Thursday, January 04, 2018

the last book I read

Stick by Elmore Leonard.

Ernest Stickley jr. is a little bit whooaaahh, a little bit wheeeyyy, a bit tasty, a bit dodgy. He's a geezer. Leave your car lying around, he will nick it. As a consequence, as we meet him he's just finished a seven-year stretch for armed robbery and is in the market for something to do.

Something to do, in the short term, turns out to be hanging out in Miami and tagging along as assistant bagman to his old friend Rainy while Rainy does a delivery for Chucky Buck, a local drug dealer. What Rainy and Stick don't realise is that this particular payment is to one of Chucky's key suppliers, Cuban gangster Nestor Soto, in compensation for Chucky accidentally involving some of Nestor's men with some undercover cops at the cost of some money, product and inconvenience to Nestor. Moreover, the compensation deal comes with a little extra spice: Chucky's agreed, as part of his penance, that Nestor's men get to kill the bagman.

As it turns out, it's Rainy who actually carries the bag, and promptly gets his ass ventilated for his trouble. But a second bagman wasn't part of the plan, and Nestor's boys see him as just an added bonus, so Stick has to make a sharp exit, pursued by a hail of bullets. So now Chucky's boys and Nestor's boys are looking for Stick. So he should probably leave town, right? Well, the thing is, Chucky had promised Rainy five grand for making the delivery, and, since the delivery was made, Stick reckons that money is now owed to him. Also, Stick's ex-wife lives nearby and Stick hasn't seen his now-fourteen-year-old daughter since she was seven and is keen to reconnect. And, in any case, he's not the sort to be scared off by some Cuban heavies with big guns.

So after a chance encounter with local wheeler-dealer Barry Stam in a car park - during the course of which Stick helps Barry out by breaking into his Rolls-Royce - Stick gets a job as Barry's chauffeur, a job which comes with free accommodation in the servants' quarters of Barry's massive mansion in Bal Harbour. Barry has many connections in the local area, including foxy investment advisor Kyle McLaren (who, it turns out, is a bit susceptible to the rakish charms of slightly shady types like Stick), but also to Chucky and Nestor, whom he occasionally has over to the house for business and social meetings, occasions at which Stick is expected to be in attendance as barman and general dogsbody. Awkward.

One of Barry's latest schemes is to try and get his local contacts (Chucky and Nestor included) to invest in a new film project that a producer friend is trying to get off the ground. The initial version of the project gets a pretty dim reception, mainly due to the concept being a bit shit and the financing arrangements technically illegal, but Stick starts to see a way whereby he might be able to cook up a scam to persuade Chucky to invest in a (completely fictitious) re-jigged version of the film project, thereby relieving him of the five grand he owes Stick plus a substantial extra wedge for good measure. The trouble is he needs to find a way to do this without either torpedoing his burgeoning relationship with Kyle (who, while susceptible to Stick's personal charms, is a bit dubious about being involved in actual lawbreaking) or getting himself killed by Chucky or Nestor's goons, who are already looking for an opportunity to discreetly waste him anyway.

As I said back at the time of reading Riding The Rap in 2009, you know what you're going to get with an Elmore Leonard book, and Stick ticks most of the boxes - sly characterisation, snappy dialogue, twisty plot, a bit of humour, a bit of sex and violence, 300 pages tops, bish bosh, sorted. This one (published in 1983) is a pretty good one. The main reason it's not as good as the really good ones (Killshot is probably my absolute favourite) is partly related to the thing I mentioned in the Riding The Rap review about re-use of old characters. This is an early example (possibly the first, I haven't checked) of this, Ernest Stickley having previously appeared in 1976's Swag. There's just a suspicion that Leonard likes the Stick character a bit too much - having him, for instance, bone Barry's bimbo girlfriend Aurora, Barry's 'luded-up wife Diane and Kyle (though the last encounter is a bit unsatisfactory, presumably because he's knackered and/or dehydrated by then) all in the same night is just a bit implausible and doesn't really serve to advance the plot very much. Stick is also generally just a little bit too cool and on top of every situation, though the same criticism could be levelled at Raylan Givens (from Riding The Rap) and probably a few other Leonard protagonists as well.

Stick was filmed in 1985, starring Burt Reynolds in the title role. Not a bad bit of casting, I'd say, though I already knew about the film before I'd read the book, so maybe it was inevitable that I pictured Stick as looking a bit like Burt Reynolds anyway. I've never seen it, but it seems to follow the disappointing pattern of a lot of Leonard adaptations by not being very good. This seems to have been caused by a bit of monkeying with the script including the tacking-on of a climactic bit involving Stick rescuing his daughter from some kidnappers (nothing of the sort happens in the book), but also by Reynolds having a director (one Burt Reynolds) unwilling to rein him in and get him to conform to the character in the book a bit more. As Siskel and Ebert say, the film (as it is with all Leonard's books) is right there on the page, you don't need to tart it up or change it.

Speaking of films, one thing that struck me here is that Stick is a bit of a prototype for the character of Chili Palmer from Get Shorty, one Leonard book which was filmed pretty successfully. Both have the same real first name (Ernest), both are shady types who drift into involvement with the movie business and bring their real-life experiences to bear on bringing some realism to movie scripts written by soft Hollywood fat-cat types with ponytails. The action in both books also starts off in Miami, though Get Shorty swiftly relocates to Los Angeles. There's even a bit where a principal villain gets pushed off a balcony.

As I've said before, if you read the late-1980s sequence that goes Glitz, Bandits, Freaky Deaky, Killshot, that could be all the Leonard you'll need. There really aren't any bad ones, though.

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