52 Pick-up by Elmore Leonard – book review
Flawed but highly readable early crime thriller by the daddy of naturalistic dialogue
Local businessman Harry Mitchell is the respectable, hard-working boss of a small Detroit engineering company. Happily married to his wife Barbara for twenty-two years, he has a mid-life crisis affair with a young model from a nudie bar. Turns out the model works for some local hoods who start blackmailing Mitchell, threatening to expose him if he doesn’t pay them large. That’s where the novel starts. The main storyline is about how Mitchell handles his predicament.
As you would expect from Leonard, even though this was one of his earlier books written in the 70s, it cracks along at a fair old pace. The characters’ dialogue is trademark Leonard – sharp, witty and believable. Leonard had the best ear for realistic urban dialogue of almost any writer I know. He was also a great believer in ‘taking out the boring bits’ – long narrative descriptions which slow the story down. In 52 Pick-up he pares those back to a few sparse details about drugs, guns, and engineering processes necessary to give the story ballast and credibility. But in terms of pacing a story, Leonard is still the gold standard. Any writer starting out would learn more from simply reading his work than they’d get from a lifetime of Creative Writing class.
Okay, now to the main flaw of 52 Pick-up, as I saw it. The blurb on Amazon says, “But they’ve picked the wrong man, because Harry Mitchell doesn’t get mad – he gets even,” and for me that was the main weakness of the book, in terms of the implausibility of the hero’s go-it-alone actions. At several points in the story, especially the beginning, you are yelling at Harry Mitchell to simply go tell the police. Job done. Then of course Leonard wouldn’t have a book. Which is fair enough, but Leonard never really solves the implausibility problem, or gives us a believable enough reason why Harry Mitchell wouldn’t go to the cops. There’s a slim bit of back story about his war record which attempts to convey an ‘inner steel’, but it doesn’t really explain why he’d act so irrationally. Mitchell is supposed to be an intelligent, law-abiding, self-made businessman. Yet when any sane person would want the law on their side he comes up with one phoney, half-assed excuse after another why he needs to do it ‘his way’. The most plausible reason of all – to keep it secret so his wife doesn’t find out – is discarded less than a quarter of the way into the book. After that, his continued pig-headedness is never really justified, from the reader’s point of view. Go. Tell. The. Police. You keep saying it to yourself, on every page.
Also, the way Mitchell reacts to horrifying events like murder, rape, having a burglar in your bedroom or a gun pointed at you, without even breaking sweat, just doesn’t ring true. His macho cock-suredness lacks the vulnerability, for instance, that gave the Paul Kersey vigilante his credibility in Death Wish. It also leads, ultimately, to a frankly unbelievable denouement at the end of 52 Pick-up. Without giving away too much (mild spoiler alert!) the author asks us to believe in ‘happy ever after’, when in reality the ramifications of Harry Mitchell’s actions at the end of the novel would have been catastrophic for his future – his liberty, his marriage, his family, his business, his reputation – all the things supposed to be most precious to him.
Despite these flaws in a relatively early Leonard book, I still enjoyed reading it. The story never flagged and the suspenseful end to every chapter left me eager to read the next. I’d probably sum it up best by saying I’d rather read a bad book by Elmore Leonard than a good one by a lesser writer. 52 Pick-up fits that description perfectly.by