Commentary Magazine


Glitz, by Elmore Leonard; Briarpatch, by Ross Thomas

Hard Guys & Heroes

Glitz.
by Elmore Leonard.
Arbor House. 251 pp. $14.95.

Briarpatch.
by Ross Thomas.
Simon & Schuster. 332 pp. $15.95.

After eighteen novels written over the course of three decades, Elmore Leonard, who lives and writes in a suburb north of Detroit, has made it big with Glitz, a novel about a policeman, a psychopathic criminal, two beautiful women, and Atlantic City gangsters. His previous books were paperback originals, but this one is near the top of the hard-cover best-seller list, it is a book-club selection, and it is receiving favorable reviews just about everywhere, except where it is getting raves.

Less spectacular is the success of Ross Thomas, a resident of Malibu, California, whose twentieth novel (including five written under the pseudonym Oliver Bleeck), Briarpatch, also is winning its author many new readers. In recent years Thomas has begun to surface from what might be called the obscure glory of a devoted cult following, and each of his last few books has been a contender for best-sellerdom, attracting increasingly widespread, and favorable, reviews.

Although both Leonard and Thomas deserve the recognition, if not necessarly the uncritical adulation, they are receiving, neither new novel is truly representative of its author's best work. Glitz is mediocre by the standards Leonard set in his brutal documentary novels of 1970's Detroit, when the city acquired its reputation as a case-study of urban failure and the murder capital of the nation; Briarpatch is driven by Thomas's characteristically mordant wit and romantic sorrowfulness, but it lacks the exuberant verve and zany inventiveness of his better work.

A crime writer is perennially faced with a choice between, on the one hand, circling around and around a carefully plotted mystery (à la Raymond Chandler) and, on the other hand, painstakingly describing the overlapping zones of the criminal-justice system and the underworld (à la Dashiell Hammett). This, in fact, is one obvious point of contrast in the work of Leonard and Thomas. But important as this is, it is as nothing compared with the writer's choice of how to portray the criminal environment itself. A mystery can always be solved; why a man gets involved in one and what he discovers there about himself and others is what is interesting. That many Americans have found this a fascinating subject for stories about themselves and their cities is itself an important key to our national culture.

The culture of crime certainly fascinates Elmore Leonard; his interest in the ordinary details of the lives of the people who inhabit that culture is what has led to comparisons of him with Dickens and (by none other than George Will) Anthony Trollope. Dickensian, Leonard's novels certainly are not; their range is much too narrow. Entertaining, however, they are. Glitz, true to its title, is filled with razzle-dazzle motion, jarring dialogue, amusingly frightful characters. (Leonard may have mellowed a bit; in his earlier Detroit novels the characters are invariably appalling.)

The hero of Glitz is Lieutenant Vincent Mora of Miami. Almost always in Leonard's novels the good man is a police officer, and Mora is both a good guy and an excellent detective. But he has a small problem. In the strictest self-defense (in fact his restraint caused him to be wounded), Mora killed an armed robber and it bothers him (it is his first killing). While he is convalescing in Puerto Rico, a pathological criminal named Teddy Magyk, whom Mora had sent to jail for several years, appears, determined to seek revenge. So at the very time that Mora needs to be on his most agile toes, he is both physically and psychologically distracted. The question is, basically, who will be faster on the draw?

The answer is not surprising and it should not be. Psychotic killers do not defeat the law in Elmore Leonard. The only question is how Lt. Mora will deal with his problem.

As with all Leonard's books, there is no real plot (though in this one he indulges in some uncharacteristically incredible twists), attempts at humor are rare, the conversation is notable for its vulgarity, and the characters are detestable to the point of caricature. The climax is more or less inevitable as soon as the key characters are defined. There are no sudden reversals at the end. The simplest way of defining the underlying thesis of Glitz, as of all Elmore Leonard's work, is to say that it proves a man's got to do what he's got to do.

Leonard's portraits of the worst kinds of human wrecks, particularly the eighteen-to-thirty-year-old hard-core recidivists who, according to police statistics, commit most of the violent urban crime, are done with a documentary realism that is, unquestionably, shocking, but that also corresponds to much of the evidence about the fate that has befallen large parts of some of our cities. Leonard's popularity, at any rate, has increased as the Hobbesian view of society that his novels project has gained adherents. Even Detroit's extremely liberal mayor, Coleman Young, who is black, and who won his office by running against the police, is now trying to increase the size of the force and is demanding strict security in the schools, enforceable by searches. And it is interesting that the one Leonard criminal who is likable, Ernest Stickley (in the Detroit novel Swag [1976] and the Florida novel Stick [1983]), is pitted against the kinds of psychopaths normally taken care of without much due process by Leonard lawmen, and that Stickley takes care of them the same way they do.

