By Elmore Leonard
I am in the middle of my own personal reading challenge. I didn't mention this in the previous blogpost because I was too busy getting pseudo-academic on the subject of Ernest Hemingway (I insist on using the "pseudo" prefix because A) I drink rather heavily while writing and B) even if I weren't, I rarely know what I'm talking about). It wasn't planned. It's not particularly organized and I didn't invite other bloggers to participate, though you are more than welcome to hop aboard if you wish.
From now until Christmas I plan on reading as many novels by notable authors that I have previously never read. The first in this challenge was Ernest Hemingway, an author I have somehow managed to avoid for 38 years prior to last week. Other authors officially queued up for a peek this season are Iris Murdoch, Truman Capote and Raymond Chandler. But this week I finally tackled an author I've been dying to read for a few decades: Elmore Leonard.
As I am sure I have mentioned on more than one occasion on this blog, one of my favorite sites on the web is The Onion's AV Club. For anyone who takes popular culture seriously, it is an invaluable resource for books, film, music and games, both old and new. One of my favorite columns on the AV Club is something called Gateway to Geekery, which provides step-by-step tutorials for Johnny-Come-Latelys who would like to get into the work of prolific artists. For example, perhaps you are interested in exploring Lou Reed's discography but you feel hopelessly intimidated by the sheer volume of material. Where do you start? Gateway to Geekery is there to help lest you make the mistake of picking up a copy of Metal Machine Music.
Anyway, I wish there was a Gateway to Geekery article available to anyone late to the Elmore Leonard Party because I'm pretty sure they would have advised me against reading Killshot.
Killshot is mid-career novel by Elmore Leonard. Written in 1989, it is the story of Wayne Colson and his wife, Carmen who inadvertently get caught in the middle of the shakedown of Carmen's boss. After a brief physical altercation, Wayne sends Armand Degas, an Ojibway hit man, and Richie Nix, a dim-witted loose cannon away, with their tails between their legs. Degas is a professional and knows that both Wayne and Carmen have seen their faces and could positively identify them in a police line-up. He is determined to do away with Wayne and Carmen as a measure of job security and maintained anonymity. As with any novel of this sort, the police are ineffectual. Wayne and Carmen are natually forced to take matters into their own hands.
I was expecting a fast-paced novel with lots of slick-talking characters and what I got was a slow plot that seemed unsure of where to go next. It felt as if Leonard was throwing in all sorts of half-concocted ideas and ill-formed plot lines only to abandon them before they fully materialized. While the characters are indeed strong, I found it impossible to believe that a professional such as Armand Degas would have partnered up with someone as dull-witted as Richie Nix. Degas must have known upon meeting this half-wit that doing any sort of business with him was going to end in disaster and it's not like they were forced to work together. Furthermore, Degas could have dissolved their partnership at any time. So why does he let such an unstable partner continue to live despite his erratic behavior? Degas's motivations remained concealed throughout and that weakened the novel considerably.
Furthermore, the legendary dialog that I expected from Leonard never really materialized. The dialog was by no means awful, but given what I had heard about his ability to write a conversation, I was decidedly underwhelmed. It is possible that it was built up too much prior to reading, but I found that the dialog in Killshot is a far cry from the brilliant work of Richard Price. Perhaps I picked the wrong book.
One area in which this book excels is Leonard's exploration of the theme of security. Leonard takes aim at the myth that we can insulate ourselves from crime and violence via various methods of self defense (in this case firearms and police protection but it could extend to more contemporary methods such as video surveillance, home security firms etc...). The fact of the matter is that security is a complete myth. The amount of time, money and effort we put into security does not directly translate into a more secured existence. In fact, it is impossible to protect ourselves from anything or anyone if that thing or person is determined to get you. Leonard did a fine job of expressing this from both the perspective of the terrorized Colson couple trying to protect themselves from would-be killers and Armand Degas, a professional killer trying to protect his anonymity.
Unfortunately the themes of the novel are not enough to carry the slow, meandering plot. Killshot had the makings of a decent novel but too many weird directions and loose ends makes it feel like an unfinished idea rather than a fully actualized novel. Given Elmore Leonard's reputation and his sheer volume of work, I will definitely give him another chance (though I am going to solicit recommendations before I jump into another title).