Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Review: Riding the Rap by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard writes crime thrillers like no-one's business. It's what he does. You may not have read him, but you'd know his works: Get Shorty, Be Cool, Out of Sight, Jackie Brown and 3:10 to Yuma are all films adapted from his works. And now at 85 he hasn't eased into retirement but maintained a keen ear for the patois that sharps, shylocks, grifters and bad guys use. Riding the Rap (though published before Out of Sight) only confirms his reputation from prior works: the man can tell a story.

There are several continuities between many of his novels. It's strange a lot of his stories take place in Florida given Leonard himself is a Detroit native and bears the reputation as that city's "Dickens": as in Out of Sight, Get Shorty and Riding's predecessor Pronto, Florida features heavily in the narrative. And like many of his other works, Riding features bumbling crooks with a simple plan which gets twisted and are forced to improvise. It's been said none of Leonard's characters are ever truly "good" guys - all have dark sides - and this rings true here; but like his most famous creations Chili Palmer and Karen Sisco, the main source for good is an implacable, indomitable hero exuding control and menace without outwardly trying.

It's not formulaic, but neither does it have the charm which made Get Shorty such a readable book, nor the humour and balance which appealed in Be Cool (believe it or not, the movie didn't do justice to the novel). Character identification is tough in many of Leonard's novels as - personally speaking anyway - I don't know any US Marshalls, Puerto Rican ex-cons, psychics, Arabian Bahamians or 50-year old stoners. That doesn't matter though, because even though it's difficult to like any of the characters, they are believable and each comes with their own form of dialogue, diction and most crucially, motives. Perhaps the author's greatest ability is making readers believe that even though his characters are pastiches, real people are out there just like them - smart and fiery, cool and calculating or just plain dumb. Smart readers will have to deal with premonitions of the ending well before you reach it, but the pages keep turning nonetheless.

Riding the Rap by Elmore Leonard: not his best work, but still very enjoyable, meaning it scores Tennis balls.

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