By CHARLES FINCHJAN. 9, 2015
FOUR NOVELS OF THE 1970S
By Elmore Leonard
Library of America, $35.
Is Elmore Leonard a great American novelist? His advocates certainly think so, and now, in a volume edited by his longtime researcher Gregg Sutter, he has the imprimatur of the Library of America, with the full accompanying paraphernalia: the bookmark ribbon, the predictably superb chronology of life and work, the elegant cover. For all that, I think the answer is, not quite. Genuinely transcendent genre novelists, like Melville and Greene, seem to work partly from some restlessness with their forms, whereas Leonard’s novels are merely (merely!) the perfection of his — the darkly comic suspense novel, whose lineage stretches back to Hammett, forward to Paretsky.
This volume shrewdly drops us into his assured midcareer run, starting with the absorbing “Fifty-Two Pickup,” about a Detroit businessman and his blackmailers, and concluding with “The Switch,” about a housewife who manipulates her kidnappers. All four novels flawlessly capture the sad, twilight feel of the 1970s, when idealism failed into sleaze, when poverty made drug use and open sexuality an ally of violence, suddenly, instead of love. But the books rely on that violence, rather than appraise it. When there’s not a gun or a getaway car nearby, they can grow ponderous, as in the brooding outlier of the bunch, “Unknown Man No. 89,” whose treatment of alcoholism, which bedeviled the author, paradoxically flattens its characters. Leonard is best when he’s plotting something, like the serial armed robberies of “Swag” — mid-crime, nobody’s pace or voice has ever been so dazzling.
THE GETAWAY CAR
A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany
Edited by Levi Stahl
University of Chicago, paper, $18.
“This is a book for fans,” Stahl insists in his introduction — the sole misstep of his whole enterprise, because in fact this is a book for everyone, anyone who likes mystery novels or good writing or wit and passion and intelligence, regardless of their source.
Westlake was a pro. He published more than a hundred books under several names, and while many were beloved, and several became movies, none were the kind of blockbusters that keep money falling from the sky indefinitely. As a result, some of the essays here focus on the ways of a writer who works hard for a living — the state of his desk, what magazines pay. Stahl has assembled these pieces both lovingly and wisely, keeping things brisk, interspersing funny bits of ephemera (including Westlake’s recipe for tuna casserole, demand for which was, he reports, “scant and relenting”). But there’s serious work too, including a stunningly insightful history of hardboiled fiction.
Westlake was unlucky enough to live in the valley between two periods of glamour for the genre storyteller, the punchy heyday of Sam Spade and the supercollider ascendancy of Quentin Tarantino. In either of those times, larger cultural forces might have picked him up. As it is, he had a hardworking, prolific, quietish career. His understanding of that — “The work was very important but at the same time it didn’t matter at all,” he writes in an impeccable short essay about Charles Willeford — adds gravity to a collection one hopes will find him new readers.
IN THE COMPANY OF SHERLOCK HOLMES
Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon
Edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger
Pegasus Crime, $24.95.
These short stories were “inspired by” Arthur Conan Doyle’s own, rather than written in his style, and thank goodness for that. For one thing, very fine writers indeed, from Caleb Carr to Michael Chabon, have foundered on those shoals; for another, it’s high time to take a stand against all these ersatz Wodehouse and Christie and Sayers “homages,” by which publishers have remorselessly commoditized the uncritical love so many of us bear for some of the last century’s least imitable writers. This book’s wiser editorial brief offers a wide latitude: Sara Paretsky contributes an excellent feminist pastiche, Gahan Wilson some amusing cartoons, Andrew Grant a whimsical social-media update of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” Jeffery Deaver a well-constructed tale about a man who idolizes not Holmes but Moriarty. There are lesser moments, inevitably, as when Michael Connelly has his noir detective Harry Bosch meet an observant deputy coroner named Art Doyle, which is perhaps not the flight of sparkling slyness Connelly believes. John Lescroart’s tale of Holmes at Dunkirk drags on and on.
In general, though, this is a sharp, affectionate, light-footed collection. It’s graced by the presence of the Holmes scholar Leslie S. Klinger, who not long ago produced an indispensably wonderful annotated edition of the entire canon. That book is worth reading, oh, 40 or 50 times. By then you might be in the mood for a slight change of pace, and ready for these stories.
THE WORLD OF RAYMOND CHANDLER
In His Own Words
Edited by Barry Day
Raymond Chandler is a bit like Rimbaud: a great artist who left behind no great art. The plot of his most famous book, “The Big Sleep,” makes no sense, as he admitted himself, and none of his novels hold up — their characters thin, their wisecracking growing quickly stale, unless you happen to adore wisecracking. Yet Joan Didion might not exist without him, or Bret Easton Ellis, or, in the present moment, a writer like Dana Spiotta. What he bequeathed them was the idea of existential weariness as the essential idiom of modern life. And glittering, empty Los Angeles as the place it lived.
In this terrific one-man oral history, Day allows Chandler to elucidate that vision himself. He was a penetrating, thwarted, breathtakingly intelligent person. War made him. “Once you have had to lead a platoon into direct machine-gun fire, nothing is ever the same,” he said, and his famous proxy, Philip Marlowe, whose evanescent victories can’t forestall the next senseless act of cruelty, generalized that sorrow for a generation that longed to know other people felt it too. In the process, Chandler remade crime fiction, which had until then been essentially a genre of reassurance.
Chandler was full of witticisms about women and cops, but what shine are his thoughts on writing and Hollywood. “The motion picture,” he remarked, “is a great industry, as well as a defeated art.” Chandler himself was no different: greatly industrious and a defeated artist. Battered by history, he cultivated a minor virtuosity, understood its limitations and made of it something that has lasted anyway.
Charles Finch’s novels include “The Last Enchantments” and “The Laws of Murder.”
A version of this review appears in print on January 11, 2015, on page BR26 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Masters of Crime.