Thursday 16 October 2014

Split Images by Elmore Leonard: Book Review (W. H. Allen, 1983), Intended Sequel to City Primeval

NB: Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 17/10/14.

Though he wasn't especially known for writing sequels, and even less so immediate sequels, there are a couple of instances in Elmore Leonard's backlist where a novel was followed by a sequel in quick succession. Raylan Givens's 1993 debut, Pronto, was followed two years later by Riding the Rap, while the first Carl Webster novel, 2005's The Hot Kid, was followed two years later by Up in Honey's Room – with a Carl Webster short story collection, Comfort to the Enemy, following two years after that. (Examples of originals and sequels spaced farther apart would be The Big Bounce, 1969/Unknown Man No. 89, 1977; Swag, 1976/Stick, 1983; Get Shorty, 1990/Be Cool, 1999; Out of Sight, 1996/Road Dogs, 2009; and Riding the Rap, 1995/Raylan, 2012.) If all had gone according to plan, that would have been the case with City Primeval (1980) and Split Images (1981) too, but Hollywood threw a spanner in the works.

Originally published by Arbor House in the US, Split Images was published in 1983 in the UK by W. H. Allen, which is the edition seen here. As with the other two Elmore Leonard novels published by W. H. Allen – the aforementioned City Primeval, which Allen published in 1981, and Gold Coast, which they issued in 1982 (two years after its US debut) – Split Images is pretty uncommon in British first, with just four or five copies currently available online (one of those ex-library). (My copy was a fairly inexpensive eBay win.) The dust jacket bears a photograph by Howard Bartrop, who also took the picture on the wrapper of the Allen edition of City Primeval; I've added it the Existential Ennui British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s page alongside its predecessor.

In City Primeval the lead character had been a Detroit police detective named Raymond Cruz; for Split Images, Leonard told his researcher, Gregg Sutter – as related by Sutter in an article he wrote for Armchair Detective (Volume 19, Number 1, Winter 1986) – he wanted to "take the Detroit cop down to Palm Beach". But at the eleventh hour the author had to remove Raymond from Split Images because the film rights to City Primeval had been sold and the character was tied up with those. Leonard's solution, according to Sutter, was "to change Raymond Cruz's name to Bryan Hurd and lighten his moustache". (Other characters are also altered in similarly superficial fashion – for example, Detective Maureen Downey, Raymond's quiet, unflappable colleague in City Primeval, becomes Detective Annie Maguire, Bryan's similarly quiet, unflappable colleague in Split Images.)

Leonard may have originally written Split Images with Raymond as his lead – and in fact there is one instance in the W. H. Allen edition at least where Leonard and his copyeditor missed a mention of Raymond instead of Bryan (page 65, towards the end of chapter three) – but actually the novel benefits from being a standalone: it's a better book than City Primeval, and deserves to be appreciated on its own merits. Part of that is to do with the characterisation. Bryan is a more rounded creation than Raymond in City Primeval, and whereas in the former book Leonard's bad guy, Clement Mansell, was cut from the same cloth as Raymond Gidre from Unknown Man No. 89 (1977) or Roland Crowe from Gold Coast (1980), here the villain of the piece is quite an unusual figure in the Leonard canon: Robbie Daniels, a bored millionaire businessman with a taste for murder. Best of all is Walter Kouza, a veteran Detroit homicide detective who encounters Daniels when the millionaire shoots a Haitian home invader, and subsequently quits the force and takes a job as Daniels's chauffeur – ostensibly; it turns out Daniels has other plans for him.

In his Armchair Detective feature Gregg Sutter points out that Walter is a good example of how sometimes in Leonard stories "minor characters demand a star turn", noting that Walter "was originally a bit player, but, when he opened his mouth, [Leonard] realized his importance: 'Kouza forced his way into the story. He talked... and came to life'". But Walter is also a good example of how Leonard gets inside his characters, how he allows them to direct and shape the story, tells the story through their eyes. It's something Leonard explored in a 1991 interview by Anthony May which ran in Contrapasso Magazine in 2012 – how his "work is based on character, the characters and the interplay of the characters and there is story that comes out of that", and how "once I decide the point of view of a scene, then that character's sound will permeate the narrative, will continue on through, because everything you see in that scene is from that character's point of view and you won't know what anybody else is thinking until you come to a place on the page where I've skipped down a few spaces and got into someone else's head".

