Thursday 13 November 2014

Killshot by Elmore Leonard (Viking, 1989): Signed and Inscribed to Writer Philip Oakes; Book Review

Back in May, in this post on Patricia Highsmith's Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes, I expatiated on signed editions – how signed books, in particular inscribed and association/presentation copies, have become an increasingly important aspect of my book collecting, especially books signed or inscribed by my favourite authors. Until very recently I owned five books signed by Elmore Leonard – who, it may be gleaned from the number of times I've posted about him, is indeed one of my favourite authors: a 1970 Dell paperback of The Moonshine War and a 1993 Viking first of Pronto, both flat signed; a signed and dated 1984 Allen Lane first of Stick; an inscribed 1977 Secker & Warburg first of Unknown Man No. 89; and an association copy of the 1984 Viking edition of LaBrava. All of those books I considered good deals, as in I managed to acquire each of them for less than one might ordinarily expect to pay. However, this has to be the best deal of all:

Killshot, published in hardback by Viking in 1989 (dust jacket design uncredited, but it's virtually identical to that on the US Arbor House edition, published the same year). I picked up this copy of the British first edition online for a fiversomewhat less than the going rate for an unsigned British first in near fine condition – which this copy is – and certainly a lot less than the going rate for a signed one; I can see just a single signed copy of the Viking first available online, listed at over £80. This isn't merely a flat signed copy, however:

It's an association copy, inscribed on the front free endpaper to the journalist (and poet) Philip Oakes. The inscription reads:

For Philip Oakes,

It was a pleasure talking to you. With best wishes –

Elmore Leonard

Sept. 13, 1989

Oakes was an admirer of and sometimes reviewer of Leonard's work; there's an extract from an Oakes review of Freaky Deaky on the back cover of the Viking edition of Killshot, taken from the Literary Review, for which Oakes frequently reviewed crime fiction. This copy of the book came came from Oakes's own library and was evidently presented to him by Leonard shortly after Oakes had interviewed the author, as implied by the inscription. This we can further establish thanks to the BBC's recently launched (in a test version) Genome Project: there's a listing on 31 October, 1989 at 7.05pm for a Radio 3 (the Beeb's classical music station) programme titled Third Ear, in which "Philip Oakes talks with the American crime novelist and Western screenwriter Elmore Leonard". I think it's safe to conclude that that was the conversation referred to in Leonard's inscription, which means that, remarkably, there's a BBC licence fee-funded provenance for this particular copy of Killshot readily viewable online. And potentially, if the relevant edition of Third Ear itself is ever made available online, an audio provenance too. 

Killshot is another example, in a different sort of way, of something I was banging on about in last week's post on Elmore Leonard's 1983 novel Cat Chaser: the romantic element in the writer's work. In the case of Killshot, however, the romance is a more mature one, between ironworker Wayne Colson and his wife Carmen, who fall foul of two killers: Native American hitman (working for the Canadian mob) Armand Degas, alias the Blackbird, and murderous career criminal Richie Nix. Much of the novel is concerned with Armand and Richie's repeated attempts to kill Wayne and Carmen, and throughout the novel Leonard contrasts the dynamics of the two sets of relationships (in the non-Biblical sense in Armand and Richie's case, although they do share Richie's ex-prison guard girlfriend): wary, edgy and dangerous on Armand and Richie's part, warm, genuine and occasionally argumentative on Wayne and Carmen's.

The tenderness between Wayne and Carmen and the contrast between those two and Armand and Richie is something which was raised by Anthony May in a 1991 interview with Leonard (available via Contrapasso Magazine). In that interview Leonard also notes how Wayne "was gonna be the main character in Killshot but it was so obvious that I had to change it" – to Armand, although Carmen is arguably as much the main character as the Blackbird is – and discusses something else which is applicable to Killshot: the author's approach to story. Leonard told May: "It's not a big story I do, it's just little situations and they end up. There's always a way to end them up." This is a theme that bubbles beneath the surface of Killshot, a subtext which becomes explicit late in the novel, when Richie muses, "It was weird how one thing could lead to another"; when Carmen mulls the 1975 Antonioni movie The Passenger and how in the film Jack Nicholson "lets his new life happen... lets it carry him along as a passenger to the end"; and when Armand reflects, "He had come this far, now he was along for the ride."

"Little situations", one leading to another: an apt summation of Leonard's work in general and Killshot in particular. And as Leonard said, there's always a way to end them up – usually involving violence, as here. But though the ending of Killshot may be among the tensest Leonard concocted – with Carmen menaced by the two killers and Wayne racing across country to reach her – as ever in Leonard stories, much as in life, it's not so much about the destination as about "the ride", as Armand puts it. And Killshot, with its diverting detours and engaging characters, is as hypnotically meandering a ride as you'll find in the author's canon.