Thursday 22 August 2013

Fifty-Two Pickup (52 Pick-Up) by Elmore Leonard: First Edition (Secker & Warburg, 1974); Book Review

NB: Linked in this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

I hadn't planned on returning to Elmore Leonard quite so soon after completing that long series of posts on him; even though I'm still on the Leonard kick that started, ooh, I guess over three months ago now, I'm no longer reading him to the exclusion of all others, and there are a number of authors I'm itching to blog about besides Leonard. But then the bugger went and died on Tuesday, and so it seems only right and proper in the week that he passed away that I should take a look at an acknowledged Elmore Leonard classic:

Fifty-Two Pickup, first published in hardback in the UK by Secker & Warburg in 1974, the same year as the American Delacorte first. Like all the Secker editions of Leonard's novels – the publisher issued four of the author's works in the 1970s – Fifty-Two Pickup is becoming quite scarce and consequently fairly pricey in British first (and likely to become even more so now I expect). Obviously the print run would have been much smaller than the American edition, but there's the dust jacket design too: the Delacorte jacket is largely typographic, whereas the Secker one features an evocative photograph by Graham Miller, and is really rather good and quite distinctive I think; compare Miller's Fifty-Two Pickup wrapper with his one for the Heinemann edition of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game from the same year.

Certainly the cover is in keeping with the novel – a dark entry in the Leonard canon, in which Detroit factory boss Harry Mitchell is targeted by a trio of blackmailers who kidnap his stripper girlfriend and threaten to reveal his illicit affair to his wife if he doesn't pay them over $100,000. Given that thereafter the novel features a gruesome caught-on-camera killing, multiple murders and a heroin-assisted rape, it's perhaps surprising that for Leonard it was one of the novels where he felt he began to introduce more humour into his work. In 2002 he told The Onion A.V. Club:

I think the turning point was in the '70s, with Unknown Man No. 89 and Fifty-Two Pickup and those. That's when I finally got the confidence to let it go and have some fun with it. Before that, in the Westerns especially, there's no humor at all. There's no irony to speak of, and that's all the humor is. It's my humor. Because all these guys are serious. They can be funny, but they're serious when they deliver their lines. It's just that they're kind of out of context with what they're talking about. 

Of course, there is humour in Fifty-Two Pickup, but it's humour of a very black variety, born of the lethal bungling of the inept blackmailers and epitomised by an explosive climax involving an attache case packed with dynamite. Rather than a crime caper, then, the novel might be better viewed as a meditation on the decline of the city of Detroit – overwhelmed by vice, its manufacturing base crumbling. It's a theme that has as much resonance today as it did forty years ago – a mark, I'd suggest, of the way Leonard's fiction has remained relevant over the years, in turn helping to explain why his older books are still so popular – and one the writer would return to again and again throughout the 1970s in his "Detroit cycle": Unknown Man No. 89 (1977), The Switch (1978) and City Primeval (1980). And I'll have more on those last two novels anon.


  1. Black humor is my favorite kind of humor. This might be a title I'd like in particular. I thought of you, by the way, as soon as I heard about Leonard. How strange it must have been for you while right in the middle of these reviews.

  2. UNKNOWN MAN N. 89 and this are the ones that turned me on to his writing as, luckily for me, they were the first that picked up - great stuff Nick, so great to have you providing this wealth of material - cheers mate.

  3. Thanks for the comments, guys.

    Kelly, the news of EL's passing wasn't unexpected; once he'd had his stroke, you kind of hoped for the best, but given his age, it was always a possibility. It was more of a jolt when the stroke happened – that I wasn't expecting.

    Sergio, I only got round to reading both of those this year, but they are fine novels, especially Unknown Man No. 89. Of the Leonard novels I've read more recently, I think that and LaBrava are the best ones.

  4. Loved FIFTY-TWO PICKUP when it was first published. I also enjoyed the movie OUT OF SIGHT based on Elmore Leonard's characters.