This first critical article of Elmore’s work is so right on that I had to reprint it AGAIN.
New York Times
May 22, 1977
When Elmore Leonard’s “Fifty-Two-Pickup” appeared in 1974, it had some critics talking in terms of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. “Swag” in 1976 indicated that Leonard’s first book was no mere accident. A new and important writer of mystery fiction had arrived. Now comes “Unknown Man No. 89,” and it maintains the high standard Leonard has set for himself.
But it really is wrong to talk of this writer in terms of Chandler and Macdonald. He has little in common with those two. They are “clean” writers; there is no profanity to speak of in Chandler, and Macdonald has never been an exponent of the verismo school of speech. Leonard is.
The real influence on Leonard is George V. Higgins, whose “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” came out about five years ago and marked a breakthrough into the kind of language previously encountered only in paperback books with green covers: Even had he wanted to, Chandler, say, would not in his time have been allowed to reproduce the speech of the criminal subculture, with four-letter words as numerous as cockroaches in a tenement flat. (But why only the criminal subculture? Anybody who has ever lived in an army barracks, or has gone to the dressing rooms of professional athletes after a game or who hangs around hardhat bars hears the same kind of language.)
Higgins was the first to take full advantage of the new permissiveness. Like Higgins’s, Leonard’s characters, all middle-class or criminal types, speak in a way that cannot be reproduced in a family newspaper. Leonard often cannot resist a set-piece—a lowbrow aria with a crazy kind of scatological poetry of its own—in the Higgins manner.
But that is where the similarity ends. Where Higgins wrote only about criminals, Leonard writes about basically decent, ordinary men who get into trouble and have to work their way out of it. In “Swag,” the decent man happens to be a criminal, but toward the end he achieves all but mythic stature. In “Fifty-Two Pickup” a rich industrialist commits one sexual mistake and is blackmailed. Rough and tough, he will not give in, and he finds a way to get rid of the punks. Permanently. He too emerges bigger than life at the end.
Leonard is a moralist in his way. In all three of his books, Good overcomes Evil (even in “Swag,” where the hero is finally undone only by a freak of fate). But Leonard is also a realist and, in an objective, matter-of-fact way, he can portray some of the most vicious, slimy villains that ever horrified a spellbound reader.
“Unknown Man No. 89” follows the pattern. It is the story of a not very admirable man who, under stress, discovers himself and becomes a whole man. The central character is a man named Ryan, formerly a drifter, now a process-server who is very good at his job. He follows Rule No. 1: Never get personally involved. But get involved he does, with a young lady about to be fleeced by an oily, dangerous crook. He gets her out of trouble at the end, in a blaze of Leonardian pyrotechnical finesse. As in the two previous books, the plotting is remarkably ingenious.
Also, as in the other two books, the locale is Detroit. Leonard lives in Birmingham, Mich., and attended Detroit University. He knows his city, and he has observed some of the hoodlums in it. He is very good at creating figures of menace: Alan Raimey and Bobby Shy in “Fifty-Two Pickup,” Sportree in “Swag.”
In “Unknown Man No. 89,” Leonard serves up Raymond Gidre, a Southern bigot who is a single-minded killer: Go in, shoot and get out. When his boss tells him to retrieve a suitcase, this is how he does it:
“Another boy with a hat and sunglasses sitting across the other side of the bar like he was a nigger cowboy, riding the barstool with his big orange drink. That one, Raymond said to himself. The skinny boy had the suitcase, but the cowboy was the one to watch.
“Raymond took his drink and walked over to Tunafish. He said, ‘How you doing? Your hands cold?’
“Tunafish, looking up at him, said, ‘My hands? What?’
“Raymond placed his drink on the table. He reached into his coat, brought out his German Luger and shot Tunafish in the face, twice.”
Ryan not only has to evade the attentions of a man like Raymond, he also has to outwit the con man, who is much smarter and just as dangerous. How he does it is another example of Leonard’s legerdemain. The working-out will keep you on the edge of your chair.
Leonard bows to no one in plot construction. Yet there is never the feeling of gimmickry in his plots; events follow a natural course. Above all, there is Leonard’s style. He has a wonderful ear, and his dialogue never has a false note. He avoids artiness, writes clear expository prose and has the ability to create real people. It is not High Literature, nor does it pretend to be. Leonard is primarily an entertainer. But he is one with enormous finesse, and he can write circles around almost anybody active in the crime novel today.
Newgate Callendar conducts the Book Review’s Crime column.