Friday, 7 November 2014

A Fine Romance: Elmore Leonard's Cat Chaser (Arbor House, 1982 / Viking, 1986)

NB: Proffered for this Friday's Forgotten Books roundup.

If you were to think of one word to describe the work of Elmore Leonard, that word probably wouldn't be "romance". "Crime", maybe, or "violence", or "murder", or "humour", or more obliquely "dialogue", or more obscurely "western". But romance...?

Thing is, romance is a feature of most, if not all, of Leonard's books. I struggle to think of an Elmore Leonard novel I've read that doesn't have a love affair if not at its heart, then pretty close to it. Often that romance will be of the lightning-strikes, bolt-out-of-the-blue order, where the eyes of the taciturn male protagonist and the sassy female protagonist meet across a crowded hotel lobby or courtroom and an instant connection is made, and in short order the two are confirmed as eternal soul-mates. I'm generalizing there, obviously, but it is a thing which you do get in Leonard novels, and it's a little-discussed* aspect of his work. Take this book:


Cat Chaser, Elmore Leonard's next published novel after Split Images (1981) – at least in America, where it was published the year after Split Images, by the same publisher, Arbor House, under a dust jacket designed by Antler & Baldwin, Inc. (who also designed the wrapper for the 1983 Arbor House edition of Leonard's next novel, Stick). Here in the UK there was a three year gap between Split Images, which was published by W H Allen in 1983, and Cat Chaser, which was finally published in 1986 (Stick, LaBrava and Glitz all appeared in the interim):


by Viking, under a dust jacket designed by Bet Ayer and sporting a photograph by Peter Chadwick. (The jacket of that Viking edition, by the way, has joined the Existential Ennui British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s gallery, where Ayer and Chadwick's wrapper for the 1987 Viking edition of City Primeval also resides.)


The romance in Cat Chaser is between onetime marine-turned-Florida motel owner George Moran – the eponymous Cat Chaser, so named after the code name for his platoon during the 1965–66 American occupation of the Dominican Republic – and Mary de Boya, wife of property magnate Andres de Boya, former general in the Dominican army and right-hand man of the late, real life, dictator Rafael Trujillo. I'm confining myself to romance in this post – for a more comprehensive review of the novel (and of the 1989 Abel Ferrara film adaptation, which I don't believe I've seen) I can recommend Sergio's one over at Tipping My Fedora – but I will just note that Cat Chaser grew out of the material on Trujillo that Leonard's researcher, Gregg Sutter, unearthed when looking into the playboy confidant of Trujullo, Porfiro Rubirosa, whom Leonard used as the basis for Chichi Fuentes in Split Images (see Sutter's article in Armchair Detective Volume 19 Number 1, Winter 1986); and further note that the novel boasts maybe the funniest scene I've come across in a Leonard book, where Moran is besieged in a Santo Domingo hotel lobby by over a dozen besotted nubile Dominicans and consequently mistaken for a film star by a gaggle of Chinese tourists.


Anyway, Moran and Mary's romance is interesting (to me, anyway) for the way it overtly shapes the narrative of Cat Chaser. Other Leonard novels are shaped by love affairs – Out of Sight (1996) most obviously, but also Unknown Man No. 89 (1977), Split Images, Stick (1983), LaBrava (1983), Cuba Libre (1998) and others besides – but in subtler ways; in Cat Chaser, the blossoming love between Moran and Mary drives the story, overwhelms the narrative almost to the exclusion of everything else. There's money involved, sure, a score to be taken, just as there is in many Leonard works, but it becomes almost incidental (except in regard to the gruesome shootings towards the end of the novel, where it proves rather more instrumental): what matters most to Moran and Mary – and by extension to Leonard, he being the storyteller – is that they be together. In that sense, Cat Chaser is a pointer to how recognising the romantic leanings of Leonard's novels is key to understanding his work.

Which it is, in a weird sort of way. Romance informs the distinctive lilt of his writing more so, I'd argue, than the more widely recognised violent or criminal aspects. Leonard once stated that "all of my male leads... have much the same basic attitude about their own existence, what’s important and what isn’t" (the template being Jack Ryan in The Big Bounce, 1969), and one of the characteristics that they share is that they have a tendency to fall head-over-heels when the right woman comes along (sometimes after a dalliance with the wrong one) – that woman herself tending to be of a certain type: smart, feisty, independent, but still, like her male counterpart, willing to surrender herself wholesale to this newfound love. And given that Leonard tells his tales from the perspectives of his characters, that once he decides the point of view of a scene, "that character's sound will permeate the narrative" (see Anthony May's 1991 interview with Leonard), then naturally the romantic outlooks of his leads – male or female – is going to at least in part pervade the tone of the piece.

I suppose what I'm getting at is that there is a secret soft centre to Leonard's purportedly tough crime dramas – Cat Chaser being only the most conspicuous example – one which crops up again and again in his oeuvre, and which suffuses and animates his stories more than is perhaps appreciated, lending them much of their unexpected warmth. Unexpected, that is, for anyone who hasn't read any Leonard. For those who have, well... I have a feeling they'll know what I'm on about (er, I hope).


* Addendum: The week after I posted this I happened to stumble upon and reread Donald E. Westlake's review of LaBrava, in which Westlake discusses the romantic in that novel and labels it "a mean-streets romance".

7 comments:

  1. An interesting post.

    Is the US edition a First?

    I ask because I have a First Edition and my cover differs from yours in that on the inside front flap is printed the ISBN and the price ($13.50)

    Just curious

    Stuart Radmore

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't think it is, Stuart – at least, not a true first. I bought it for a few quid believing it was a US first, but when I got it I noticed the lack of a price on the front flap, and on the imprint page there's no mention of a first edition and no strike-off line. I'm guessing your first has either one or the other – or possibly both – of those?

      It could be a book club edition, or a reprint, but I actually wonder if it might be an export edition intended for the UK/Australia, given that Cat Chaser wasn't published in the UK for another three years.

      Delete
  2. My edition says:-

    Manufactured in the United States of America by the Haddon
    Craftsmen

    10987654321

    Stuart Radmore

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yep, mine's missing that '10 9 8 7...' strike-off line.

      Delete
  3. I love it characters from other books creep in and out of different stories. In Cat Chaser we have private investigator Marshall Sisco who is Karen Sisco's father in Out Of Sight and we also have Jimmy Capotorto (Cap) from Pronto.

    This is something Elmore's son has continued. In Peter Leonard's latest book, Eyes Closed Tight, the lead character O'Clair buys the motel from George Moran and O'Clairs girlfriend is Virginia Delaney, Delaney being the maiden name of Mary De Boya in Cat Chaser.

    It's as if the baton has been passed on from Elmore to Peter, something I definitely agree with.

    Love it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I didn't know that Peter Leonard had continued his dad's habit of interconnecting his novels via the characters. Interesting! Thanks for that Silvio.

      Delete
    2. Oh no problem! I'm a big Leonard fan. I'm currently reading Eyes Closed Tight and there are lots of subtle Elmore hints throughout.

      Last night I read that a part that mentioned O'Clair returning to his motel and Virginia mentions 'some guy named Foley checked in...'

      Thing's like that make me smile. :)

      Delete