by Elmore Leonard
Published by William Morrow
256 pages, 2002
Reviewed by Anthony Rainone
I have been reading Elmore Leonard for many years now, and of all the tributes paid to him, there is one in particular that gave me pause, the one proclaiming him "our greatest crime novelist." After reading Tishomingo Blues, his impressive 37th novel in a span of books dating back to 1953, this accolade is going down a lot smoother. Leonard is the reigning purveyor of cool (can you dig it, George P. Pelecanos fans?), and this novel matches, if not surpasses, any other in his body of work.
Leonard himself calls Tishomingo Blues his favorite, with good reason. The book contains plenty of Leonardisms: cool, morally ambiguous leading men inhabiting a quirky locale; beautiful and frisky women; supporting characters with personality hiccups; and bizarre, violent escalations that are only a bad temper away. Leonard writes in a Spartan, hip prose style, excised of authorial imprint, that's spot-on in capturing dialect and rhythm. And his works feature plenty of black humor that makes you laugh out loud, even at the most distressing circumstances. If you haven't read Leonard before, Tishomingo Blues will provide you with a great initiation into the brotherhood. "You got chops working now," says one character to another in this novel. Funny, just what I would say to Elmore Leonard.
While completing his previous novel, Pagan Babies, Leonard decided that he wanted to write about a high diver in his next book. As the King of Cool, he needed a cool character. A high diver lives on the edge and gets a lot of girls, which are primary characteristics of coolness, along with a slippery-slope attitude about the law. As this new story begins, Dennis Lenahan, a high-dive artist fed up with performing at amusement parks, maneuvers himself into a gig at the Tishomingo Lodge & Casino in Tunica, Mississippi, "the Casino Capital of the South." Dennis is given a two-week trial by proprietor Billy Darwin and sets up his ladder and pool next to the hotel. But while perched on his diving board one early evening, Dennis looks down to see two rednecks committing a murder. The killers see him watching, and that poses a problem for both them and Dennis.
One thing Leonard understands is that sometimes coolness is limited. After page 20, Dennis can't carry the rest of Tishomingo Blues by himself. Besides an urge to jump from 80 feet and a propensity for women, there isn't much to Dennis Lenahan, at least initially. He's a likable guy, but likable guys don't have the mojo that Leonard cultivates to fuel his stories. So, while Dennis' predicament serves as the anchor to this book, the bass line off which the author riffs the remainder of his tale, Leonard has also stuffed myriad other peculiar players into the folds of Tunica.
The story is soon picked up and put on its head by Robert Taylor, a con artist and drug wholesaler down from Detroit who has an ambitious agenda, but chooses to improvise his way to the finish line. Robert is staying at the Tishomingo Lodge and on the night of the murder, he happens to look out his hotel window and see Dennis on his perch and the two killers on the ground. Robert bumps into Dennis later on the hotel patio, compliments his diving and offers him a ride home in his "Jag-u-ar." What Robert actually knows about the murder is not clear; he has the sixth-sense of a criminal, though. He immediately recognizes the potential of involving Dennis in his larger game plan of wholesale drug moving, but doesn't get into it right away. Instead, he shows Dennis a photo of a lynched black man, claiming it's his great-grandfather and that the descendant of the man who did the lynching lives in a nearby town. Robert says he means to show the photo to Walter Kirkbride, the descendant.
Dennis is suspicious. With good reason, as it turns out. Robert is actually running a scam. Walter Kirkbride is the owner of Southern Living Village, a company that makes manufactured homes. He's also a major distributor of drugs in the area. Robert's intentions are to confuse Kirkbride ("jess messing with his head," Robert explains), get close to him, then move in on his drug distribution operation. Doing things in a matter-of-fact way is anathema to Robert; he prefers mind games. His charm and outlaw edginess not only seduce the reader, but apparently the author, as well.
Leonard is fascinated with criminals trying to figure out new goals, and it's no surprise that such a character appears here. Robert has come to Tunica to work his scams and fulfill his agenda, which includes taking part in a reenactment of the Civil War's 1864 Battle of Brice's Cross Roads. Robert is way cooler than Dennis, a fact that Leonard emphasizes by making him a connoisseur of the blues. Robert is also a former Detroit gang member. The edgy part of Robert is attracted immediately to the dangerous urges in Dennis ("... no small amount of cool, do what you do"), and Robert pulls Dennis into his machinations, though not wholly against Dennis' will:
The guy may be drawing him into something, using him, but so what; he liked the feeling of not being on his own -- standing exposed on the perch.
Leonard has stated often that he is not interested in analyzing his characters. The people who populate his books aren't put on a shrink's couch. Why a character acts in a particular way is not his concern; the mystery for Leonard is in the details of behavior, what his players are capable of doing. That's the beauty of Robert. He feeds off what is given him, alters his behavior accordingly and inspires others to act in ways that they never imagined. Leonard is a craftsman who makes deliberate choices, but he is confident enough to give way to chance happenings, to place "this" character in proximity to "that" character and see what transpires. This alchemy is what propels Tishomingo Blues, if always somewhat guided by Robert Taylor's soft touch.
