Lives of Crime

Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1970’s.  Unknown Man No. 89, The Switch.  Library of America.  809 pp.  $37.50.

I’ve begun to decide—as I read one Elmore Leonard novel after another (that’s one of the advantages of the Library of America; you get to soak yourself in a single writer) that he wasn’t a crime novelist so much as a novelist of the criminal classes.  He wrote about people who live outside the law, but often wrote about their ordinary lives.  We spend half of Swag hearing about how Stick and Frank hang around this great apartment they have, inviting the “girls” from down at the pool up for drinks and seeing if they can get lucky.  There’s a prostitute who lives next door, and through the wall they hear her exclamations of passion to please clients.  Frank does better with women than Stick, who finally gives in and makes a date with the prostitute.  She moans the same damn things he’s been hearing through the wall.

Unknown Man No. 89 is about a process server, a guy named Ryan who takes a certain pride in his work and his ability to get it done.  He’s not a criminal at first, just a guy who can find people and hand them papers without getting himself killed.  Eventually a man hires him just to find somebody—forget about the papers—and that’s how he gets involved in a con.  This Mr. Perez has a business where he finds people who have inherited money but don’t know it, and he gives them the information if they give him a cut.  The guy he wants Ryan to contact is a criminal himself, an extremely violent man named Bobby Lear who had robbed a bank a few years before and whom one of his accomplices is also trying to find.  Ryan tries to locate the man through his girlfriend, a young woman named Lee.  That slows the plot almost to a stop.

Lee is a drunk, sits around bars all day stupefied, one drink and cigarette after another.  Ryan—we soon become aware—is himself a recovering alcoholic and understands what she’s going through.  What follows is one of the most interesting portrayals of addiction and recovery I’ve read.  It isn’t always pretty, and the two of them aren’t always good, even Ryan.  But they face the problem head on.

Leonard wrote the book around the time he gave up drinking, on January 24, 1977, at the age of 51.  He’d been a successful novelist for years—not the first productive novelist to be an alcoholic—but thought his work improved after he quit.  He made a fascinating statement about that.  “By then I was in AA and perhaps not taking myself so seriously.  I do think my writing began to improve at this time, mainly because I wasn’t taking the writing so seriously, either.  I learned to relax and not think of it as writing.”

It wasn’t as if Ryan and Lee’s only problem was booze.  She still had that extremely brutal boyfriend to worry about, and various violent and treacherous guys who were trying to get the money owed to the guy, a considerable sum.  But to me the most interesting part of the novel was their developing relationship and their struggles with booze.  The book was quite romantic, at least when the bullets weren’t flying.  And it was a touching story, even if—as the expression goes—these people had made some unfortunate choices in the past.

There’s a shooting in a bar in the middle of that book that is incredibly suspenseful and violent.  It made me want a drink.

The Switch, I would say, is Leonard’s attempt at a feminist novel.  I say that with a perfectly straight face.  It wasn’t entirely successful.  But as a crime novel, a comic crime novel, it’s a winner.

Leonard makes the precarious move in this book of leaving the porn shops and the gentleman’s bars and the sleazy apartments that have populated his earlier novels, and entering the Detroit country club scene.  Mickey Dawson is the wife of a golf champion and businessman and all around turd named Frank.  He’s a drunk, like Lee, but not a repentant one (and if the number of drinks that folks put down in both of these books is anything like realistic, I haven’t spent much time with true alcoholics).  He’s rotten to his wife.  She’s sweet by nature, also has trouble asserting herself, even saying what she wants.  She doesn’t exactly love Frank, but she’s got a good life and the two of them have a son, whom she adores.  She doesn’t want to rock the boat.

Frank has been buying up real estate and furnishing apartments with stolen goods, devising various tax breaks as he does so.  That’s fine, except that he’s been dealing with criminals, and they have some idea of what he’s worth (which is more than we can say for Mickey.  He’d never tell her).  They get the idea of kidnapping her and holding her for the considerable ransom Frank’s able to pay.  They do that on the day when Frank is going to his place in Florida to see his much younger girlfriend.  It’s also the weekend when he’s decided to serve Mickey with divorce papers.  The papers can’t be served—even Ryan wouldn’t have been able to serve them—because she’s been kidnapped.

This—in case you hadn’t noticed all the mishaps—is a comedy, more like Swag than like Unknown Man No. 89.  A woman critic in the Detroit Free Press criticized the book for its portrayal of women, saying, “Leonard’s sexual attitudes are about as liberated as Mickey Spillane’s.  Even in a book that purports partly to be about a woman’s self-discovery, the women are defined mostly in terms of their physical attributes.”  I’d read that remark before I’d read the novel, and I honestly don’t think it’s fair.  There’s a lot in the novel about Mickey’s internal struggles (it hurts when kidnappers say deliver the money or you’ll never see your wife again, and your husband promptly does nothing), and while I didn’t find that portrayal terribly realistic—Leonard didn’t seem to know women from the inside (though that critic’s remarks made him resolve to do better)—he was at least in there trying.

The problem in the novel—if it’s a problem, which I don’t necessarily think it is—is that the girlfriend, a shrewd, scheming, sexy, liberated woman by the name of Melanie, is far more interesting than Mickey, partly because she’s such a schemer.  She lets us see that Frank is a lot dumber than he seems—another middle-aged man with delusions about a younger woman—and she inserts herself into the action in a way we never expected.  She can teach Mickey a thing or two about being assertive.  Mickey, to her credit, learns.

            We don’t find out what the actual Switch is until the very last scene, at least I didn’t.  The ending was as funny and surprising as the whole book.