Despite absolutely adoring a television series based on one of his stories, I’d never read a novel by crime-fiction maestro Elmore Leonard. My only exposure to the Edgar Award-winning writer was a short in an anthology whose name I can’t even remember. Bad form for anyone with even a passing interest in the genre. It was time to remedy that deficiency in my reading, so I selected 52 Pick-Up, a Leonard thriller that’s considered by the folks at Litreactor to be one of his best.
Harry Mitchell is a hard worker, a self-made man, a manufacturing force in Detroit, and a decorated war veteran. He’s also dedicated to his wife, Barbara. Well, at least most of the time. For the past three months, he’s enjoyed a fling with a young stripper named Cini, his first ever infidelity. He feels guilty about it, worried that his wandering could one day become known. He’s right to worry. In fact, he has no idea how bad it’s going to get. One night when he goes to meet Cini, he finds three masked men in her apartment. They force him to sit and watch a home movie—a movie that unambiguously proves Mitchell is having an affair. If he doesn’t fork over $150,000 or tries to go to the police, they’ll make sure the papers get hold of it. Mitchell doesn’t plan on doing either. Instead, he’s going to dive into a world of smut, blackmail, and murder to dish out his own very private brand of justice.
52 Pickup was published in 1974, and it shows. That’s not to say it’s a bad book. Leonard’s style is spare as a scraped bone, the kind of verbiage you don’t mind calling Hemingwayesque, and it works well. Deadpan dialogue defines characters as much as descriptions do, sometimes menacing and sometimes droll. Unfortunately, time has sapped the plot’s dramatic bits of their impact. We know the bad guys are going to quickly up the ante. We know that Mitchell is going to play them against one another. We know they’ll threaten his family at some point. And if you pay the least bit of attention to a couple of seemingly throwaway scenes, you know exactly how the novel will end. None of this is Leonard’s fault. Lay the blame, rather, at the foot of genre hacks and Hollywood. But if pop culture has stolen Leonard’s tropes, you can’t say the same for 52 Pick-Up’s moral compass. It doesn’t set out to make A Big Statement, but the degree to which it assumes monogamy should be a social norm and the circumspection with which it handles rough content (of which there is plenty) is refreshing. Ultimately, 52 Pick-Up never falls to the ground.
(Picture: CC 2009 by CitySkylineSouvenir)