Friday, 19 February 2016

Bandits by Elmore Leonard (Viking, 1987)

According to Elmore LeonardBandits (Viking, 1987, dust jacket illustration by James Hussey, jacket design by Bet Ayer), much like his previous novel, Glitz (1985), grew out of an idea for a film. (Glitz had begun life, bizarrely enough, as an Ernest Tidyman screenplay for a Sidney Poitier-starring sequel to In the Heat of the Night.) Leonard told John Williams for Williams's 1991 book on crime fiction and America, Into the Badlands: "Bandits came about when a film producer said, 'How would you like to write the script of a big caper movie: several old pros get together for one last heist,' and I said, 'Sure, but I want to write it as a book first and I want to set it in New Orleans.'"

Leonard's researcher, Gregg Sutter, however, remembers it differently. In an article for the spring 1986 issue of The Armchair Detective ("Advance Man: Researching Elmore Leonard's Novels Part 2"), Sutter explains how Leonard was hired by TV producer David Gerber "to write a cop action-adventure series – with total freedom to select subject matter, characters, and location". The show, Wilder, never made it past the script stage, "But just as Split Images spawned Cat Chaser, Wilder would provide the foundation for Bandits."

Whatever the case, Bandits is a curious entry in Leonard's canon – "perhaps a little over-researched and occasionally uncertain in tone" in Williams's (fair) assessment, certainly one of the writer's more overtly political novels. Starring one Jack Delaney – thief (his speciality is turning over hotel rooms), ex-con, and another in a long line of lovable Leonard rogues (see also Jack Ryan from The Big Bounce and Unknown Man No. 89, Ernest Stickley, Jr. from Swag and Stick, and Jack Foley from Out of Sight and Road Dogs) – the story deals with the struggle between the Nicaraguan Sandanistas and Contras, except as already noted it's set in New Orleans and, this being an Elmore Leonard novel, there's a sizeable score to be taken down too.

"[P]lanning the book, I had to think of something for these guys to steal," Leonard told Williams, "so I read in the paper about money being collected privately for the Contras. And I thought that this money could be sitting in one place and these guys could find out about it so I introduced the ex-nun who enlists them and told them what was going on down in Nicaragua. But I've been asked if I wrote that book to get my political views across. I didn't. It was only something for these guys to steal. Of course you do get politically involved when you have to explain what's going on and you have to show some passion for one side or the other... and of course it's going to be for the former nun against the Contras."

For sure, by the novel's close it's pretty clear where Leonard's sympathies lie, but then the book is all about choosing sides; more than once Jack wonders which side the various protagonists are on, indeed whether he himself is "on the side he thought he was on or on a different side". That Jack eventually reaches the same conclusions as his creator shouldn't come as a huge surprise – his deliberations reflect Leonard's own, the author literally working things out for himself on the page as the novel progresses – but the getting there is engrossing, and as a glimpse of a questing and inquisitive creative mind at work, Bandits has much to recommend it.

Elmore Leonard's next book after Bandits was Touch – at least, his next published book; Touch was actually written in the 1970s. The next book he wrote, however, was Freaky Deaky (1988).

NB: Proffered for this Friday's Forgotten Books roundup.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Glitz by Elmore Leonard (Viking, 1985)

Glitz (1985) was Elmore Leonard's first major bestseller – "the book that put him over the top", as Leonard's researcher Gregg Sutter put it in an article in the spring 1986 issue of The Armchair Detective ("Advance Man: Researching Elmore Leonard's Novels Part 2"). Leonard had had successful novels before, and especially so as his career entered its fourth decade in the 1980s – John Williams, in his 1991 examination of crime fiction and America, Into the Badlands, notes that "Stick [1983]... was the first of his books to hit really big" – but the rapturous reception the writer's twenty-third novel received was of a different order altogether: the American first edition reprinted half a dozen times, no doubt helped along by a glowing review in the New York Times by Stephen King ("Glitz may be the best crime novel of the year").

Why Glitz should have been quite so successful I'm not really sure. It's a good Elmore Leonard novel – which is to say it's by definition a cut above much other crime fiction – but he'd written better ones before: LaBrava (1983), Split Images (1981), City Primeval (1980), Unknown Man No. 89 (1977), others besides. (I would include the brilliant Touch, which I read – and loved – last year, but though written in the 1970s, that one wasn't actually published until 1987.) Maybe it was the surface glamour of the thing, from its title to its choice of locales – sunny Puerto Rico and the bright shiny lights of Atlantic City's casinos, a far cry from the urban grit of Leonard's Detroit stories and his laconically sun-drenched but still low rent Florida tales.

Certainly the story is in keeping with previous novels, taking the form of a meandering but deadly game of cat-and-mouse between a typically deranged criminal, in this instance loathsome rapist and murderer Teddy Magyk, and a male lead, convalescing (after a shooting incident) Miami cop Vincent Mora, who's cut from the same cloth as prior Leonard protagonists like Bryan Hurd (Split Images) and Raymond Cruz (City Primeval). Except that Vincent can lay claim to a rather different heritage: he was originally written as a role for actor Sidney Poitier.

As Gregg Sutter explains in his article, Glitz actually began life as a script for a sequel to Poitier's 1967 film In the Heat of the Night. Leonard was hired to work on Shaft author Ernest Tidyman's initial treatment, which had been deemed "too much like the original book and movie", but as the screenplay developed, the notion of the film being a sequel was dropped and Poitier's character became first a Philadelphia cop "drawn into conflict with people in high places", then either an "Atlantic City cop" or "a homicide investigator for Atlantic County", and finally "Vincent Mora, a retired Detroit cop living in San Juan, Puerto Rico". At which point, Poitier realised "the movie was turning into a book", and told Leonard to "Go write a book". Which Leonard did.

