Sunday, March 25, 2012

52 Pick-Up (1974)

52 Pick-Up is Elmore Leonard's 11th novel but most of those before this—inimitably Leonard as they may be—had been Westerns, and here he is still feeling his way into various particulars of the suspense/thriller crime genre. He's not always on his game entirely, but I still count it as one of my favorites, with 1980's City Primeval, perhaps because there's something of the energy of discovery to it (or perhaps because they are the first two I read). Maybe it's my imagination, but I get a stronger sense here than usual that he is positively relishing the work of pungently capturing the textures and feel of Detroit in the early '70s, with the bad actors going casually day to day dealing drugs, porn, call girls, grand theft auto, basically whatever it takes. As always, one of the bad actors is very, very bad. It must be fun to dream these guys up and send them on their rounds. Here it's a blackmailing plot by a trio of ne'er-do-wells that morphs into an episode of kidnap and appalling treatment of our hero's wife—even as our hero, a Vietnam vet natch, coolly plays the bad guys off one another like a chess master up against the whole town at the local library on a Saturday afternoon. The wife even gets a supporting role as typical flinty, clipped-speech Leonard hero too, and that may be the kindest thing Leonard gives us in regard to her once the mayhem is fully engaged and events are unfolding like fate. Leonard actually has two great gifts, which are related but don't often enough come together. First, what he's famous for, his language is so refined and boiled down it is virtually transparent and so fun to read that at points I find myself laughing out loud at how good it is. Second, he knows how to structure a plot. He doesn't concern himself overly with anything new—criminy, he started out writing Westerns, perhaps the most conservative of all the literary genres, and they're all pretty conservative. Leonard's stock-in-trade tends toward some combination of revenge plot and damsel-in-distress. But the way he picks up the cards, shuffles them, and deals—he's always finding a new direction to come at you, and more often than not you never see it coming. I can't think of any better place to start or finish with Leonard than right here. Go ahead, you can skip a night of sleep.

In case it's not at the library.

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