No 1 Writer

John Sutherland

  • Glitz by Elmore Leonard
    Viking, 251 pp, £8.95, July 1985, ISBN 0 670 80571 8
  • LaBrava by Elmore Leonard
    Penguin, 283 pp, £2.50, July 1985, ISBN 0 14 007238 1
  • Stick by Elmore Leonard
    Penguin, 304 pp, £2.50, August 1985, ISBN 0 14 007083 4
  • The Hunting Season by J.K. Mayo
    Collins, 253 pp, £9.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 00 222783 5

Genre fiction is as competitive as prizefighting. The current champion of thriller writers in America is Elmore ‘Dutch’ Leonard. With the imminent release of the film Stick (a much-hyped but somewhat limp adaptation directed by and starring Burt Reynolds) he should make number one here, too. Leonard’s eminence ties in with the emergence of Miami as the new crime fashion centre of the United States. Styles have changed. Chicago was speakeasies and gangs; Las Vegas high-rolling casinos; New York, the five Mafia families. Miami crime has no roots in long-standing urban deprivation, minority ethnic solidarity, or the anomalies of state gambling laws. It was created by a series of rapid influxes of people, capital and contraband all cooked in the Sun Belt’s year-round summer. First came the monied retirees, who triggered off the real-estate boom (this is the background to John D. MacDonald’s underrated Condominium). Secondly, the mind-boggling sums of money generated by middle-class America’s insatiable appetite for prohibited cocaine. Thirdly, the invasion by criminal classes educated in villainy outside the US – in Cuba, Haiti and Colombia. Fidel Castro’s exporting his entire population of moral incorrigibles from Mariel in 1980 topped off the anti-social mixture nicely.

Miami crime is above all stylish: a compound of fluorescent tones, salsa rhythms and what Leonard calls ‘glitzy crap’. This glitz was the leading feature of Brian De Palma’s remake of Scarface, with its play on luminous surfaces in which blood, neon and Miami sunsets finally merge into a single crimson garishness. The same glitz features in the current TV hit, Miami Vice. Mafiosi are usually portrayed as dressing like funeral mutes. The Miami vicious, by contrast, strut in gold chains, flaring silk and sharp disco fashions. Fashion (as determined by prime-time TV) also dictates the choice of weaponry. The point is made with Leonard’s usual few words in LaBrava:

  ‘Any pistol you want,’ Javier said, ‘wholesale price to a Marielito. Machine-gun one-third off, MAC-10 cost you eight hundred.’

  ‘Something small,’ Cundo Rey said.

  ‘You want a snubbie. This one, .38 Special, two-inch barrel. Same kind the Charlie’s Angels use.’

  ‘Yea?’

  ‘Also Barney Miller.’

  ‘Wrap it up,’ Cundo Rey said.

It’s not a pitch one can imagine working with Don Corleone.

Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, like Howard Hawks’s original Scarface, was steeped in age-old moral patterns and conventions, and clan loyalties. Traditional crime fiction is consolingly dutiful to moral truisms: either that crime does not pay, or that (as in the necessary sequel, Godfather II) it pays only at the cost of one’s finer being. There is no such consolation in Elmore Leonard’s vision of Miami outlawry. The ubiquitous Marielito, for instance, is a cold-eyed loner, conscienceless and very successful. In Stick, the type is represented by Nestor Soto, who for routine disciplinary reasons requires blood sacrifice (in the form of an employee to murder) from a fellow dealer who unwittingly exposes him to a Federal bust. In LaBrava, the principal murderer (there are at least three others among the main characters) is another Marielito, Cundo Rey. Cundo commits his crimes in the dark: but three nights a week under the spotlights he is a go-go dancer, in leopard skin jockstrap, for women’s strip joints (one of the less high-minded products of the liberation movement). Cundo murdered a Russian adviser in Cuba for his LaCoste shirt; murdered the American captain who brought him to Florida for ‘complaining’. And once landed, and a new American himself, he continues murdering with no more compunction than he dances. Both are natural to him. The novel is inward with this reptile, but he is beyond understanding: a force of evil which can only be propitiated or (with a great deal of luck) exterminated.