The reenactment of the Battle of Brice's Cross Roads is not only an important moment for the town of Tunica, it also serves as a cauldron in which Leonard stews all the components of his syncopated plot. Robert is participating in the reenactment as a means to get closer to Kirkbride. Kirkbride and his underling thug, Arlen Novis, regularly reenact for fun. Kirkbride and Novis, together with their henchmen crew, constitute the Dixie Mafia. Although homicidal around each other, they are basically so inept, even the pretend gangsters on The Sopranos could kick their butts. Members of the Dixie Mafia all wear Confederate gray for the reenactment, which foreshadows how things ultimately turn out for them.
Another key participant in the reenactment is John Rau, with Mississippi's Criminal Investigation Bureau, who is in charge of probing the homicide that Dennis witnessed. Rau has a "reserved" manner and a "nice way of handling himself," which translates into his being honest and sincere. That doesn't bode well for Kirkbride and Novis, who are used to bribing officials to look the other way. Rau is seemingly determined to do justice.
The reenactment takes place over several days. The run-up to the battle includes cooking and craft events, and the actual fighting doesn't occur until the last day. There is a sense of barely masked symbolism woven into this reenactment. The fight doesn't merely pit South against North, but also good guys against bad guys. The "good guy" camp can properly be represented by investigator Rau, who happens to choose the Federal side in this reenactment. He is a true re-enactor who knows his stuff. The lecture he gives on salt horse and code of conduct in war to his mainly hot, mainly bored group of men is time-transposing. Rau is a diligent investigator and above corruption, but this being Tunica and an Elmore Leonard novel, Rau also has an agenda. He knows who committed the murder that Dennis witnessed. He's being slow about bringing the killers to justice, because some of the participants are taking part in dramatizing the Battle of Brice's Cross Roads; one accessory to that murder helped Rau organize the event. The fact is, those killers will do him no good busted and sitting in jail. The wheels of justice move slowly in Tunica, especially when other interests take priority.
The "bad guys" are represented by Novis, Kirkbride and the rest of their Dixie Mafia. Kirkbride recognizes how dangerous Robert is, and encourages Novis to kill not only the con man, but the Detroit gangsters who have come down to Tunica to support Robert. And the best place to undertake these murders? On the mock battlefield of the reenactment, of course. The hardest participants to nail down in terms of good and bad are Robert and his gangster buddies. They are true representatives of Leonard's moral ambiguity. Robert and his cohorts plan to eliminate the Dixie Mafia, which plays on the reader's dislike of them. It should be remembered, though, that Robert is only trying to replace them and is willing to kill, if necessary.
Leonard started out writing Westerns in the 1950s, only turning to crime fiction when the Western market dried up. Yet in Tishomingo Blues, he finds chances to revisit his creative roots. This novel's battle scenes evoke the exuberance of a man rekindling an old, missed romance:
They watched Tonto step away from Hector and Walter. They watched him pull a Navy Colt from his belt and stand looking this way, a gun in each hand.... He saw Tonto bring up both of his -- at his legs and the next second straight out in front of him firing.... Dennis ... couldn't believe what he was seeing and couldn't help thinking, Shane.
The subplots to Tishomingo Blues are long and involved, and the book begins to lose its breath three-quarters of the way through. The dramatic investment in Dennis' predicament evaporates, because everyone seems to know that he witnessed the murder, and the killers aren't even motivated to silence him. Also slowing the story's pace are the logistics of the reenactment: what type of artillery will be used by either side, which field most closely resembles the original fighting field, the care of uniforms and shoes, and other practical matters. The mechanisms of Robert's scheming take up time, too. The energy necessary to sustain the various threads of this novel consumes itself.
Were Tishomingo Blues the work of a less experienced writer, the result might be disaster. But Leonard keeps a close watch on his tale's pulse. And that pulse picks up again as the Civil War reenactment converges with the real battle that Robert must wage against Novis and Kirkbride, and as Dennis finds true love with the unlikeliest of women. Leonard has incredible pools of talent at his disposal and can write tender scenes as compelling as any of his violent ones. The chemistry and passion he creates here between lovers is compelling and honest. Robert will always be self-interested, but his caring for Anne, the wife of Robert's gangster partner, is palpable.
The layering of humor helps buoy this book, as well. Charlie Hoke is a former big-league baseball player and the current host at the Tishomingo Lodge & Casino. He is a great example of potential coolness (how can a jock not be cool?) gone awry. His glory days are clearly over. Now he hangs around the casino bar and directs virtually every conversation to his past baseball exploits. His introduction to the reenactment, which is supposed to be about the upcoming battle, but is really about himself, comes off as high comedy:
Hi, I'm Charlie Hoke, the old left-hander, welcoming you to the First Annual Tunica, Mississippi, Civil War Muster. What it reminds me of, folks, is opening day at the old ballpark.
Dennis undergoes a metamorphosis at the end of Tishomingo Blues, and he even manages to surprise Robert with a final bit of heroic action. Long-suppressed violence emerges, with some very convoluted results. It's hard to say if the bad guys or the good guys win. Its more accurate to say that things are pretty much going to continue on the same as always for Tunica, Mississippi.
Leonard's insistent cutting of extraneous words is a deliberate philosophy of writing, what is famously known as cutting out the parts that readers skip. It's more than that, though; he's fine-tuned his talent to unprecedented heights. I read every word. | March 2002
Anthony Rainone, a New York City writer, has published short crime fiction at the Web sites HandHeldCrime and Plots With Guns, among others. He is currently finishing a private-eye-driven novel. This is his first review for January Magazine.