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.

Tuesday 15 January 2013

Parker Progress Report: Flashfire (2000, Parker #18, Basis for the 2013 Parker Movie) by Richard Stark, alias Donald E. Westlake

NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker.

With Backflash (1998), the second entry in the second run of Donald E. "Richard Stark" Westlake's series of books starring coldblooded career criminal Parker, Westlake was firmly back in the Parker groove. It was a classic Parker heist tale: an intriguing target (a casino riverboat); a familiar crew; and a bloody aftermath. But there's another type of Parker tale, one where the heist, if there even is one, isn't the focus of the book; where Parker's on the back foot, foiled at every turn, scrabbling to retrieve what he can from a foul-up: books like The Seventh, The Sour Lemon Score, Plunder Squad, and even, going right back to the beginning, Parker's debut, The Hunter (1962), which opens with Parker double-crossed and penniless. And joining these, the third entry in the second block of Parkers: Parker #19, Flashfire (2000).

Flashfire has something else in common with The Hunter, too, in that we get to see Parker commit the kinds of crimes he prefers to avoid: small scores, taken down by himself, with the bare minimum of planning. Having been double-crossed (yet again) at the start of the novel, Parker finds himself in the position of needing to build up funds in order to get back at the heisters who've crossed him (and unwisely left him alive). And so he embarks on a trek across the States from Indiana to Florida – where his erstwhile compatriots are planning a jewelry heist – on the way robbing a gun shop, a check-cashing store, a drug-dealing operation, a movie theatre and a bunch of houses.

This is Parker in the raw: stripped of cohorts, brutally efficient, driven by the same two interlinked aims as in The Hunter: revenge, and getting what he's owed. In the Parker series as a whole, it's the big, flashy take-downs that tend to remain in the memory – a football game; an entire town; an entire island – but in their relatively quiet way, these short episodes are as good as anything else Westlake wrote for the Parkers: clipped, economical, the crimes all the more believable for their simplicity.

The irony is that while Parker carries off his crime spree successfully, he comes a cropper when attempting to secure new false ID, through sheer bad luck getting caught up in the middle of a bloody encounter that will ultimately see him shot and left for dead in the Everglades. That his salvation comes in the unlikely shape of a forty-year old estate agent named Lesley is just one of many surprising aspects of a book which confounds expectations at every turn.

It probably speaks to something troubling in my character that it's these kinds of frustrating, erratic, oddly misshapen Parkers that I enjoy the most. They appeal to me in the same way that Elmore Leonard's work does: they're possessed of an understanding that it doesn't matter how smart, tough and proficient you are, like anyone else you can still take a wrong turn and wind up in a cul-de-sac – or, in Parker's case in Flashfire, a hospital bed. Time and again in Flashfire the signs point one way only to lead to somewhere unexpected, right down to the final confrontation with the men who crossed Parker, which sees him effectively sidelined. I suspect that Flashfire's idiosyncratic tendencies – plot strands derailed by the unforeseen and happenstance, violent scenes where the protagonist ends up being almost a bystander, tension pumped up only to be deflated at the last moment – is why the novel is less well liked than others in the second run of Parkers, but for me, perversely I guess, it makes it a more compelling book.

Of course, quite what the makers of Parker, the Jason Statham-starring movie adaptation of Flashfire, due in US cinemas on 25 January, will make of all this remains to be seen (and will seemingly remain that way for me until March, as the film isn't out in the UK until then). I suppose it's unreasonable to expect a Hollywood production that's potentially the first instalment in a new franchise to take quite so many chances with narrative as the nineteenth novel in a series... but I live in hope.