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Monday, July 28, 2008

Elmore’s Fans Won’t Be Disappointed in Son’s First Crime Novel

Leonard’s the name, noir’s the game . . . just like dad
Gritty plot, tough women, set in Detroit. Sound familiar? Elmore’s fans won’t be disappointed in son’s first crime novel

thestar.com
JACK BATTEN

Peter Leonard has been writing advertising copy for 25 years. It pays the bills. He lives in Birmingham, Mich., with his wife and four kids. Working nights and weekends, Leonard finished his first crime novel not long ago. It’s called Quiver. Especially for a first novel, Quiver is mature, funny, well paced and smartly structured.

Is there a catch in this nice story of long-delayed accomplishment?

There might be if you ask about the first name of Peter Leonard’s father. The answer is Elmore. Peter grew up in a home where his old man happened to be writing some of the greatest books in American crime fiction.

It’s inevitable, reading Quiver, that the reader’s mind drifts to comparisons with the works of Elmore. Early in the book, a principal character named Jack Curran turns up. Immediately, thoughts of other memorable Jacks surface. Jack Foley from Elmore’s terrific 1996 book, Out of Sight. Or Jack Delaney in 1987’s excellent Bandits.

A guy in Quiver says to a woman, “You’re better looking than Sister Mary Andrew who I had in second grade.” Elmore, the reader thinks, would have left out the “who.” Later on, Peter Leonard describes the way a character is talking, “Trying to put a little enthusiasm behind it.” The phrase is reminiscent of a favourite line of Elmore’s: “Not putting too much into it.”

The reflex habit of matching Peter’s style to Elmore’s never quite goes away. The son writes in a manner resembling his father’s. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. But the reader’s impulse to compare does nothing to spoil Quiver’s pleasures, which are legion.

One more mention of Elmore may be relevant. According to a charming interview that Elmore and Peter recently conducted with one another – it can be Googled – Quiver started out as a movie script. Peter rewrote it as a novel when his father, who has a long history with Hollywood, said to him, “Being a screen writer is like wanting to be a co-pilot.”

The book’s story, which is best described as multi-faceted, concerns the efforts of three bad guys, plus one really nasty girlfriend, to shake down a rich widow for as many millions as possible. With these guys, shakedown is a wide-ranging concept. Scamming enters into it of course, but homicide is far from out of the question,

Jack Curran, a Detroit guy, has what passes for the brains of the threesome, though Jack isn’t as slick as he thinks he is. Then comes Teddy from southern Illinois, a dumb and vicious hick. Last is DeJuan, a super cool, inner city Detroit dude. Teddy brings Celeste to the party. She’s blond, shapely, spectacularly tattooed and bad-tempered. Nobody should look sideways at Celeste.

Tension fuels relations among the group. More than three years earlier, the three guys stuck up a supermarket for either $257,000 or $166,000. Jack got caught and did 38 months for armed robbery. He didn’t rat out the other two, but neither did he reveal what happened to the loot.

Teddy and DeJuan think Jack hid it. He didn’t, but everybody’s mad at everybody else, and the only route to recouping is by way of a scheme to separate the widow Kate McCall from her money.

Kate’s late husband, Owen, built a fortune in NASCAR, first as a driver, then as a team owner. Owen and Kate, happily married, had a son named Luke. A few months before the book opens, 16-year-old Luke killed his father in a horrible accident while the two were hunting for deer with bows and arrows.

The kid is practically catatonic with grief. The widow works hard at coping for the two of them. Then Jack, Teddy, DeJuan and Celeste swing into view.

For the rest of the book, with all the characters established in their roles, the story lopes along to an admirably brisk and exciting rhythm. Surprises enliven events. One obvious and unnecessary plot misstep slows the tempo, but only briefly.

In the online interview between the two Leonards, Peter says his favourite character is DeJuan. Elmore more or less agrees. The reader may not. Crime writers seem to embrace their bad guys, all decked out with weird pathologies, getting off on cruel one-liners.

But DeJuan, as with most characters like him, seems just another psychopath. He’s fairly funny in his homeboy way, but what’s so amusing about killing somebody when DeJuan has all the odds, not to mention the weapons, in his favour?

Much more essential to Quiver’s plot, much more interesting and successful as a character, is Kate McCall. The novel wouldn’t click if Peter Leonard couldn’t deliver the goods in shaping Kate into someone strong and dependable. Happily for us readers, he makes Kate into the real thing.

Now in her late 30s, Kate has a back story that works in terms of the plot. Years earlier, after she came out of the University of Michigan, she joined the Peace Corps. She took her good intentions to East Guatemala. While protecting a young Guatemalan woman, she angers the local police chief. He sends two cops to rape and kill Kate. She shoots both cops dead.

When Jack and his colleagues make life hard for Kate and Luke, when they abuse and threaten the woman and her son, we know that Kate has the toughness to resist.

Come to think of it, Kate bears a likeness to Carmen Colson, the housewife in Elmore’s 1989 book, Killshot. In the last pages of Killshot, Carmen drills two bullets into the hitman known as Blackbird. That’s something Peter Leonard’s Kate McCall could handle.


Jack Batten is a Toronto author, novelist and freelance writer. His Whodunit appears every two weeks.

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