Thursday, April 16, 2009

the last book I read

Riding The Rap by Elmore Leonard.

Reading an Elmore Leonard novel is very much unlike a box of chocolates, i.e. you pretty much know what you're going to get. This is in no way a bad thing in this particular case, since what you generally get is a slim 200-300 pages of twisted dialogue, equally twisted plotting, endearingly flawed villains (plus the odd genuine psycho), equally flawed good guys (without being so morally relativistic as to cause confusion over which colour hat everyone's wearing), things unravelling in an entertaining way, some climactic violence including the unexpected offing of one or two of the major characters and, unusually for novels in the crime genre, some strong female characters to spark things up a bit.

So, as if to prove the point, what you get with Riding The Rap is: ex-mafia bookie Harry Arno, cowboy-hat-wearing federal marshal Raylan Givens and assorted villains Chip, Bobby and Louis. After some previous scrapes with both his erstwhile mob bosses and the law, Harry is living down in Miami. Chip owes Harry several thousand dollars in unpaid betting fees, and hires Bobby to call in the debt. Chip and sidekick Louis suggest a better idea to Bobby when he calls, though: kidnap Harry and sweat him for the money in his secret bank account in the Bahamas.

Raylan and Harry have some previous, so Raylan feels obliged to try and find Harry, with the help of Harry's ex-girlfriend Joyce and kooky psychic (and ex-girlfriend of both Chip and Louis) Dawn. Meanwhile the kidnappers are holed up in Chip's house with their hostage and starting to go stir crazy. Eventually Raylan puts two and two together and heads round to the house to effect a daring rescue, though things don't go quite as planned.

One of the reasons that Elmore Leonard books make such great source material for films is the brilliance of the dialogue; one of the reasons the resulting films often aren't all that great is that often not a lot actually happens in a Leonard novel. This one is a good example: Harry gets kidnapped after the villains set him up during a psychic reading with Dawn, thereafter they spend a lot of time bantering inconsequentially (though grippingly) and watching Harry on Chip's CCTV. The climactic gunplay aside, that's about it.

If you're wondering where to place this in the Leonard canon, here's a couple of pointers. It was published in 1995, immediately after the novel to which it is a sort of sequel, Pronto (Harry, Raylan and Joyce appear in this one). This puts it just at the tail-end of the mid-to-late-1980s streak that I reckon represents the absolute cream of the crop: books like Glitz, Bandits, Freaky Deaky, Killshot and Maximum Bob (all those links will take you to a brief opening excerpt of the novel in question: give them a go). Anyway, Riding The Rap isn't quite up to the standard of those, but it's never less then entertaining. If you must only have one Leonard, I'd make it Killshot which I think is the best of the lot. You really want most if not all of the ones listed above though.

I wonder whether the re-use of characters from previous books is a sign of a bit of late-career laziness - Leonard's latest, Road Dogs, seems to have gone totally berserk on this front, bringing back Jack Foley and Karen Sisco (aka George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez) from Out Of Sight, Cundo Rey from LaBrava and Dawn Navarro from Riding The Rap. And maybe some others, for all I know. Maybe it's easier than creating interesting new characters? Then again a writer who's still knocking out effortlessly hip thrillers at the age of 84 can probably be cut a bit of slack.

No comments: