Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

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A look back at Leonard and ‘Killshot’

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Killshot: A novel
Elmore Leonard
William Morrow Paperbacks; Reprint edition   304 pages
Originally published 1989
$11.71 paperback   $9.78 Kindle

Armand Degas, aka Blackbird, an Ojibway Indian, is a cold-blooded professional hitman taking his jobs and payments from Detroit mobsters.   He meets Richie Nix, a cheap, addle-brained crook when Nix tries to rob him. Although Degas–Bird–realizes Nix is a loose cannon, and then some, the two form a loose partnership in crime. Nix also kills people–but only when they piss him off.

Iron worker Wayne Colson and his wife Carmen become the two killers’ targets in Elmore Leonard’s acclaimed Killshot. The essence of the story is simply a chase: two killers versus two seemingly ill-fated citizens. Simple in concept, elegant in execution, Killshot is a character-driven story about four diverse people who you will come to know well. In Leonard’s hands, the four become real as the author fleshes out the complex relationships between Wayne and Carmen and Bird and Nix.

When Leonard died late last year, he had written nearly 50 novels. He first wrote westerns, such as The 3:10 to Yuma, but when the genre started to fade, he turned to crime. In Leonard’s obituary, Los Angeles Times writer Dennis McLellan said the author, “populated his novels with con men, hustlers and killers, with names like Chili, Stick and Ordell. He plunged readers into a sea of urban sleaze, spiking his tales with mordant humor and moral ambivalence.”

Killshot fits this description. Most of the story takes place in dreary marshland in southern Michigan near the Canadian border.  While the killers are adept at dispatching folks, the various law enforcement representatives provide the Coulsons little solace or effective protection. In fact, one member of the U.S. Marshals Service becomes a menace.Killshot

I prefer mysteries to straight crime novels, but I’d never read Leonard and the news of his passing brought a variety of stories about his work. I chose Killshot as it was recommended by several sources as one of Leonard’s best. It’s a gripping, nuanced tale of love, fear, vengeance, death, and the responsibilities we owe to those we love and to others.   The killers are developed characters and Coulsons are not your usual terrified quarries.

The ending of the novel is reminiscent of the final scene in a popular 1996 crime film (unrelated to Killshot). It’s a suitable, agreeable ending as it solidifies our image of Wayne and Carmen and original because the novel predates the film by seven years.

A look back at Elmore Leonard,          America’s best crime writer?

Elmore Leonard’s death last year sparked a wave of, not only glowing obituaries, but retrospective articles on his large body of work.  When he died in August, he was working on his 46th novel.  If you’re not familiar with him, several recent articles in print and online provide a good introduction and suggestions for reading (and viewing) Leonard’s work.

Identified as a crime writer–and before that a writer of westerns–Leonard transcended genres, some reviewers say, raising his literary esteem several notches.

“Many critics argued that, if anything, the reference to the genre slighted his contributions,” says Christopher Orr in the current issue of The Atlantic.  “Martin Amis described him as ‘a literary genius’ and ‘the nearest America has to a national writer,’” says Orr.

Born in New Orleans, Leonard and his family moved to Detroit where he went to school and graduated from the University of Detroit with a degree in English and philosophy.  From there he became an advertising copywriter until his novels started to pay off.  He began writing westerns, but as the popularity of that genre faded in the late 1960s, he switched to crime, the territory for which he’s best known.Elmore Leonard

Sidestepping the crime novels, a New York Times Magazine article at the end 2013 focused on the westerns.   Had the market for westerns not dried up, writes Charles McGrath, Leonard might have continued with them for the rest of his career.

“Leonard’s westerns are not just good for their kind.  They’re good, period: spare, taut, soundly constructed,” says McGrath.

“Leonard’s goal, unlike that of so many self-consciously literary young men back then, was not The New Yorker but The Saturday Evening Post, which paid better and was read by more people,” McGrath writes.  “He cracked it only once, in April 1956, with a story called Moment of Vengeance.”

Many of Leonard’s stories and novels, including the westerns, became motion pictures, but, says Orr in The Atlantic, many of the movies were bad.

“If the sheer number of Leonard adaptations is remarkable, what is more remarkable still is how few of them are any good,” he says.

In his seemingly overly critical analysis, Orr says that the early movie adaptations of his–“3:10 to Yuma,” “The Tall T,” “Hombre”–were successful but that when Leonard turned to crime writing, “studios lost their knack for translating him to the screen.”

More than two dozen movies were based on Leonard’s books.  They provide plenty of raw material for criticism.  Orr praises the successful “Get Shorty” as one of the best and its sequel, “Be Cool,” as one of the failures.

“Get Shorty” is surely one of his most popular and critically acclaimed novels, not a bad place to start reading. For other suggestions, two recent online articles, one in the Huffington Post and another on Litreactor.com, list Leonard’s “ten best.”  Eight of his books, including “Get Shorty,” “52 Pickup” and “Killshot” appear on both lists.

Hyperlinks:

The Elmore Leonard Paradox by Christopher Orr   The Atlantic  

 Leonard obit by Charles McGrath in New York Times Magazine

 Huff Post picks ten best Leonard novels

 Mini reviews of 10 best Leonard novels in Litreactor.com  

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