Take this passage early on in Split Images, where Walter has been invited by Daniels into his house to talk shortly after the shooting:

He considered himself an ace at sizing people up:

A guy shoots and kills an intruder. The guy seems not exactly shaken but awed by it. A bright eager good-looking guy. Sort of a millionaire Jack Armstrong but very impressionable.


Walter Kouza would run through those first impressions again, then piece together step by step the revelations of that afternoon in Mr. Daniels's study.

He remembered Mr. Daniels, Robbie, opening the second bottle of vodka and going downstairs for more ice...

Yeah, and he opened another pack of Camels while Daniels was gone. Tore off the cellophane, dropped it in the silver dish full of cigarette butts, mashed Came stubs. He remembered seeing words engraved around the rim of the dish he hadn't noticed before. Seminole Invitational 1980 and the club crest covered with butts and black smudges. Shit. He got off the stool to look for a regular ashtray and almost fell on his ass. There weren't any ashtrays. He was standing there looking at the inlaid cabinets – beautiful workmanship – when Daniels came back in, closing the door this time, turning the lock, and said, "While you're up, let me show you something might interest you." Took out a key and unlocked one of the cabinets.

There must have been two dozen handguns in there, a showcase display against dark velvet.

"Jesus," Walter said.

That said, there are passages in Split Images where Leonard does seemingly assume the rule of omniscient narrator, and in particular one extraordinary one which I believe signals his intent with the novel. It comes about two thirds into the book, and takes the form of a litany of homicides in the Detroit area over the course of a year, a catalogue of everyday killing which reads as all too plausible (perhaps Leonard was drawing on his experiences riding with the Detroit Felony Homicide Squad for a Detroit News Magazine cover feature he wrote in 1978):

Ruth May Hayes, thirty-seven, was tied by the neck to the rear bumper of her boyfriend's car and dragged in circles over a field until she was dead. Robert Jackson, thirty-four, and James Pope, thirty-five, died in a gunfight that developed when Jackson put his cigarette out in a clean ashtray. Sam James, thirty-five, told his wife their twelve-year-old daughter's shorts were too tight; an argument followed and James was stabbed to death. Paul Struggs, twenty-nine, was shot to death by his girlfriend. Richard Scott, twenty-three, was shaking hands with people he'd been arguing with at a party when someone struck him from behind with a baseball bat and killed him. Myros Cato, forty-seven, was shot to death by his wife following an argument. James Ware, sixty-five, was shot to death by his son, a psychiatric patient at Veterans Hospital. Charles Roby, thirty-two, got in an argument with his girl friend over a pack of cigarettes and she stabbed him to death. Gloria Glass, fifty, told James Lindsey, fifty-six, they were through; Lindsey shot and killed her. Betty Goodlow, thirty-two, was beaten, doused with paint thinner and set on fire by her boyfriend...

The single unbroken paragraph continues in the same vein for at least as long again.

For me that passage brought to mind the 1989 Alan Clarke film Elephant, which, though focusing on the Troubles in Northern Ireland, deploys a similar stylistic impassivity, and at root deals with the same thing: the banality of murder. The mass of murders which Leonard lists; the self-aggrandising and ultimately horrific actions of Robbie Daniels – horrific both for Bryan and for the woman he falls in love with, Angela Nolan, a reporter investigating Daniels – aided and abetted in farcical fashion by Walter Kouza, who comes to comprehend far too late how out of his depth he is; even the straight-out-of-the-headlines-of-the-day assassination attempts Leonard references, on Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, both of which events, according to Gregg Sutter, "made a deep impression" on Leonard: all of this only serves to underline the purposelessness, the pointlessness of killing. Which is the point, I think, of Split Images.

In common with other Leonard works, although Split Images is a crime novel, there is no conventional mystery to solve, no whodunnit, not even a howdunnit; the only mystery in the novel, as in life, is why people do stupid fucking things – why they kill each other over the most ridiculous and insignificant and absurd matters – and Leonard is wise enough to know there's no answer to that, only consequences. John D. MacDonald put it most succinctly in a line in a blurb on the back of the W. H. Allen edition of the novel: "Elmore Leonard's Split Images is strong and true and persuasive." To which I'd add, of the roughly two dozen Elmore Leonard books I've read to date, Split Images ranks as one of the very best.


  1. Man, you have an impressive Leonard collection! Strangely I don't see UK edition of Cat Chaser among your books.

  2. I have had good intentions, but I have not read anything by Elmore Leonard. This review is really making me regret that, and I have to get to something of his soon.