Leonard, Elmore. 52-Pickup.

NY: Delacorte, 1974.

Leonard started out in the writing trade in the 1960s doing Western yarns and, since he’s lived all his life in Detroit, it presumably didn’t come very naturally to him. Then the pulp Western market dried up and he switched over to crime novels, of which this was his first.

Not “mysteries,” you understand, because here you know from the beginning who did what to whom.

The “whom” in this case is Harry Mitchell, who spent eleven years on the line at the main Dodge assembly plant while establishing himself as an engineer, and then parlayed a handful of original ideas and patents into a modest machine and tool company, producing mysterious (to me) parts for the auto industry. He worked his way up, in other words, and has plenty of experience in looking after himself. Now in middle age, he’s happily married with two grown kids and a membership in the tennis club. And then he meets a girl, falls for her, and embarks on his first-ever extramarital fling. He’s not happy about it, really, but he’s doing what his hormones insist he has to do. Then he comes up against three very unpleasant men who know all about his amorous activities and expect to be paid to keep their mouths shut. Mitchell knows blackmail never ends but he can’t figure out what to do about it. But when he tentatively refuses to pay, the Bad Guys raise the stakes in a horrible fashion.

That’s the set-up and Leonard makes it work in a way that will keep you absorbed. You could update the details of the plot (taking into account inflation and computers and so on) and the story would work just as well in today’s Detroit as it does forty years ago. Part of the reason is that Leonard writes his narrative in scenes, each with a beginning and an end. (This is also why every single one of his many books has sold to the movies.) Another reason is the absolutely believable characters who inhabit his plots. Finally, there’s his matter-of-fact style, quite without embellishment and melodrama, that puts the reader right in the middle of things. There’s a reason he’s sometimes called the “Dickens of Detroit.” If you’ve never read Elmore Leonard, do it now. And this is an excellent place to start.

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Published in: on 13 August 2013 at 6:05 am  Leave a Comment  
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