Wholesale extermination would be an Augean task. The likes of Cundo Rey are a majority in Leonard’s world. He portrays an America weltering in its crime. There is no battle, because the bad guys have won. In Raymond Chandler’s novels, the mean streets were patrolled if not policed by crusaders upholding impeccable private moralities (‘shop-soiled Galahad’ is how the ironic Marlowe describes himself). Alfred Harbage once calculated that seven out of ten people in Shakespeare’s plays are good. In Chandler, the ratio is less favourable but must run about seventy-thirty, bad over good. For Elmore Leonard, one good man a novel is par. And even his upstanding types are not the kind who win citizen-of-the-month awards. In Stick, the hero is an ex-con, just released from serving seven-to-ten for armed robbery. He does not solve, uncover or avenge crime. He merely happens to be around and puts things right as neutrally as one might straighten a crooked picture.

As Leonard’s homme moyen sensuel, Stick expresses a cool, exhausted tolerance of a crime wave become tidal. Submerged in it, the means of survival is, as Stick puts it, ‘not to react to things’. Or if absolutely required to react, the approved style is laid-back to the point of lethargy. Take, for instance, a standard thriller episode where Stick is obliged to deal with a drunken hoodlum, terrorising the local citizenry. Traditionally, heroic fists fly and bad guys fall, conveniently stunned. Stick, by contrast, ambles on the scene with a rusty two-gallon gasoline can:

Stick walked over to the buffet table. He placed a glass on the edge, unscrewed the cap on the gooseneck spout of the gasoline can and raised it carefully to pour ... Stick paused, almost smiled. Then he emptied the glass with an up-and-down toss of the hand, wetting the front of Cecil’s shirt and the fly of his trousers. There was a sound from the guests, an intake of breath, but no one moved. They stared in silence ... Stick raised his left hand, flicked on a lighter and held it inches from Cecil’s chest. ‘Your bag’s packed,’ Stick said, looking at him over the flame. ‘You want to leave or you want to argue?’

The merest flick of a thumb replaces righteous assault and battery. And the final twist is that the gasoline can actually contained water. ‘Where was I going to get gasoline? Drive all the way over to the Amoco station?’

Although Penguin publicity labels him ‘America’s new No 1 writer’, Leonard has been around a long time. He served his apprenticeship doing Westerns. (This is a background he shares with his near rival in the thriller, Brian Garfield, author of Death Wish). Leonard wrote the book and screenplay for what has been solemnly judged – by the Western writers’ association – one of the 20 best works ever in the genre, Hombre. The film was directed by Martin Ritt, and starred Paul Newman, with Richard Boone taking the acting honours as the psychopathic adversary. Hombre is patently a remake of Stagecoach. But whereas John Ford’s passengers were a cross-sectional mixture of the good, the bad and the redeemable, Leonard’s coachload are all crooks or degenerates, different only in their anti-social specialisms. A possible exception is the hero, the ‘man’ of the title. He has been brought up by Indians, and is returning to civilisation reluctantly to claim an inheritance he does not want. He is drawn into saving his fellow passengers against his better instincts, which tell him to cut loose and look after himself. His instincts are correct. ‘Hey, hombre, what ees your name?’ his Mexican killer asks, and is unanswered. The name is unimportant and the hero’s sacrifice worthless. He shouldn’t have bothered.

Another successful film adaptation of Leonard’s Western fiction was 3:10 to Yuma (1957), a jaundiced homage to High Noon. Leonard’s heroes are not reluctant from motives of becoming modesty, but because of the pointlessness of heroic effort in the face of the odds against it. In LaBrava, the name-belied hero used once to be in the IRS and the FBI, agencies devoted to keeping America clean and lawful. He has turned in his badges and when the story begins has been for three years a freelance photographer in Miami, snapping away at the bizarre sights around him. He no longer attempts to control things; he merely observes and takes his cut.

  She said, ‘Maury, who’s Joseph LaBrava?’

  ‘It was LaBrava took the shot of the guy being thrown off the overpass ... He looks up, sees the three guys and gets out his telephoto lens. Listen, he got off two shots before they even picked the guy up. Then he got ’em, they’re holding the guy up in the air and he got the one of the guy falling, arms and legs out like he’s flying, the one that was in Newsweek and all the papers.’

  ‘He must’ve done all right.’

  ‘Cleared about twelve grand so far, the one shot.’

