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.