May 29, 2012


by Elmore Leonard
416 pages, Harper Paperbacks

Review by Bill Kirton

Elmore Leonard was born in 1925 and, by my count, has written 49 novels as well as lots of screenplays, stories and non-fiction books which I didn’t bother to count. He’s the consummate professional and, in Tishomingo Blues, written ten years ago, he was still at the height of his powers. It’s packed with beautifully drawn, distinct characters, unashamed baddies and goodies, as well as those who inhabit an area where it’s difficult to say which side they’re on.

In this novel, he adds piquancy to that ethical conundrum by making a central feature of the narrative the re-enactment of one of the battles of the American Civil War, with his characters split between being Yankees and Confederates. Thus, as the battle’s organised and the details of uniforms and weapons, the deployment of troops, the hierarchy of camp followers are all sketched, other tensions grow simultaneously between forces vying to take over drug and real estate rackets.

At the centre of it is Dennis, a high diver, who’s introduced right at the start in a couple of paragraphs that I used in a blog to show how Leonard seems to need very few words to convey lots of information. Here are the opening lines of those first two paragraphs:

‘Dennis Lenehan the high diver would tell people that if you put a fifty-cent piece on the floor and looked down on it, that’s what the tank looked like from the top of that eighty-foot steel ladder’

‘When he told this to girls who hung out at amusement parks they’d put a cute look of pain on their faces and say what he did was awesome. But wasn’t it like really dangerous?’

The writing is spare, all unnecessary decoration has been eliminated. The sentences are deceptively simple but carry so much more meaning than their surface suggests. There’s the matter-of-factness of ‘would tell people’ (i.e. high-diving’s an everyday occurrence); the comprehensive description of all the aspects of his terrifying act in just two lines and a single image; the layers of insinuation in ‘girls who hung out at amusement parks’; the deliberate inappropriateness of ‘they’d put’, ‘cute’ and ‘awesome’; and the smile-inducing perfection of that final question, reinforcing the gap between the real danger and people’s perceptions of it.

And that’s the way the book continues. It’s sometimes raw, brutal, but it’s also tender and subtle. People are killed almost as an afterthought or on a whim, with it hardly interrupting a conversation. And yet it’s the killing of a dog that has the greatest consequences. But its true glory is that the characters’ complexities, their actions and interactions, their aspirations and plans are nearly all conveyed through what they say. There’s very little refinement in the people here. Some of them seem to have paid little attention to any education that may have been forced on them, but each has a recognisable stylistic register and Leonard’s ear for natural speech is faultless. It allows him to manufacture conversations which not only develop and frame the narrative but also reveal the surface and the depths (or lack of) of each individual.

As the preparations for the battle build gradually to the conflict itself and its deadly outcome, so the book’s other narratives are structured to keep pace with it. There’s power, humour and, yes, tenderness. The energy never falters, the inevitability of the necessary showdown ratchets up the tension until all loose ends are tied up and you can at last close the book, all curiosity satisfied. It’s the work of the best crime writer around.

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