None of which, I realise, explains why Glitz became such a huge bestseller, but it's an interesting bit of backstory at least.

The copy of Glitz pictured in this post is a 1985 British Viking first edition of the book – as opposed to the 1985 American Arbor House first edition – which I picked up in Colin Page Antiquarian Books in Brighton last year for a fiver. It was part of a big collection of crime fiction the bookshop had only just bought in and put on the shelves – as mentioned in this Patricia Highsmith post in September – and which also included a British first edition of Elmore Leonard's next novel, which I also bought for a fiver – a novel which like Glitz started life as an idea for a film: Bandits (1987).

NB: Proffered for this Friday's Forgotten Books roundup.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Desmond Cory's Mr. Pilgrim in Pilgrim at the Gate and Pilgrim on the Island (Muller, 1958 / 1959)

I've read just over half a dozen Desmond Cory novels since I first came across the somewhat overlooked thriller writer four years ago – largely entries in his Johnny Fedora spy series – and while I've enjoyed all of them, none have been quite up there with the first Cory I read, the beautifully written, curiously languid Undertow (the twelfth Fedora instalment, and the first in the Feramantov quintet). The early Corys I've tried – Secret Ministry (1951), Intrigue (1954) – have been pacy enough (almost madcap in the case of Secret Ministry), while the later ones – Hammerhead (1963), Feramontov (1966) – have been dense and quite compelling... but they haven't been Undertow – by definition, obviously, but also in terms of literary accomplishment.

And then I read the two novels featuring lesser known Cory protagonist Mr. Pilgrim: Pilgrim at the Gate (Muller, 1958) and Pilgrim on the Island (Muller, 1959). I'd been wanting to try them for a while and actually laid my hands on a very nice, inexpensive first edition of Pilgrim on the Island three years ago, but Pilgrim at the Gate proved rather more elusive in first (as is frequently the case with Cory novels) – until last year fellow Cory enthusiast Chris Hiscocks pointed me in the direction of a cheap ex-library copy in Australia. The copy in question is actually a Shakespeare Head edition – the Australian publishing arm of Frederick Muller – and is missing its front endpaper, but crucially it does still have its splendid S. R. Boldero-designed dust jacket (which has taken its place in Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s, alongside Boldero's jacket for Pilgrim on the Island).

For the uninitiated – which I imagine will be most people reading this post – Mr. Pilgrim is a kind of postwar Scarlet Pimpernel, except that rather than smuggling aristocrats out of France he spirits defectors out of East Germany. Or at least that's his stated MO; in fact in the first book, Pilgrim at the Gate, he has a more vengeful purpose in mind in that he's really hunting former Nazis hiding out in the East, appropriating a West Berlin travel agency set up by Nazi war criminal Egon Hoffman, Pilgrim Tours (the name being "A quaint coincidence," as Pilgrim puts it shortly before killing Hoffman) in order to facilitate this highly personal mission (Pilgrim is a concentration camp survivor).

The adventure which follows is absorbing enough, but the best things about the book are Pilgrim himself – who, by dint of his palpable absence throughout most of the novel, takes on an almost mythic countenance – and the occasional philosophical jousts – verbal and physical – he engages in when he does appear. One discussion in particular, about the German civilian population's acceptance of Nazism and how totalitarian regimes thrive on innocence, is fascinating:

"Innocence demands a closed system; demands laws it doesn't have to question. Communism is an excellent answer. Or Catholicism. Or Nazism. That's the whole point. You can accept any of these, if you accept innocence as the inevitable lot of mankind."

"Wouldn't a better word be... ignorance?"

"Oh no. Ignorance is merely lack of knowledge. But innocence implies the acceptance of a belief to the exclusion of all others; it's a lack of understanding."

Trudy took a deep breath. "The alternative, though, is not to believe in anything. To treat life purely as a question."

"Life is a question," said Mr. Pilgrim. "Innocence won't accept that awful fact. And that's why innocence is dangerous."

These philosophical and political discourses continue in the second novel, Pilgrim on the Island, which deals with Mr. Pilgrim's efforts to extract East German Under-Minister of Propaganda Otto Berendt (genuinely extract in this instance, rather than assassinate) and which is an even better book than its forbear: engrossing, deeply felt and on a literary par, I believe, with Undertow. Here, though, the subject is invariably Communism:

"Communism will succeed, though, in spite of everything you and your friends can do."

Mr. Pilgrim shrugged. "We're not so important as you suppose. Communism will succeed if the people find it satisfactory; and if they don't, it won't."

"They do find it satisfactory."

"I'm one of them," said Mr. Pilgrim. "And I don't."

Just as compelling are the political manoeuvrings Berendt becomes embroiled in as his opponents move against him – one extended sequence in a Committee meeting where Berendt realises the game is up is utterly gripping – and the practical manoeuvrings Mr. Pilgrim engages in as he tries to spirit Berendt away – whilst also simultaneously using him to identify the instigators of the coup. That the thing culminates in a Mexican standoff, with subterfuges uncovered, motives laid bare and guns pointed, is merely the delicious icing on what is by any standards an excellent – and lovingly baked – slice of espionage.

Linked in Patricia Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books round-up, 5/2/16.