Cops and Robbers

Elmore Leonard
Elmore Leonard; drawing by David Levine

Tishomingo Blues is Elmore Leonard’s thirty-seventh novel. At that number you’d think he’d be flagging, but no, the maestro is in top form. If, like Graham Greene, he were in the habit of dividing his books into “novels” and “entertainments”—with, for instance, Pagan Babies and Cuba Libre in the former list, and Glitz, Get Shorty, and Be Cool in the latter—this one might fall on the “entertainment” side; but, as with Greene, those that might be consigned to the “entertainment” section are not necessarily of poorer quality.

Those offended by what my grandmother called “language,” and by what used to be termed, in adventure stories, “fearful oaths,” and by the derogatory epithets and salacious jokes that used to pass from mouth to ear in the smoking cars of trains and now whiz to and fro over the Internet, should avoid Tishomingo Blues. But Leonard is often and justly praised for his mastery of the demotic, and the demotic would not be itself without this kind of thing. Anyway it’s pretty much always apt: each character speaks in character. Here’s one of the more villainous heavies:

No mention of the smoke or the two greasers—Newton thinking of the one he’d asked that time where the nigger was and the one said he’d gone to fuck your wife. It had set him off, sure, even knowing it wasn’t true. One, Myrna wasn’t ever home, she played bingo every night of her life. And two, not even a smoke’d want to fuck her, Myrna going four hundred pounds on the hoof. Try and find the wet spot on her.

This is an object lesson in economy worthy of a short essay in Maladicta, the defunct scholarly journal devoted to foul language (still available on the Internet): three racial slurs, two F-words, misogyny combined with lookism, and a sneer at bingo players, all wrapped up in five terse lines. The man who speaks this will surely die. (“Good” characters in Leonard swear differently from the way “bad” characters do.)

As to what Leonard is up to beyond the texture of his prose, it’s what he’s been up to for some time. A good deal of any Leonard novel—or those of, say, the last twenty years—consists of deadpan social observation. John le Carré has maintained that, for the late twentieth century at least, the spy novel is the central fictional form, because it alone tackles the implementation of the hidden agendas that—we suspect, and as the evening news tends to confirm—surround us on all sides.1 Similarly, Elmore Leonard might argue—if he were given to argument, which he is not—that a novel without some sort of crime or scam in it can hardly claim to be an accurate representation of today’s reality. He might add that this is especially true when that reality is situated in America, home of Enron and of the world’s largest…

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