Friday 17 February 2012

Dortmunder Daze / Parker Progress Report for Donald E. Westlake Day: a Review of Jimmy the Kid (Dortmunder #3, 1974), feat. Child Heist

(NB: This post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.)

As you'll no doubt already be aware if you've read Violent World of Parker supremo Trent's earlier post, today is Donald E. Westlake Day. Instigated by Patti Abbott to mark the imminent publication by Hard Case Crime/Titan Books of the "lost" Westlake novel The Comedy is Finished (imminent in the States, anyway; I don't think it's out in the UK till April, so I'll be reviewing it on Existential Ennui nearer that pub date), all over the web today fine folk are posting reviews of an array of Westlake works. Trent's already reviewed Westlake's 2004 standalone novel Money for Nothing, and for my part, I'm pressing on with my ongoing reviews of Westlake's two best-known series: the serious novels starring taciturn crime automaton Parker (written, of course, under the alias Richard Stark), and the not-so-serious ones starring hard-luck heister John Dortmunder (written, of course, as, er, well, Donald E. Westlake). And it just so happens that I've serendipitously reached a juncture at which those two otherwise independent-from-one-another series intersect: Jimmy the Kid.

First published by Evans in the US in 1974 and Hodder in the UK in 1975, Jimmy the Kid – the third Dortmunder novel, following The Hot Rock (1970) and Bank Shot (1972) – is in many ways the culmination of the inter-book experiments Westlake had been running since he'd spun the first Alan Grofield solo novel, The Damsel (1967), out of the eighth Parker novel, The Handle (1966; and even earlier if you count Westlake's sleaze paperback collaborations with the likes of Lawrence Block) – see Plunder Squad's crossover with Joe Gores's Dead Skip, Butcher's Moon's revisiting of characters and plot threads from across the whole Parker series, and so on. Jimmy the Kid, however, goes one better. The story sees Dortmunder and his luckless crew – Andy Kelp, Stan Murch, Murch's Mom and Dortmunder's girlfriend, May – enacting an elaborate scheme to kidnap a kid for a ransom. But the plan has come from a novel place: a novel, in fact; a novel Kelp read during a brief stay inside; a novel titled Child Heist, written by an author named Richard Stark, and starring a taciturn crime automaton known as Parker...

It's a metafictional conceit worthy of James Hogg or Laurence Sterne: not merely a book-within-a-book, but a book-within-a-book written by the author's pseudonymous alter ego, in the authentically flat, pared-back style of that alter ego, and featuring that alter ego's most famous creation. Entire chapters of the Parker vehicle Child Heist are stitched into Jimmy the Kid, alongside subsequent chapters where Dortmunder and co. attempt to follow Parker and co.'s plans (and usually screw them up). Moreover, Child Heist is itself a work of fiction – i.e., it's a fictional piece of fiction. Outside of Jimmy the Kid, it doesn't exist – there's is no Parker novel called Child Heist. And to cap it all, towards the end of Jimmy the Kid, the similarly fictional author Richard Stark also puts in an appearance (as does his lawyer).

At a near-forty year remove, it's difficult to imagine what readers in 1974 would have made of all this. For sure, even if they'd heard of Richard Stark or knew his work, few would have been aware of the relationship between Stark and Westlake – after all, even today, outside of hardcore Parker nuts like us lot, to what extent is Joe Reading Public truly cognizant of Westlake's "dark half" (or indeed Stark's lighter one)? And even for those fortunate enough to have made the connection back then, with little in the way of bibliographical guidance in that pre-internet era, to be presented with the tantalising prospect of a "missing" Parker novel must have been maddening (and judging by the search terms I see in Existential Ennui's back-of-house stats, still is for some Parker neophytes).

It's a shame, then, that Jimmy the Kid the novel doesn't quite live up to the promise of Jimmy the Kid the meta-experiment. The innate absurdity of the set-up doesn't especially translate into belly laughs, although there are certainly moments that raise a smile and occasionally a chuckle. For my money (ahem), the preceding Dortmunder novel, Bank Shot, is the better book. There, the equally ludicrous scenario which plays out is matched by an expertly executed, gradually escalating climactic joke; in Jimmy the Kid, while there is a comedic twist, it's perhaps too heavily telegraphed to be completely effective.

Mind you, the way it's handled is both inventive and amusing, and does at least set Dortmunder up for one last, well-aimed kick in the teeth. And anyway, for the Dortmunder fan, the Parker completist, and for those interested in the literary games Westlake played, Jimmy the Kid is pretty much indispensable: a unique book in the Westlake canon. Which is why for many – Trent among them – it's a cause for celebration that after years spent languishing in semi-obscurity as an out-of-print curio, Jimmy the Kid is now readily available for the Kindle. Although it's perhaps less of a cause for celebration for those of us who forked out for first editions of the damn thing...

Next on Existential Ennui, kicking off a short run of George Pelecanos posts, we move from a novel featuring a metafictional guest appearance from Parker, to another, more recent novel which also boasts a meta-Parker appearance...

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard: a British First Edition (Viking/Penguin, 1990)

Just a wee (er, ish) addendum to Monday's post on Elmore Leonard's new novel Raylan and its relationship to Justified, the TV show which both inspired it and was itself inspired by earlier Leonard/Raylan Givens stories – I mentioned in that post that Martin Amis once described Leonard's 1990 novel Get Shorty – which was, of course, filmed (quite successfully, although not as successfully as Justified) by Barry Sonnenfeld in 1995, with John Travolta in the role of gangster-turned-movie mogul Chili Palmer, and followed by a sequel, the not-quite-as-good Be Cool, in 1999, which was also filmed (rather less successfully), this time by F. Gary Gray in 2005 – as "a masterpiece", and that I wholeheartedly agreed with his assessment. (That Amis quote, by the way, I spotted the other weekend in this excellent Guardian essay on Leonard by Philip Hensher.) But it struck me whilst writing that post that despite Get Shorty being not only my favourite Elmore Leonard work but also one of my favourite novels, period, I didn't actually own a copy (I believe I borrowed the one I read from Beckenham Library in the early-'90s).

Naturally I immediately set about rectifying this egregious state of affairs, and went in search of a first edition of the book. A straightforward task, you might reasonably assume, since first editions of Get Shorty litter the likes of AbeBooks and Amazon Marketplace like bodies litter Leonard's backlist. Ah, but you see, the vast majority of those are the American first edition, published by Delacorte Press; the British first edition is in much shorter supply – and even shorter now that I have this:

A near-fine copy of the British first edition/first impression, published by Viking/Penguin in the same year as the Delacorte first, 1990, my acquisition of which reduces the available number of British firsts on AbeBooks worldwide to, currently, eight – and two of those are ex-library. Of course, since the Viking edition and the Delacorte edition are virtually identical – same dustjacket design, same interiors (bar the copyright page) – you'd be forgiven for wondering why I'd want the British edition anyway, especially since it's probably printed, like most British editions of American books, on what's almost certainly an inferior paper stock. But I'm afraid the only explanations I can offer there are (i) because it's scarcer than the American one; (ii) because I'm British myself, and therefore guided by a misplaced pride in my homeland; and (iii) because I'm an idiot.

The jacket design is uncredited, but it's done in the same "big book look" style as the covers of all of Leonard's novels around this early-1990s period – see also Maximum Bob (1991), Rum Punch (1992) and the Raylan Givens novels Pronto (1993) and Riding the Rap (1995) – and will be very familiar to readers of a certain age (i.e., my age). I know that the illustrations on the covers of those last two are by Mark Taylor, so it's a fairly safe bet that the illo of the Hollywood sign on Get Shorty is by Mr. Taylor, too.

Anyway. Next up: it's Donald E. Westlake Day!

Monday 13 February 2012

Justified: Raylan Givens in Raylan by Elmore Leonard (Book / TV Show Review)

Way back in the dim and distant past – in fact around this time last year, oddly enough – I posted a series of reviews of Elmore Leonard's crime fiction stories featuring US Marshal Raylan Givens, comparing them to the TV show they inspired, Justified – my belaboured point being that Justified is the most faithful adaptation – in spirit, tone, characterization and even dialogue – of Leonard's work yet seen. Those three posts – on the novels Pronto (1993) and Riding the Rap (1995) and the short story "Fire in the Hole" (2002), plus an introductory piece – proved pretty popular, together receiving thousands of hits from fans of Justified investigating the source material. The final one in particular, on "Fire in the Hole", ended 2011 as the most viewed post of the year on Existential Ennui, and continues to attract a fair bit of traffic even now (perhaps understandably, given each episode of Justified boasts the legend "Based on the short story 'Fire in the Hole' by Elmore Leonard" in its titles).

Justified is now into its third season in the States and seemingly going from strength to strength, but an unexpected bonus of the show's creative success has been that it inspired Elmore Leonard – an executive producer on Justified – to pen further Raylan Givens stories, something I doubt he'd have done if the show hadn't existed. Indeed, according to Justified's creator and show runner, Graham Yost (quoted in this recent Reuters piece), it was the actor who plays Raylan, Timothy Olyphant, who suggested to Leonard that he write some more Raylan tales – and those tales in turn inspired aspects of Justified's second season and reportedly even its third (Leonard was showing his new stories to Yost and co. as he wrote them).

The end result of Olyphant's intervention, the prosaically titled Raylan, is published in hardback by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the UK on Thursday (it's been out in the US for about a month already), and the first thing to note is that it isn't so much a novel as three short stories – or, more accurately, novellas – stitched together – a consequence of the way the book was written; according to Yost, Leonard wrote one story, then just kept going until he had three. But the three separate tales aren't presented as such, and so even though there are plot strands which tie them together, there's an episodic feel to the work, with noticeable changes of direction. Moreover, the relationship between Leonard's book and Justified isn't quite so clear cut this time; whereas previously the show's makers lifted Leonard's Raylan stories almost verbatim, this time they've been more selective, taking elements and scenes and altering them as they've seen fit. (Leonard's instructions to Yost regarding the novel were, "Hang it up and strip it for parts.")

