Thursday 17 January 2013

Unknown Man No. 89 by Elmore Leonard; Signed First Edition (Secker & Warburg, 1977), Sequel to The Big Bounce

NB: Featured as one of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

I've got a further handful of signed editions (I ran a lengthy series on signed books from July to September last year) lined up for forthcoming posts, two of them dating from as recently as 2012, making them almost – splutter – new. But not this next one; this one dates from 1977, and is a sort-of sequel to a novel I blogged about during my series of posts on paperbacks at the tail end of last year:

It's the British first edition of Unknown Man No. 89 by Elmore Leonard, published in hardback by Secker & Warburg. The dust jacket design is uncredited but it's almost identical to the 1977 US Delacorte edition – the type treatment is different and there's a bit of extra blurb on the American one – although since I don't know who designed the jacket of the Delacorte edition either, that doesn't really get us anywhere. This copy is, however, signed, and inscribed:

to a Howard, who has been advised by Leonard to "take it easy". I sincerely hope he followed Leonard's excellent advice. The Secker first is uncommon enough, but signed copies of it are really thin on the ground; I've seen three offered for sale online, the cheapest being a copy bearing a signed bookplate for £55, and the cheapest one signed on the actual page being about £130 (I didn't pay anything like that – or indeed like £55). I found this one on the shelves of the same Cecil Court secondhand bookshop as the book it's a sort-of sequel to:

Elmore Leonard's first published contemporaneously-set novel (following a number of westerns), The Big Bounce, which was issued as a paperback original by Gold Medal in 1969. In truth, though, if I hadn't told you that – and if you hadn't read both books, like I have (and hadn't seen the information online somewhere... oh, whatever) – you wouldn't know it: there are no connecting plot threads between the two, and Jack Ryan, the protagonist of Unknown Man No. 89, is barely recognisable as Jack Ryan, the protagonist of The Big Bounce.

Leonard wrote in a 1989 introduction to The Big Bounce that all his male leads "resemble Jack Ryan" and that Ryan "might possibly have become a continuing character aging along with his maker, if it were not for the fact that each time you sell a film rights to a studio, they own the character for a specified number of years. So I change the names." Which makes me wonder if he hadn't, then would Tom Clancy have alighted on that same moniker for his hero? But I digress: I think Leonard's actually doing himself a disservice. Though it may seem counterintuitive to praise a novelist because a protagonist is quite a bit different to the protagonist from an earlier book, even though they're supposed to be the same character, in the context of Leonard's explanation in that intro, it makes a strange sort of sense. Leonard's leads aren't all the same, even when they're meant to be; the earlier and later Ryans are different, and that's A Good Thing.

If you wanted to, I guess you could put those differences down to Ryan having grown up, but it's simpler just to ignore The Big Bounce and take Unknown Man No. 89 on its own merits. Because it has a great many. Like the best Leonard books it boasts deceptively simple, idiosyncratically honed prose and terrific dialogue, right from the opening lines: 

A friend of Ryan's said to him one time, "Yeah, but at least you don't take any shit from anybody."

Ryan said to his friend, "I don't know, the way things've been going, maybe it's time I started taking some."

It's unpredictable and surprising, the plot ebbing and flowing around the cast of beautifully defined characters: the calculating, infinitely flexible Mr. Perez, whose business is finding lost stock – in this case belonging to the soon-to-be-late Bobby Leary, the eponymous unknown man – and taking a cut; the charming but dangerous Virgil Royal, Bobby's partner-in-crime, who smells a significant payday; Bobby's wife, Denise, who finds a kindred spirit in Ryan; and of course Ryan himself, here having discovered a talent as a process server in Detroit. Surprisingly for what is ostensibly a crime novel – I mean, surprisingly if you haven't read Leonard and think his work is basically just crime fiction (oh I'm insufferable, aren't I?) – it's partly about alcoholism; Leonard is especially good on the cravings and justifications of the alcoholic, and the perceptive, insightful middle section of the novel spends some time exploring the affliction.

As it winds towards its conclusion, though, and Ryan attempts to turn the tables on Mr. Perez, the undercurrent of menace buzzing deep beneath Leonard's misdirecting veneer of geniality intensifies, embodied partly by the cunning and deadly Virgil, and partly by the even deadlier Raymond Gidre, Mr. Perez's right hand man.

Incidentally, here and there Unknown Man No. 89 reminded me of another 1970s-set urban crime drama: George Pelecanos's What It Was, in particular that novel's Red Fury, who's akin to Virgil Royal... except that Pelecanos's book was published in 2012. I'd be interested to find out if Pelecanos was influenced by Leonard's novel at all. (UPDATE: Book Glutton has since pointed out in the comments below that in Pelecanos's 2011 novel The Cut, Spero's brother Leo teaches Unknown Man No. 89 to his students – which, given that I reviewed The Cut last year, I really should have remembered... but at least it answers that question. Thanks, BG!) But anyway: Unknown Man No. 89 may not be the best known of Elmore Leonard's books, but it's a bloody good one. I wouldn't be at all surprised if, like The Big Bounce did last year, it wound up in my "best of" list come the end of 2013.


  1. Great piece, Nick--how much Elmore Leonard have you read? I really don't know where to start with him. We've only got his more recent books here at the library. And of course DVDs of the movies based on his older ones. Rolling my eyes now.

  2. Hmm, good question – nine or ten books I think? I'm no expert in Leonard (I'm no expert in anything...), but I've read enough – and read enough about him – to have a pretty good understanding of how his (fictional) mind works. As for good places to start, I usually point people to Get Shorty, the only drawback there being if you've seen the movie – which, don't get me wrong, made a good fist of the novel – it might colour your experience. My personal favourites of the Leonards I've read are that one and the Raylan Givens books – Pronto and Riding the Rap especially – but I've yet to read a duff Leonard novel.

  3. Thanks--I'll try Get Shorty--happily, I've only seen brief snippets of the movie, and I don't expect that situation to ever change.

    We have the latest Raylan Givens novel--perhaps a bit unimaginatively titled, but I'm sure it's great. So I'll try that as well. I have seen every episode of the TV show (and am currently watching the fourth season thereof), so I would expect to be hearing Timothy Olyphant's voice in my head a lot while reading it. I wonder if at this point LEONARD hears it when he's writing new novels in this series.

    I do not ever want to hear Jason Statham's voice in my head when I read a Parker novel. I will seriously consider ECT therapy if that ever happens. Ah, the mysteries of casting. ;)

  4. I'm finding Leonard's early westerns prose-heavy and his later mysteries dialogue-heavy. This one just might fall into the sweet spot.

  5. I have listened to the audio versions of several Elmore Leonard books. Most of them were read (and, unfortunately, abridged) by Joe Mantegna who is the perfect voice for Leonard's writing. Highly recommended. I think this is the only case where I have listened to more than read somebody's books. I've had Unknown Man No.89 on my TBR pile since George Pelecanos used it in The Cut.

  6. Aha! I had a feeling there was some link between Unknown Man No. 89 and Pelecanos – I just had the wrong Pelecanos book is all. Thank you for that, BG – I've updated the post.

  7. Nick, a very nice post on Elmore Leonard. I have a Pan edition of UNKNOWN MAN NO.89 though I have still to read it. I have read a couple of his latter books, like PAGAN BABIES, that had more dialogue than prose. I found the protagonists rather devoid of emotion. I didn't know he was the original creator of "Jack Ryan" and I wonder why Clancy reinvented him in his spy novels.

  8. Ha, well, before Tom Clancy's lawyers descend on us, I should point out that the two Jack Ryans are completely unrelated – I imagine Clancy just alighted on the name in ignorance of Leonard's two books. Interesting your should mention the dialogue-heavy nature of Leonard's later work though, Prashant – Evan Lewis makes the same complaint above. The only late Leonard I've read is Raylan, which I liked just fine, but then I'm not averse to books that tell stories chiefly though dialogue – Gregory Mcdonald, say, or to a lesser extent, Anthony Price. Or in comics – which admittedly is dialogue-driven anyway, but indulge me – Garth Ennis. Give me naturalistic or idiosyncratic speech over reams of description any day.