Thursday 17 October 2013

The Switch by Elmore Leonard: First Hardback Edition (Secker & Warburg, 1979); Book Review; Film Adaptation Life of Crime (2013)

Back in August, when I was nearing the end of my series of posts on the now late lamented Elmore Leonard, I noted in my review of Gold Coast that in the 1970s, Leonard could have been more accurately described as a paperback writer than a hardback author. (You'd be forgiven for wondering why such a distinction should matter to anyone, but it certainly mattered to Leonard, who appreciated the respectability – even if only perceived – that being published in hardback bestowed on his work.) Of the nine novels Leonard published in the '70s, six were issued straight to paperback in the US; but here in the UK, three of those six were published straight to hardback rather than paperback. One of them, Leonard's 1970 western Valdez is Coming, was published in hardback by Robert Hale (actually the year before the US Gold Medal softcover, in 1969); the other two were issued by Secker & Warburg.

In total Secker published four Leonard novels in the 1970s, and all four of their editions have become quite collectable. I've blogged about the two that were published as hardbacks in both the UK and the US – Fifty-Two Pickup (1974) and Unknown Man No. 89 (1977) – previously, but not the two that were only published in hardback in the UK, for the simple reason that I didn't own them. Now, however, I do. I'll be unveiling the scarcest one of all in my next Leonard post, but first, this:

The Switch, published in hardback by Secker & Warburg in 1979, the year after the US Bantam paperback. The dust jacket photography is by Bill Richmond, whose work also graces the jacket of Patricia Highsmith's fourth Tom Ripley novel, The Boy Who Followed Ripley. One book collecting curiosity of The Switch dust jacket is that you'd be hard pressed to find one that isn't price-clipped; there are roughly ten copies of the Secker edition for sale online right now, and every single one has a price-clipped jacket. My guess is that the publisher altered their cover price at the last moment and so clipped the wrappers themselves, although if that is the case, one wonders why they didn't sticker them on the flaps.

Anyway, tonally, The Switch is, I'd venture, the lightest of the novels Elmore Leonard published in the 1970s – if a novel about kidnapping and extortion can be described as "light". Certainly it stands in marked contrast to the somewhat more solemn Fifty-Two Pickup, with which it shares a number of themes, although here we get just the one (well-deserved) death and a climax that's not so much darkly ironic as downright comedic (it brought a smile to my face anyway). One could also make a useful comparison with 1980's Gold Coast, in that one of the chief protagonists is female – except that Leonard never really gets inside the head of Gold Coast's Karen DiCillia, whereas much of The Switch is shaped not only by the actions of Mickey Dawson, the woman who is kidnapped by ex-cons Louis Gara and Ordell Robbie in order to extract a million dollars from her property magnate husband Frank, but by her thoughts.

In fact, what it reminded me of most was the work of Kate Atkinson. I've no idea whether Atkinson has ever read Elmore Leonard, but it's striking how in The Switch Leonard's third person prose is littered with parenthetical asides, approximating Mickey's circuitous thought processes in much the same way as Atkinson would decades hence with Jackson Brodie or Ursula Todd. In that sense, Mickey has more in common with some of Leonard's male leads than his female characters – Jack Ryan from The Big Bounce and Unknown Man No. 89, say, or Calvin Maguire from Gold Coast: men who aren't sure of their place in the world, who are self-aware and prone to bouts of self-doubt or self-questioning, and yet who ultimately, when in a tight spot, can turn a situation to their advantage. As Mickey says, studying herself in a mirror, "Who are you?", answering: "If you don't know, you're gonna find out, aren't you?"

Incidentally, a film adaptation of The Switch, Life of Crime, recently debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. Directed by Daniel Schechter and starring Jennifer Aniston as Mickey, John Hawkes as Louis and Mos Def as Ordell – intriguing casting there – the film received decent notices in The Guardian and Variety but slightly more lukewarm ones in The Hollywood Reporter and on Indiewire, the latter of whom also picked up on the fact that it's a sort-of prequel to Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (1997) – or rather, The Switch is a sort-of prequel to Rum Punch (1992), in that not only do Louis and Ordell appear in both stories – played, in Jackie Brown, by Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson – but so does Frank Dawson's girlfriend, Melanie, played by Isla Fisher in Life of Crime and Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown. And for more Elmore Leonard intertexual fun, see my posts on Gold Coast, LaBrava, Stick and Road Dogs and this thread (and its antecedents) on the (sadly locked) Elmore Leonard forum.

According to Jean Henry Mead in her 1989 book Maverick Writers, Leonard had a special fondness for The Switch (alongside 1976's Swag). I, on the other hand, while I did enjoy The Switch, have a special fondness for the next Elmore Leonard novel I'll be looking at – and even more especially in this particular, rarely seen edition.


  1. Man, those doll heads give me the creeps.

  2. Spooky, huh? By and large I'm not really a fan of photographic covers from this era, but Bill Richmond's are, I think, a cut above.

  3. I think you should write a separate post about price-clipped covers. I still don't get why it matters.

    (And Mos Def now is called something else. I guess.)

  4. It doesn't matter to me so much, but it does to some book collectors; I guess it's about owning a copy with a dust jacket that's in as good a state as it can be, and one with a corner of a flap missing is, by definition, incomplete.

    (Is he? What's he called now? He's still Mos Def on IMDB.)

  5. (You're right – he seems to be Yasiin Bey now.)

  6. He always was Mos Def for me, since his first appearance on Da Bush Babees album.