Sunday 27 December 2020

52 Pick Up (the novel) by Elmore Leonard

I must have read this book before... Way back when I first fell in love with Elmore Leonard's writing. 

(I subsequently fell out of love with Elmore Leonard's writing, but suddenly it looks like our relationship may be in recovery...)

In any case, I could remember nothing about 52 Pick Up. And when I recently watched John Frankenheimer's movie adaptation, as striking as the film was, it did nothing to rekindle my memories of the book.

But it did prompt me to seek out a copy and read it again. I got the Penguin with the Peter Chadwick cover photo, the nicest edition easily available...

And reading it was sheer pleasure. 

It's odd how similar the book is to the film yet, so vastly different.

It's essentially the story of a blackmail plot gone badly wrong. It goes wrong, as the perpetrators themselves observe, because "we picked the wrong guy."

The wrong guy is Harry Mitchell, known as Mitch, who runs an engineering company. His background in engineering is important because it enables him to provide the explosive retribution that concludes both book and film. 

But that really is the least interesting aspect of the story, and of Mitch's character.

A review in the front of my copy of 52 Pick Up mentions Elmore Leonard in the same breath as John D. MacDonald, one of my great writing heroes...

In fact it mentions him in the same breath as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and John D. MacDonald. Stellar company but, on the basis of this novel, not inaccurate. 

Leonard's writing is terse, colloquial and eloquent. He handles agonising suspense and brutal action adroitly.

But his great strength is characterisation. In this story Mitch is up against a triumvirate of extortionists, Leo Frank and Alan Raimi, and the unforgettable Bobby Shy.

Leo runs a sleazy business where customers can take photographs of live nude girls (this is 1974) or just ogle them. He's a "fat-ass little juice head who was liable to melt with a little heat."

Alan runs a porno movie theatre where he whiles away his time dreaming up criminal schemes. He's a "hip creepy guy" who's "got a weird fucking mind."

Bobby — my favourite, and no doubt everybody else's — is a "quiet, easy-moving black dude" and also a "badass... gunslinger." 

The cowboy comparison is no accident. Elmore Leonard used to write Westerns, and when we first meet Bobby he is performing an armed hold up on a bus full of tourists — "robbing the stage coach," as Bobby puts it.

Mitch has fallen foul of such people because he was having an affair with the beauitful young Cini, one of those live nude models, and that gave Leo the idea to blackmail Mitch, who is a respectable married man with money.

We never meet Cini in the book. She's an offstage presence when the story begins, and apparently at least a passive accomplice to this extortion plot.

But we never find out exactly how deeply she's involved, because when Mitch fails to cave in to the blackmail demands (he's the wrong guy to try this on, remember), the bad guys decide to change tack...

They kill Cini and convincingly threaten to frame Mitch for her murder. This presents a major problem for Mitch.

But also a problem for the book. Because on the one hand Mitch never seems sufficiently upset by the death of Cini — he is supposed to have cared for her, even loved her.

On the other hand, Leo and Alan and Bobby seemed to have escalated to first degree murder, without any certainty of reward for it, remarkably easily. 

However, as we gradually begin to realise what a psycho Alan is, and how casual Bobby is about killing, Cini's death becomes a lot more convincing.

Still the problem remains that Cini is a cypher, an undeveloped character, and her death doesn't have enough of an impact on our hero.

That, and the slightly grandiose explosive conclusion, are the only flaws for me in this deeply satisfying crime novel. I haven't enjoyed reading anything so much for months. 

Most notably, there is considerable joy in watching the bad guys realise that Mitch is not "the kind of straight-A stiff he had looked at first."

In fact his response to these shadowy blackmailers is to "Find out who they are. Then kick ass." Indeed it turns out Mitch is an ex fighter pilot.

When his wife Barbara warns him, "They've already killed someone," Mitch replies, "So have I. With six machine guns."

Barbara is an excellent character in the novel, much more three-dimensional and well realised than in the movie. At one point she says she's just "Trying to grow old gracefully. Like everyone else."

Full marks to Leonard for his touching and convincing depiction of a good marriage. One which survives not only Mitch's infidelity but the blackmail and murder that ensue.

And when Alan the creepy psychopath decides to target Barbara, we genuinely care about what happens to her.

But throughout the book, it's the trio of crooks who hold centre stage and command our attention:

Alan Raimi, a rivetting portrait of a murderous monster who just loves creating mayhem and who has ambitions not just to show smutty movies but to become a director and make "a good hard-core porno but done well, with style; not just a dirty movie, a dirty film."

Leo Frank, the fat, soft, greed cowardly drunk who is in way too deep, and swimming with sharks, to boot.

And of course Bobby Shy, a latter day cowboy outlaw snorting cocaine with a silver Little Orphan Annie spoon.

And we can all sympathise with his musings about his girlfriend, the beautiful and amoral Doreen when Bobby says of her apartment, "I got half my clothes there now. I don't know where I live." 

This is a beautifully observed character detail. But such incipient domesticity doesn't stop Bobby from smothering Doreen almost to death while interrogating her about Mitch — a harrowing scene in both the book and the movie.

Elmore Leonard's affection for these bad guys (and girls) is evident in the way he calls them by their first names, whereas the hero is always known by his last name; even his wife calls him Mitch. 

(This, incidentally, is a reversal of the standard procedure in popular fiction.)

But as dangerous as Bobby and Alan are, Mitch proves to be more dangerous still, playing them off against each other and finally luring them to their doom.

I enjoyed 52 Pick Up immensely and it compells me to reassess Elmore Leonard's work.

Leonard wrote over 30 crime novels, the last one published in 2012. And I suspect I'm not entirely wrong in my impression that he went somewhat off the boil in his later career.

But this book is serious evidence that there are masterpieces in his back catalogue.

(Image credits: The main picture — the gorgeous black and yellow Spanish edition — is from ABE and Chantaje Mortal means Deadly Blackmail. The Penguin cover with Bobby Shy in a stocking mask, with a photo by Peter Chadwick, is my scan of my own — now  rather beloved — copy. I plan to make that Spanish one mine, too. The rest are from Good Reads, including the nicely dynamic first paperback edition (Dell 4555) of the guy in the movie theatre. I also covet that one.)

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