Monday, December 24, 2012

Elmore Leonard hits a bullseye with Killshot

A novel by Elmore Leonard
(1989, William Morrow and Company, Inc.)

Elmore Leonard has been writing novels since the 1950s and is widely considered to be America’s pre-eminent crime novelist. After reading only my second Leonard novel, Killshot, it’s easy to see why he is held in such high esteem.

In Killshot, we meet a hired hit man nicknamed Blackbird (aka The Bird), who is sent from Toronto to Detroit to kill an aging mobster. After the hit, things get interesting. The Bird meets up with a not-too-bright ex-con, Richie Nix, who is about to extort $10,000 from a Michigan realtor. The plan quickly goes awry, and The Bird and Richie find themselves in deadly pursuit of the man who thwarted their plans.

Leonard is an absolute master of dialogue and fast-paced action, and in Killshot, he depicts a world that is seedy, desperate and violent, a place where hit men and ex-cons move comfortably from one act of violence to another. But with Leonard, acts of violence are a means of advancing the plot and are often infused with elements of black humour. Here is Richie holding up a convenience store:
The trick now was to do both almost at once. Richie raised the shotgun high enough to aim it at the girl and saw her drop the magazine as he said, ‘This’s your big day, honey. Empty out that cash drawer for me in a paper bag and set it on the counter. And some gum. Gimme a few packs of that bubble gum, too.’
Richie is always chewing gum and blowing bubbles, a characteristic that adds a comic element to his psychopathic nature. He also spends a good deal of time jabbering away and getting under the Bird’s skin. The uneasy relationship between these two outsiders is fraught with tension, laughter, and suspense.

But it’s not just the criminals and misfits that Leonard portrays so brilliantly. The two characters drawn into this bizarre plot, Wayne and Carmen Colson, are a middle-aged married couple on the straight and narrow, who work hard and love each other, but who are drawn into a deadly cat and mouse game against their will.  Wayne and Carmen are forced into survival mode to elude their trackers, and as the story unfolds, the chemistry between them is just as full of subtlety and nuance as the chemistry between the Bird and Richie.

The pacing of Killshot is quick and frenetic. Leonard is great at building suspense through non-stop action and concise dialogue. For anyone who has not read Elmore Leonard, Killshot is a great place to start. This novel demonstrates the author’s skill at developing believable characters and throwing them into circumstances that are beyond their control, with tragic-comic results.

It’s definitely worth a read.

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