Book #3: Unknown Man #89, Elmore Leonard

I’m an Elmore Leonard fan and as a teenager I spent a lot of hours hanging with his eccentric underdogs, small-time crooks, and their off-kilter dialogue. But this 1977 story of Detroit process server Jack Ryan's search for a missing man ("Unknown Man #89") reminded me that at times, Elmore Leonard can be overrated. This one came off like a rehash (in this case I guess a "prehash") of 1992’s Rum Punch (adapted by Quentin Tarantino into Jackie Brown - my favourite Tarantino flick by far). Unknown Man felt like a cheap Rum Punch switcheroo. In Unknown Man it's process server Jack Ryan, in Rum Punch it's bail bondsman Max Cherry; Unknown Man has colourful badass-thug Virgil Royal, Rum Punch has Ordell Robbie - the woman who becomes the partner-in-crime in Unknown Man is Denise Leary and in Rum Punch it's Jackie (Burke in the book and Brown in Tarantino’s movie after Foxy Brown). Perhaps Tarantino has blurred by judgement by making such a great film of Rum Punch. The truth is, I haven't read it since I was a kid. If Hitchcock had lived to make his 54th film, which according to Truffaut was going to be an adaptation of Unknown Man #89, maybe he'd've taken the same kinds of liberties Tarantino took with Rum Punch (who made Ordell Robbie black and played by Samuel L. Jackson, turned Burke to Brown for Pam Grier, etc.) that make Jackie Brown such a standout. But we'll never know, and Unknown Man #89, despite being published 15 years before Rum Punch, still reads like a repeat.  

A related recommendation: The Friends of Eddie Coyle, by George V. Higgins. I read this in Mexico over New Year’s 2015, and if you’re into top-drawer crime fiction, Higgins has the style and substance. The story of ageing, low-level Boston hood Eddie Coyle is revealed almost entirely through overheard dialogue, and the best of its kind I’ve ever read. Higgins was a Boston lawyer, journalist, and newspaper columnist who apparently wrote 14 novels before his “debut” (he destroyed the first 14), and it shows. Badass.

2 comments

  • Leah Adams

    Leah Adams Seattle

    I was wondering how you would approach books that disappointed you after so many years waiting to be read.

    I was wondering how you would approach books that disappointed you after so many years waiting to be read.

  • Corin Raymond

    Corin Raymond

    Hey Leah, yeah, I brought this book on the trip because it was a small, disposable, and an easy read - and I went in knowing that it was a lesser-known book by a prolific formula-writer who isn't known for three-dimensional characters. Elmore Leonard came up in the world of pulp - before turning his gifts to modern day crime fiction he produced a lot of westerns (The 3:10 to Yuma, for instance, which has been adapted twice into films I love - have you seen either of those?), and I would argue that he never really stopped being a pulp writer - but he became one of the best there ever was. I may never recover the teenage thrills that his stories gave me (not that I've given up on him or anything), but I was especially surprised to see how similar, and pale by comparison this one was to Rum Punch. More irretrievable highs to come!

    Hey Leah, yeah, I brought this book on the trip because it was a small, disposable, and an easy read - and I went in knowing that it was a lesser-known book by a prolific formula-writer who isn't known for three-dimensional characters. Elmore Leonard came up in the world of pulp - before turning his gifts to modern day crime fiction he produced a lot of westerns (The 3:10 to Yuma, for instance, which has been adapted twice into films I love - have you seen either of those?), and I would argue that he never really stopped being a pulp writer - but he became one of the best there ever was. I may never recover the teenage thrills that his stories gave me (not that I've given up on him or anything), but I was especially surprised to see how similar, and pale by comparison this one was to Rum Punch. More irretrievable highs to come!

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