Leonard is a realist in the background, one might say, and a melodramatist in the foreground. (Earlier in his career his heroes were Arizona gunslingers, and his Hombre of 1961—with a gunslinger in the role of a Christ-figure—was named one of the best Westerns of all time.) Certainly he does not mistake the utter grimness of his cityscapes for a portrait of the way we live. The moral dilemmas are not drawn as sharply as they are, for example, in Dashiell Hammett, not because Leonard fails to see them but because most of his criminals inhabit an underworld where such issues would have no meaning. The cops therefore can hardly waste time fretting over them.

_____________

This is not true of Ross Thomas's heroes, who tend to be wounded idealists, romantics after the manner of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, who believe happiness (spiritual and physical) exists but are also virtually convinced that it will always elude them.

Most Thomas heroes work, or worked at one time, for an agency of the federal government with an investigatory or national-security function. Disillusioned by the duplicity, corruption, and personal ambition they encountered, they make a pretense of having lost the patriotic feelings that originally led them into this line of work. But in the end they are decent men and do the decent thing if it can be done. If it cannot be done, or if it can be done only partly (as in Briarpatch), they at least make the right gesture.

In Briarpatch, Senate investigator Benjamin Dill's sister, a policewoman in their Middle Western home town, is murdered by a car bomb. This sets up a characteristic Thomas situation, in which most of the principal characters, including Dill's best childhood friend, now a pillar of the community, turn out to be implicated in the crime, itself only a tipoff to a larger, deeper corruption. Dill will find out who killed his sister. But since, as he will also discover, society, through its established institutions, represented by business, police, and political leaders, is ultimately responsible, his victory is seen to be partial at best.

As a matter of fact, Thomas has had a kind of love-hate relationship with the American government, or at least its national-security organs, since his early cold-war, somewhat le Carré-esque thrillers of the early 1960's. These featured two extremely likable characters, McCorkle and Padillo, who are considerably funnier than those of le Carré (who anyway is not a funny writer). A more ail-American pair could not be found, and through a series of novels they are followed from Bonn and Berlin to Washington and San Francisco. Padillo also makes a cameo appearance in Thomas's remarkable African novel, The Seersucker Whipsaw (1967).

_____________

Thomas has an insider's knowledge of an impressive number of people and things—in his case the adjective Dickensian might conceivably be appropriate—ranging from good bars and seedy ones and American sartorial customs to the dialects of American regions, politics, public relations, labor unions, cars, sports, money and the ways people come into it, interesting women and eccentric men. He fears not the psychos who inhabit Leonard's neighborhoods but the near-geniuses who think they have figured out how to make crime pay. Manipulated as long as they are useful by powerful, virtually untouchable agencies of the U.S. government, these kinds of criminals can do a lot of damage until they are themselves disposed of.

In the McCorkle and Padillo series, the redoubtable secret agencies that so obsess Thomas are still within tolerable bounds, given the conventions of the cold-war thriller. They are working in the national interest, one may presume (since it is not defined), but with few if any scruples about the means employed. Thus, in The Cold War Swap (1961), Padillo is supposed to be traded for a pair of defectors to East Germany whom the Agency wants back. But by the time of The Mordida Man (1981), a hilarious take-off on Billy Carter's misadventures with Qaddafi, and Missionary Stew (1984), which involves an all-out war between corrupt FBI and CIA officers in a Central American country, it is simply assumed that national-security agencies exist only to perpetuate their own power and influence.

Thomas's animus toward the CIA is in important respects inspired by ideology. Beneath his love of V-8 engines and traditional Brooks Brothers suits is an old-fashioned isolationism which finds its expression in a double fear: a fear of what foreign parts, with their irresistible power to attract adventurous Americans, will do to us; and a fear of what U.S. power, unrestrained or misguided, will do to them.

_____________

This political vision is accompanied by a nostalgia for a condition lost forever as a result of what Thomas sees as our international follies. In Chinaman's Chance (1978) and The Fools in Town Are on Our Side (1971), Thomas's best novels, the heroes have been shattered in Asia and they return to an America that no longer recognizes them, where they must remake their own families. The gallant and generous heroes of Chinaman's Chance, Artie Wu and Quincy Durant, have been used all their lives by the CIA, and in the person of Durant's long-lost half-brother, the Agency is also responsible for Durant's mutilation at the hands of Vietnamese Communists and the death of his fiancée. Then, at the end of the novel, he finds that the same half-brother, and his father (a CIA superspook), are now willing to kill him to protect themselves and the Agency.

But this summary of the story hardly does justice to the human passion that emerges here from the relationships that are established between Thomas's protagonists, where something approaching true tragedy takes over from the comedic conventions of the thriller. Were he able to rein in his political phobias, there would be nothing quite like his work outside of Hammett's The Glass Key, or possibly Chandler's The Long Goodbye.

Leonard's tales correspond to an abiding view of their society that Americans have expressed through their crime fiction: the streets are dangerous, but there are men strong enough to make them at least a little bit less so. Thomas's novels express a sensibility at once more anachronistic and more contemporary, the distrust of government and its ruthlessly corrupting influence. That both authors are popular today really should not surprise us.

About the Author

Roger Kaplan has written widely on French politics and on Algeria’s Islamist insurgency of the 1990’s.




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