Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Review of Swag by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard died about a month ago. I’d never read any of his books. But I’d learned a lot about them after he died. Appreciations of his writing appeared in the New York Times and in the New Yorker. I read these reviews. Based on these comments, I came to the conclusion that Leonard was a writer’s writer. Many people praised his style. His economy of style.
In addition to reading all of these appreciations, I knew Leonard wrote about crime, and there is perhaps no better genre to enjoy than crime, police procedurals, detective novels, and mysteries. You learn a lot about the world, especially the underside. You’re also entertained most of the time. Based on the reviews I read and my appreciation of the genre, I decided to try a Leonard book. I read Swag.
My choice did not disappoint me. Swag is about two guys who decide to go into the business of armed robbery. Leonard’s portrayal of the two main characters is pretty much flawless. Each has about half a set of brains, and together they don’t quite make a whole. But for a while, they’re on a run. Leonards’s spare and direct style works perfectly to portray the mentality of the main protagonists. Complications occur when a bright detective, a bright prosecutor, and a dame get involved in the proceedings. And greed. And love.
Having represented a lot of criminal defendants in my time, I can only think of a couple who were genuinely bright. And at least once I represented a wiseguy and his saner, quieter partner. You can see the trouble that someone is headed toward when bluster and bravado are supposed replace thought and judgment. Based on my experience, Leonard seems to have encountered these types of guys as well, because he captures their character and ethos so well. Leonard doesn’t criticize his characters or paint them to be anything than other than what they are. A pair of guys who generate some sympathy along the way even as you see them blunder deeper down the rabbit hole.
If you enjoy crime writing at all, then I’d have a hard time thinking that you wouldn’t enjoy this Elmore Leonard novel written in the 1970s. Leonard wrote and published up to the time of his death, and there’s a large body of it I’ve yet to read. This work is different from a mystery or detective novel, because the main protagonists are the criminals and not the “good guys”. He gets into the heads of these guys as well as I can imagine anyone doing, and that’s no small accomplishment. Good style or not.

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