Unknown Man No. 89 Introduction by Elmore Leonard (1993)
Posted: 31 August 2007 08:24 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Unknown Man No. 89 by Elmore Leonard
The Armchair Detective Library (1993)

Introduction by Elmore Leonard

UNKNOWN MAN NO. 89 is the only book of the thirty-one I’ve written that came into being with the title.  In the preparation of other books, several times I’ve thought of a title before writing the first line, but in those instances I did have some idea what the books would be about and the titles, at least to me, were appropriate.  I’ve leaned that if you don’t have a title by the time you’ve finished writing the book, you’re in big trouble.  A title you have to sit think about, after, is never as good as the one that comes to you in what you like to think of as a flash of brilliance. 

A year or so before I wrote the book, a feature story about the Detroit Police Homicide Section appeared in the DETROIT FREE PRESS.  In it was a paragraph heading that introduced a scene in the Wayne County Morgue and I saw it immediately as a title.  “Unknown Man No. 84.”  Well, almost a title.  I thought “84” was a bit soft and that a number with a somewhat harder sound would work better.  Hence, UNKNOWN MAN NO. 89.

The reference is to an unidentified murder victim lying in the morgue, a numbered tag attached to one of his big toes.  The description of the morgue in the DETROIT FREE PRESS feature story was quite well done and I thought, since the piece seemed to provide all the information I’d need, it would save me a trip to downtown Detroit.  Or, I might have viewed the description in the paper as an excuse not to go, sparing myself the horrendous sights you’re likely to come face to face with in one of the country’s busiest big-city morgues.

But then I thought, no, I should go and get the feel of the place, observe details and gather personal reactions that might find their way into the novel as the reactions of one of the characters.

I’m glad I did go.  My attitude about the place not only became the main character’s point of view, I picked up details that I could use as devices in the plot.  I happened to walk in on the post mortem examination of a young woman who had swallowed forty-three sleeping pills and closed her eyes forever:  walked in while the medical examiner’s assistant was removing a section of the woman’s skull with an electric saw and watched him take a sample of brain tissue, to be tested along with samples from other vital organs.  (The purpose of the autopsy was to verify the apparent cause of death.)  What occurred next was adapted to the scene I eventually wrote and described from the main character’s point of view.

“The autopsy assistant was at the opposite end of the tray table now.  He replaced the skull section and – as Ryan watched – carefully pulled the hair and scalp up over the skull, revealing the face a little at a time, a man appearing, features forming, as though the assistant were fitting the lifeless skull with a mask.


Posted: 31 August 2007 08:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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“Ryan stared at the face…. He said, ‘Jesus…look.’”

And can’t believe what he sees.  Which, if I described it here, would reveal too soon a significant element of the plot.

That trip to the morgue taught me never to pass an opportunity to observe firsthand the setting and the business that goes on in any scene I plan to use.

Another personal experience that found its way into UNKNOWN MAN provides a kind of background for the main character, Jack Ryan – not to be confused with another literary Jack Ryan who, I believe, works for the CIA and gets into international situations.  My Jack Ryan appeared originally in THE BIG BOUNCE, 1969, as a burglar turned migrant worker arrested for assault but never convicted.  In UNKNOWN MAN NO. 89 Ryan has improved his status; he’s now a process server – hands out subpoenas to unsuspecting witnesses and defendants, and is an ace at locating missing persons.

Ryan is also an alcoholic, which I can write about from a personal experience, describing his attitude when he confronts another alcoholic; and then when he falls off the wagon and has to find an AA meeting quick, before he continues to drink and gets in trouble.  What the AA meeting sequence provides in UNKNOWN MAN is not only a highly dramatic situation in itself but, like the morgue sequence, becomes a key scene in that it leads to a vitally important plot discovery.

UNKNOWN MAN was first published in 1977.  January of that year I had my last drink.  Seven years later I was interviewed for a book Dennis Wholey was writing called THE COURAGE TO CHANGE, subtitled CONVERSATIONS ABOUT ALCOHOLISM.  Wholey’s book also includes a brief scene from UNKNOWN MAN, in which Ryan confronts a woman who can’t bring herself to admit she has a drinking problem.  The scene opens Chapter Six and introduces Lee – one of her names – the female lead and the character from whom the plot develops.

Alfred Hitchcock, I’m told, was so taken with Lee that he got Universal Studios to buy the screen rights of the book for him.  No one knows what Hitchcock has in mind; he died while preparing the film he planned to do before UNKNOWN MAN.  After his death, a number of the 100-plus producers who had rejected the possibility of the book as a movie now showed considerable interest – what with Alfred Hitchcock’s prints being on the book.  Unfortunately, no one could find out what Hitchcock had planned to do with it, if in fact he planned to do anything at all.

I did write an UNKNOWN MAN screenplay for Universal, which the studio gave to a talent agency for casting.  Word came back that Neil Diamond flipped when he read the script.  Universal, though, decided to kill the project before it could become a musical.  More recently another script, with Brian Dennehy set to play Jack Ryan, sold to one of the television networks.  This time a newly appointed president in charge of entertainment didn’t much care for the idea and killed the project.

Since then, UNKNOW MAN NO. 89 hasn’t appeared in any guise other than its original format, the pages of a book, and its probably just as well.

Elmore Leonard
Bloomfield Village, Michigan
April 1993