City Primeval: High Noon In Detroit by Elmore Leonard (#15 of 2010)—Have you ever been two-thirds of the way through a book and then lost it? I thought that's what happened to me with this book. I brought it to my parents' place on that weekend road trip I took with Penny and Myron and then somehow lost it before the return trip to Toronto. And it grated on me. It wasn't as bad as the time I was halfway through Avatar and then received a call from Natalie, that she'd been paged, she had to go to a birth, and I had to speed back home from the theatre to be with the kids. I still haven't seen the rest of Avatar. But it was close—and then, after maybe a week of the book being lost, my mom found it in the bedroom at my parents' house. Whew.
I thought this was a good Elmore Leonard thriller. It's old, dating from 1980. And it isn't like Hombre or 52 Pickup or any of the other old ones people talk about. I think I happened upon it at the used book sales the University of Toronto stages each fall. It's a pretty standard set-up. An unhinged tough—"Evel Knieval with a gun," somebody calls him—tangles with Detroit's homicide squad. There's a fascinating subplot about Albanian blood feuds. And the end stand-off between detective Raymond Cruz and the villain goes down as one of my favourites from the Leonard oeuvre. It was interesting to examine the differences between this and what would come to be known as Leonard's style. There's less emphasis on dialogue here, and in the absence of the usual snappy one-liners it's possible to see that Leonard is a much better prose writer than many consider him to be. For example, chapter 9 is a three-and-a-half page bit that details Ray Cruz's relationship with his ex-wife and woman in general, and within the space of that approx. 1,000 words, Leonard sketches out a portrait of the American male on the verge of the '80s. And in fact, the whole novel can be seen as a morality play on what defines a "good man"—with even emphasis on both the "good" and the "man." Basically, it amounts to Ray Cruz trying to figure out whether he's morally able to shoot the killer, who has a previous history of evading guilty pleas. I won't reveal the ending, but it's a good one. I'd recommend this—a little-known Leonard release that deserves to be better known.
The Mystic Arts Of Erasing All Signs Of Death by Charlie Huston (#16 of 2010)—If Leonard, at the age of 85, is just winding up his career, then Huston is still in the early stages of his. The two writers share some stylistic similarities. Both have a great ear for dialogue, as in the way people actually speak. In fact, Huston's use of dialogue owes something to Leonard. But Huston has a far better hand with character than Leonard.
Mystic Arts is about Webster Goodhue, who happens into a job on a team of crime scene cleaners and, through that, finds himself stuck between a beautiful girl and a bunch of thugs. This one doesn't have the plotting economy of Huston's pulp masterpiece, The Shotgun Rule, which I think everyone should go out and read if they haven't already. But it still represents an evolution in Huston's technique. His hand with characterization continues to improve. Web's backstory evolves throughout the book. There's an enormous character reveal around page 150, and another about another 70 pages in, and it's only by the end of the story that I felt I grasped Web, which is as it should be. Huston says in the book's acknowledgments that he did more research for this novel than for any other he's done in the past. It paid off—the crime scenes and the tattoo parlour scenes in particular feel authentic. I also liked that Web wasn't particularly tough. He gets beat up maybe three or four times through the book. You like him anyway. There were some major plot holes, such as the fact that Web seems to be an expert crime-scene cleaner after only a day or two on the job. But the rest of the book is so entertaining you forgive Huston for the slip-ups. Another one I'd recommend, but only after you've read The Shotgun Rule.