The main plot in the first third of Raylan hasn't yet shown up in Justified, and centres on the illegal removing of internal organs from unwitting victims around Harlan County, Kentucky, where Raylan grew up and now lives and works (having been exiled there in "Fire in the Hole"). But it does involve Pervis Crowe and his feckless offspring Dickie and Coover – and it's these three characters, in an altered form, that Yost and his team made the focus of the second season of Justified. While in the book the Crowes are distantly related to the hapless Dewey Crowe, in the show they become the Bennetts, and Pervis changes from patriarch to matriarch, in the form of Mags Bennett. Hopefully that organ-stealing story will turn up in Justified at some point though, because it's a classic example of the way Leonard confounds expectations – the kicker is that the organ thieves are selling them back to their original "owners" – and climaxes with Raylan naked bar his boots in a bathtub filled with ice (steady, ladies).

Story #2 forms the basis of Justified season two's main arc, and sees Raylan assigned to protect hard-assed operator Carol Conlan of M-T Mining, a company seeking to buy the presumed coal-rich Big Black Mountain, which, it transpires, is owned by Pervis Crowe. Here we see the return of Boyd Crowder, Raylan's former friend and now nemesis. Boyd is working for M-T, and gets mixed up in a shooting when a disgruntled local vents his frustration at the way the mining company has been polluting the area. This part of the book hinges on a town meeting to discuss M-T's plans, during the course of which Raylan fatally undermines Carol's argument, and amidst all the – admittedly enjoyable – gunplay of Raylan, to my mind it's this scene which is the highlight of the entire enterprise; it's notable that it's duly transported wholesale – along with Carol – to season two of Justified.

Now, those familiar with Leonard's original "Fire in the Hole" story might, at this point, be wondering how on earth Boyd Crowder can feature in Raylan, since, counter to the events of Justified, Boyd died at the end of Leonard's tale. Leonard offers no explanation for Boyd's miraculous resurrection, although he does slyly address it in a couple of lines from Raylan during a tense standoff: "You thinking about the time I shot you and you rose from the dead? It only happens once in your life." But it's clear throughout Raylan that Justified didn't merely reignite Leonard's interest in the character of Givens; seems the writer fell back in love with much of the cast of Harlan County, not just Boyd but also Ava (it was Leonard's idea to have those two getting together, something that again plays out in Justified season two) and especially Raylan's long-suffering boss, Art Mullen, who features repeatedly in the book.

The final section of Raylan again changes tack, setting Givens on the trail of twenty-three year old Rachel Nevada, alias Jackie Nevada. Jackie is something of a card sharp, but she may also be mixed up in a string of bank robberies, so Raylan heads over to Lexington to get to the bottom of things, in the process partnering up with Marshal Bill Nichols. Nichols has already made an earlier appearance in Raylan, in a scene which is one of the most wryly amusing in the book: 

Nichols said, "You've shot and killed a man?"

"Yes, I have," Raylan said.

"An armed fugitive?"

"More than one," Raylan said.

"It doesn't matter how many, does it?"

"Not a bit," Raylan said. "Once or twice I might've been lucky."

"You get to where you have to pull—"

"Knowing you better shoot to kill," Raylan said.

Nichols gave Raylan a nod.

They knew each other.

Essentially, Nichols is an older version of Raylan, and though Leonard doesn't do much with him in Raylan, one senses the author is setting him up for further appearances down the line. The same goes for Jackie Nevada, with whom Raylan really hits it off – and Graham Yost having stated that he and his fellow writers and producers will be using further bits of Raylan in season three of Justified (and season four, if there is one), I wouldn't be at all surprised if both Jackie and Nichols make it onto our TV screens at some point.

Martin Amis once said of Elmore Leonard that Leonard is "incapable of writing an uninteresting sentence" (Amis also favourably reviewed Riding the Rap, and called Get Shorty – quite correctly in my opinion – "a masterpiece"), and that's as true of Raylan as of any others of Leonard's novels and stories. Due to its origins it's not the most tightly plotted of his books, but in its charmingly meandering way it's as sublime – not to mention purely pleasurable – a reading experience as you could wish for. That's down to Leonard's by-this-juncture utterly effortless storytelling, not to mention his beautifully idiosyncratic and allusive dialogue, the way he can lightly sketch characters who nevertheless fair leap from the page, and the occasional emotional gut-punches he seeds throughout the book.

But Raylan also exerts a strange fascination for the way it came into being. It's been called an "alternate universe" version of Justified in some quarters, but that strikes me as an inadequate explanation for what it actually is: a piece of Elmore Leonard fiction inspired by a television show that was in turn inspired by another piece of Elmore Leonard fiction; art, imitating art, imitating art, the one feeding off the other, feeding off the other, and so on. And if Leonard, suitably inspired by what the makers of Justified have done with the stories he wrote having been inspired by what they'd done with the original stories he wrote, chooses to write yet more Raylan Givens stories, which the makers of Justified then base further stories on...

...well then I think my head might just explode.