Master Craftsman Having Fun

Four Novels of the 1980’s: City Primeval, LaBrava, Glitz, Freaky Deaky by Elmore Leonard.  Library of America.  1010 pp.  $37.50.

Elmore Leonard began to relax into his craft when he entered the decade of the eighties, when he would turn 60.  He had stopped drinking, for one thing, spoke openly about how that affected him.  He was also starting to get major recognition, and make a lot of money.  His settings wandered from his native Detroit to places where he’d vacationed, like Miami and Atlantic City.  And he began to write scenes that might not have appeared in his earlier work.

Early in Freaky Deaky, for instance—said to have been his own favorite among his novels—a cop named Chris Mankowski is transferring from the bomb squad to some other department, maybe homicide, maybe sex crimes, and has a long interview with a police psychologist, who is trying to figure out if he has some hidden motivation for the switch.  The scene doesn’t add to the plot at all.  But it’s biting about the psychiatrist and revealing about Chris’ intelligence.  It’s also hilarious.

I’m a little surprised, perhaps mildly embarrassed, to have finished my eighth Leonard novel in a matter of weeks, with another Library of America volume waiting in the wings.  I consider myself a serious reader, often reflect on the fact that I don’t know how much reading time I have left.  There are major classics I still haven’t tackled.  But the sheer delight of being sunk into one of these Library of America Leonard volumes is not to be underestimated.  I look forward to getting home and reading every evening.  I’m never disappointed.

I can understand how Freaky Deaky was a favorite (though the title grates on me, I must say).  It marked a return to Detroit, for one thing (the name Mankowski was your first clue[1]).  It also takes a nostalgic look at the Sixties, though Leonard was too old to be a flower child during that decade.  Two aging radicals, Robin Abbott and Skip Gibbs, have gotten out of jail and made their way back to the city of their earlier triumphs.  Skip was a bomb expert, and Robin a general nay-sayer, opposed to everything except empty hedonism and manipulating human beings.  In every one of these novels from the Eighties, there is at least one character who is utterly immoral, a psycho- or socio-path (in LaBrava there’s a character who kills a man because he cut him off on traffic.  That the victim happens to be a judge is just an added bonus).  In Freaky Deaky there are two such people.  Leonard doesn’t analyze or try to understand them.  He portrays them in all their cold-bloodedness.

Robin and Skip have come back to Detroit because there are a pair of brothers there—Woody and Mark Ricks—whom they knew back in the Sixties, when they were all student radicals.  Woody and Mark are heirs to a vast fortune, a hundred million dollars, that the radicals had tapped even back in the old days, when the boy’s mother was in charge.  Now Woody is the official heir, and if Robin and Skip are amoral, Woody is an alcoholic slob, drinking heavily from morning to night, eating junk, pawing at women.  Early on in the story he rapes a woman named Greta who was hoping to talk about a job in a movie.  If Woody has a defense, it would probably be that he was so blitzed out of his mind that he didn’t know rape from consent.  Leonard’s characters are often major boozers, as if he’s looking at what might have been.  Woody is the worst.

He therefore seems an easy mark for Robin and Skip.  All they have to do is get him to transfer some money from his trust fund and sign a check.  The sky’s the limit, though they settle on a fairly modest $1.7 million (they can always come back next year).  They have to split the take with Donnell, the ex-Black Panther who takes care of Woody.  He is yet another in a long string of entertaining African American characters in these eighties novels.  He’s smart, savvy, and actually does a huge amount of work taking care of this white whale.  He won’t be outsmarted by Robin and Skip, but is willing to work with them if he gets his share (and it’s bigger than theirs).

Into the middle of this mess walk Greta (trying to get reparations for the rape) and our friend Chris, who has indeed transferred to sex crimes but who also has a knowledge of bombs.  It is through the use of bombs, and the threat of their use, that Skip and Robin are working on Donnell and Woody.  Chris happens to know all about bombs, and is as savvy as anyone.  He’s also—a no no for a cop in his situation—in love with Greta.  But that becomes okay when he gets suspended from the force for living outside the city limits.

I would agree that Freaky Deaky is the most entertaining of the novels in this volume, also the most nerve-wracking (those bombs go off when you least expect them to).  But it’s a close call with Glitz, set in a nostalgic Atlantic City, and LaBrava, in Miami.  I would rank these books in reverse order of their composition, which leaves me looking forward to the next volume even more.  I enjoy reading them as much as he enjoyed writing them.

[1] I can say that because my daughter in law is Polish and from Detroit.  She has a lot of stories.