Over a career spanning decades, Elmore Leonard was not only one of the best crime fiction writers in the US. He was one of our country’s best writers, period. Like Twain, Hemingway, and Chandler, he turned the American idiom into art. It is therefore fitting that The Library of America has chosen to publish a three volume set of Leonard’s works, edited by George Sutter, Leonard’s friend and researcher. Each volume will contain four books. The first volume, subtitled Four Novels of the 1970s, was released this month. The selected titles are great representations of his first full decade in the crime fiction genre, sometimes referred to as his “Detroit Period.”
The first book in the collection, Fifty-Two Pickup, tells the story of a businessman, Harry Mitchell, being blackmailed for an affair. When he refuses to pay, the blackmailers kill his mistress and frame him with doctored evidence they threaten to release if he doesn’t pay a higher amount. This starts an involved cat-and-mouse game playing the three villains against each other. Here you see Leonard’s aptitude for writing criminals. While sleazy and vile, each is familiar and believable, with great dialogue.
The second title, Swag, features criminals as the leads. It is the first appearance of car thief Earnest “Stick” Stickley Jr. Stick meets car salesman Frank Ryan while trying to boost a car off of Ryan’s lot. Frank has some shady get-rich-quick schemes and pulls Stick into a series of robberies that rest on a series of rules he has concocted, including the old adage, “Be Polite”. Leonard takes a close look at middle class criminals and the modern American dream. Stick is one of the first characters to display the “Leonard Cool,” existing only in the moment. The notes section in the back contains a passage he discarded from the novel.
I was happy to see one of my favorite Leonard novels, Unknown Man #89, included. The lead is Jack Ryan, the protagonist from his first crime novel, The Big Bounce. Ryan is working as a process server with a reputation for finding anyone, especially those who don’t want to be found. He’s hired to to track down an unknown stock holder to deliver the news of his good fortune, but it soon becomes clear that Jack is not the only one looking for his target, and that the others have much deadlier intentions., leaving Jack stuck in the crossfire.This book is tougher than his better known, later work, painting Detroit street life in its gritty glory.
The final book, The Switch, is the closest to the kind of story Leonard became known for. A crime fiction take on O’Henry’s The Ransom Of Red Chief, the story concerns the kidnapping of a businessman’s wife that occurs right before he is about to file for divorce. It is full of Leonard double crosses, switching alliances, quirky characters, and fun dialogue. Leonard like his characters from The Switch so much he put two of the characters in one of his nineties novels, Rum Punch.
All four novels are packaged in a beautiful edition with a detailed history of Elmore Leonard’s life. It shows him in the process of developing his voice, after twenty years of writing westerns, to become one of crime fiction’s most original voices, influencing even those outside the genre. Most of all, you get an understanding of how distinctive that voice was at the start.
Copies of Four Novels of the 1970s can be found on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.