Here Leonard simply elaborates on that, as much as he ever "elaborates" on anything, with a nerve-jangling confrontation between a depraved, soulless criminal, a young kid named Clement Mansell, aka the "Oklahoma Wildman," and Raymond Cruz, the Detroit homicide investigator who is determined to take him down. Mansell is enough like Billy the Kid, and Cruz enough like Gregory Peck, to make the overriding conceit work just fine. And Leonard never has to spell anything out in even that much detail. He just sets the players in motion and lets things roll; the subtitle is there for the clue. The landscape is quickly littered with victims and potential victims, including perhaps most memorably Mansell's own attorney, the hard-as-nails Carolyn Wilder. It can get to be a pretty rough ride, but at least it doesn't take much more than an airplane flight, or single late night, to polish off.

In case it's not at the library.

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