The language is that of police enforcement: ‘he got off two shots ... then he got ’em.’ But the crime is neither prevented, interrupted nor punished. It’s merely profitably witnessed from a safe distance.

In the usual way of Leonard’s narratives, LaBrava gets sucked into the action by a momentary dropping of the guard, ‘reacting to things’ when an intelligent survivor shouldn’t. Coincidence brings him together with a 50-year-old movie-star, whose screen image as a bad-beautiful girl he had loved when he was a 12-year-old cinemagoer. This pubescent passion was apparently the last real feeling La Brava experienced, and it returns to betray him. His affair with the star (called ‘Jean Shaw’ and a compound of Veronica Lake, Bette Davis and Loretta Young) revives dangerous nostalgia for Hollywood’s clear-cut moralities:

  ‘And I remember – I don’t know if it was that picture or another one – you shot the bad guy. He looks at the blood on his hand, looks down at his shirt. He still can’t believe it. But I don’t remember what it was about. I can’t think who the detective was either, I mean in Obituary. It wasn’t Robert Mitchum, was it?’

  She shook her head, thoughtfully. ‘I’m not sure myself who was in it.’

In fact, LaBrava is in it. For obscure motives (to do with nostalgias of her own), the star has chosen to replay the movie by setting up an elaborate plot to heist $600,000. Inevitably, she shoots the bad guy and is turned in by LaBrava, pulled back from retirement.

LaBrava has been much applauded, and won the 1983 Edgar Allan Poe award. But it seems to me one of Leonard’s weaker performances. If he has a fault, it is a tendency to overcomplicate his plots and lose narrative clarity. Unless one is very alert to detail and nuances of dialogue, it’s difficult to work out what’s going on – though the portrayal of Miami wild life is very entertaining. Glitz is more disciplined. It opens with the hero, Lieutenant Vincent Mora of the Miami police, being mugged off-duty on the way out from the supermarket: ‘Vincent turned his head to look at the guy and there was a moment when he could have taken him and did consider it, hit the guy as hard as he could. But Vincent was carrying a sack of groceries. He wasn’t going to drop a half gallon of Gallo Hearty Burgundy, a bottle of prune juice and a jar of Ragu on the sidewalk.’ So he tells the mugger he’s a cop, and is promptly shot right through the Hearty Burgundy. He returns fire, and gets his man. It’s the first time Mora has killed, and once out of intensive care, he goes on vacation to Puerto Rico to recover his nerve. Here, he’s hunted down by a vindictive psychopath, Teddy Magyk, whom he put away a few years before. A string of consequent murders draws Mora to Atlantic City (another new vice capital) and back, finally, to the intensive-care ward. In this most recent novel, Leonard’s vision has darkened to pitch-black. Now it seems that even the Miami Police Force can’t run far or fast enough to escape the bad guys.

It’s not chancing one’s critical arm to predict that for the next few years Elmore Leonard will be the hottest crime writer in the Anglo-American market. He deserves fame. His novels are slick efforts in a demanding genre, and he has exploited a new location, Miami, with trail-blazing verve. But, not to be heavy-handed, Leonard’s fiction has its grim significance. Just as the mass of well-thinking Britons have at last accepted that there is nothing to be done about unemployment, so, apparently, America’s remorseless crime statistics have had their effect. Epidemic violent crime is now accepted as an ineradicable social fact. In its popularity, Leonard’s fiction answers to a widely-held sense of hopelessness about the bad guys. You can’t beat them. You can’t pen them up in ghettoes any more. And however low you keep your profile, they’re probably going to get you in the end.

The author of The Hunting Season is evidently as British as they come. But the name is unfamiliar, and it might seem, from the sparse details given by the publisher, that ‘J.K. Mayo’ is probably a pseudonym. The story is a transparent rewrite of Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. A playwright stumbles on a body in his cross-Channel ferry cabin. One exciting thing leads to another and eventually to the discovery of an international conspiracy. The action climaxes with a manhunt across the Canadian snows (substituting for Hannay’s Scottish moors). Some unlikely love interest is thrown in. The Hunting Season is written in a breathless one sentence, one paragraph style. Its appeal is mainly a matter of the memories it evokes of the innocent golden age of British thrillers when crime was the evil work of furtive foreigners and the source of some jolly adventures for its more enterprising victims.