Freaky Deaky – Elmore Leonard

This has everything you’d expect from a Leonard book – cool and ludicrously readable dialogue (of course), a string of morally ambiguous characters, murder and drugs and plotting and theft – plus, in this book, bombs and 60s radicals gone bad, taking a dose of nihilism and bomb making skills with them.

It’s the story of once-radicals Robin and stoner-slash-bomb maker Skip, who put together a plan to use bombs and deceit to dupe super rich Woody and Mark Ricks out of a few million. It’s complicated by Woody’s assistant Donnell who also wants to benefit from their wealth, and by explosives cop Chris and Greta, a wanna-be actress. As you’d expect, the plot twists and turns satisfyingly, and the good-ish guys kind of win out, though there’s certainly no moral to be taken from this tale.

I was, though, particularly aware of Leonard’s treatment of women in this novel. Greta says early on that she has been raped by Woody. It’s unclear whether this is true or not, and at times Leonard seems to be saying she led him on, especially as Woody is an obese semi-comatose alcoholic. It’s never dealt with or clarified, and Greta seems untroubled by it. I guess it’s indicative of his treatment of female characters. Some of them anyway are little more than objects of playthings for men, and have little depth to them. Obviously this isn’t always true – Robin in Freaky Deaky is the brains and probably the most interesting character in the book – but in the case of Greta it certainly is.

This doesn’t make it a bad book – it’s a fun, gripping and character-packed read, but you do need a certain detachment I think, so you don’t think that the treatment of Greta as a character is ok.

Elmore Leonard – Bandits

Another top-notch caper from Leonard; too good to be true, but a brilliant, brilliant read.

It tells the story of ex-con Jack, now working as an undertaker, who meets a Nun called Lucy. Together with Jack’s co-worker and ex-policeman Leo, they confront and double-cross a leader of the Nicaraguan ‘contras’ who is a ruthless and violent killer stealing a load of cash from American donors to the anti-communist government.

As always, the plot is gripping though at times hard to follow, the characters fun and complex but sometimes a little stereotyped, the dialogue consistently droll and cool and Tarantino-like.

There is a strong theme of ridiculing anti-communist right wingers in the US, but in a way that very nicely never gets too deep into the politics, just skirts around the edges highlighting that the bad guys are on the side of the American administration and Nicaragua’s authoritarianism. Good stuff as always.

Touch – Elmore Leonard 

At the heart of Elmore Leonard’s novels is the combination of a fast-paced plot and the  rolling patter of a bunch of low lives on the make and ordinary Americans trying to find their way. Touch delivers all this, but adds a remarkable insight into the weird place of evangelical Christianity in the US.

Written in 1977 though not published until 10 years later because it was not a crime novel in Leonard’s typical sense, it tells the story of Juvenal, a humble man who for some reason has the ability to heal the sick and, when he does so, experiences stigmata.

As his gift becomes public he is surrounded by people wanting him in some way – part time record promoter, Bill Hills, wants to market and profit from him; right wing religious zealot August Murray wants to use him to convert people to his brand of traditionalist Catholicism and elevate himself to the position of an inflammatory religious leader; TV presenter Howard Hart wants him on TV so he can cut him down and humiliate him in front of millions; and Lynn wants him because she’s genuinely in love with him.

What Leonard brilliantly highlights is the human, all too human, concerns of the protagonists. None are interested in what it means for someone to experience stigmata, in the spiritual questions it raises. Even Juvenal himself is uninquisitive about the origins of his gifts. Instead, everyone is focused on the material and largely self-interested consequences of Juvenal’s condition.

Lynn and Juvenal are the only likeable characters in the novel, and this largely because they are not on the make, are clearly happy with one another and try hard to see Juvenal’s condition as just one element of his personality.

The fact that this was written in the 1970s adds an additional dimension to it: evangelical Christianity, particularly in the form of the Southern Baptists, has become more prevalent in the forty years since, and so what Leonard presciently describes is how the spiritual dimension of religion is subsumed by the petty concerns of everyday life, from basic survival to the media circus.

Mr Majestik – Elmore Leonard

It’s surprising, but there’s no one else quite like Elmore Leonard. His stories are gripping, his style pared down and his characters likeable and mean in equal measure. If his novels had a soundtrack I’d guess Curtis Mayfield, probably.

Mr Majestik is classic Leonard – a focused tale of crime, injustice and comeuppance.

Majestik is a hard working melon farmer who is visited by Kopas, a local small time crook. They face off and Majestik is mistakenly jailed. In jail he meets crime boss Renda organises an escape that involves Majestik who takes advantage of the situation, tricking Renda and turning him into an enemy intent on killing Majestik.

Renda keeps coming for him through the book but all Majestik wants to do is harvest his melons before they go bad.

It’s an implausible story – Renda gets too obsessed, while Majestik and his girlfriend Nancy are too good to be true – but nevertheless it’s a fantastically entertaining read, like reading a Tarantino film.

The Switch – Elmore Leonard

Read Feb 2016

Elmore Leonard is a brilliant crime writer. Reading him is like reading a Tarantino movie. Great dialogue. Great plot. Menacing and fun characters. It’s surprising how few people write like him. Early George Pelecanos, maybe, but few others capture the reckless and entertaining violence of his books.

The Switch is the best of his novels I’ve read so far. *Spoiler alert* He tells the story of Mickey, an overlooked wife of rich but corrupt husband, Frank. Newly out of jail, Ordell and Louis decide to kidnap her and hold her to ransom. They are dodgy, but relatively harmless criminals, though unfortunately enlist the help of Richard, a psychopathic Nazi.

The kidnap itself goes as planned, but less so when they contact Frank to demand $1 million as ransom.Frank has just decided to divorce Mickey, and so doesn’t want to pay up. Eventually the blackmail fails and they let Mickey go, though not without crazy Richard causing problems that result in a shoot-out with the police.

But when Louis says she is free, Mickey doesn’t want to go home! In the best scene of the book, she hangs out for the day with Louis, drinking and smoking grass, letting herself go in a way she never does and determining to not go back to being the brow-beaten tennis mom Mickey.

After confronting Frank she ends up back with Louis and Ordell and – the final twist, the final switch – together they plan to kidnap Frank’s mistress, Melanie, and hold her to ransom ….

The Switch, more than anything, is great reading, great entertainment. But having said that, the characterisation is so strong. He captures, through dialogue rather than introspection, Mickey’s sense of being trapped and squashed by Frank, and Frank’s utter indifference to Mickey, in a way that many more ‘literary’ writers would struggle to do.

First class.

Elmore Leonard – The Hunted

the hunted

Read May 2014

It’s hard to read Leonard without thinking about interviews with him saying that the reason he writes books is to get a film deal. It spoils it a little, whilst also making you visualise it in the style of Quentin Tarantino. But once you put that behind you – and the fact that it’s no literary revelation – The Hunted, like other books of his, are great: interesting characters; ridiculous, but not too ridiculous, plots; engaging dialogue; very readable. It’s about a guy who had done witness protection being tracked down by people wanting to kill him. They pursue him around Israel, where the book’s set. The guy teams up with an ex US marine and a female ex Israeli Defence Force as they try to defend themselves, all ending of course in a big violent showdown. Utterly gripping at the time; almost instantly forgettable.