I'm not a completist as a reader--I'm not somebody who finds a writer they like and then devours everything else they've written. (Sometimes I think I'd be a better, more passionate reader if I did.) In fact, I often do the opposite: I check in with a writer every so often until I find a book of theirs I flat-out love, and then, really without thinking about it, I'm done with them. I have all I need and I move on to someone else, like some guy hitting the road in an Allman Brothers song.
It really makes no sense--even when I discover one of those rare books so good I spend the next few years under its spell, I cling to that book only and reread it instead of finding more that came from the same mind. Let's take my current ruling triumvirate as examples. I read Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica a few years back, felt my life transformed, but I haven't gotten further than a couple dozen pages into In Hazard, even though I love what I've read so far. I read Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire, thought it was fascinating and infuriating, turned next her Transit of Venus, thought it was one of the most perfect books I'd ever read, but haven't made it past the (excellent) first page of The Bay of Noon. I finally read Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, thrilled to its vicious brilliance, and have read no more of hers, even though my copy of Miss Brodie is part of a four-novel set--all I'd have to do is turn the next page and start reading The Girls of Slender Means, which is supposed to be very good too. Again, I'm not quite sure why this is, but I'm sure part of it is that I don't want to break the spell of those perfect books by reading something imperfect that might mar their sheen by association. (The extreme such case being Cosmopolis, whose jaw-dropping horribleness still makes me question in some part of my brain whether all of DeLillo is a fraud.)
What this is all a roundabout way of saying is that I may not read any more Elmore Leonard for a while. I came to Leonard late. A couple of decades ago I took a friend's recommendation and read one of his books, Freaky Deaky I think, and it didn't take--I have a vague memory of thinking it was goofy. And then a little while back I read his new one at the time, Road Dogs, and got it, though more as a crafty entertainment than a book I'd turn back to again and again. Recently, as part of my Michigan reading, I've been dipping into a few of his Detroit novels and enjoying them too, but the last couple of days I hit paydirt, or in other words, the end of the line, the Elmore Leonard book I've been looking for.
It's called City Primeval, and it even has a subtitle, "High Noon in Detroit." I picked it up because I had read that Leonard did more extensive research for it than usual at that point in his career, hanging-out research, to use Richard Price's words. You wouldn't think that a Detroit native who had been writing novels for a couple decades and crime novels for much of that time would need to bone up further on the native lingo, but he did, spending time at police HQ at 1300 Beaubien and with cops at their nearby watering holes. Perhaps knowing that before I opened the book made my ears particularly receptive, but this time I felt that Leonard's dialogue, always musical and surprising, had the density and depth of the sort of bewildering but thrilling music I like best.
What's thought of as good dialogue can often drift toward the cute side of witty, things said that feel like they were written to be said, rather than things that catch the ear so well you feel like you can hear the voice that says them. Even Leonard is susceptible to it from time to time, but in this book he's spot-on but so low-key about it that paging through it now I'm having a hard time finding a passage that's flashy enough to get across his talent in a few lines. Here's a sample exchange that might, though. It's between a rather amiable psychopath and his girlfriend:
"Where are we going?"
"Want you to drive over to Belle Isle for me."
"Now wait a sec--"
"I'll tell you where the gun's hid down the garage. Up over one of them beams? Put it in your purse--it's in a paper sack so it won't get your purse oily or nothing--go on over to Belle Isle and park and come walking back across the bridge part way. When there's no cars around--'specially any blue Plymouths--take the sack out of your purse and drop it in the river."
"Do I have to?" Sandy turned on her pained expression. Clement just looked at her, patiently, and she said, "I ought to least have a joint first. Half a one?"
"I want you clear-headed, hon bun."
Oh, that "hon bun" kills me. And you hear the music of the rest of it, right? So much of it is in the little words he removes, a much more of elegant way of capturing the imperfections of speech than the clumsy "dems" and "doses" that often stand for the differences of dialect.
The story of City Primeval? Well, there's a confusing density to it, at least at first, which I like. But as it goes on, the mystery of it, or at least the drama since there's really no mystery to its crimes at all, is secondary to the ways people talk to each other when they're thrown in a room together. I know that's often how Leonard operates--by throwing people in rooms together and seeing what happens--and there are moments in this book, climactic ones, where you can see that machinery at work in very enjoyable ways. Raymond Cruz, the detective on the other side of the story from Clement the psychopath, behaves almost like the author himself in that way, spending much of the last half of the book maneuvering so he can get in a room with Clement, although he isn't sure what he's going to do when he gets him there. And a further part of the fun is that while they do all this he and Leonard (and Clement too) are playing around with the cliches and archetypes of Westerns (the genre that Leonard started out in), joking about having an old-style first-to-the-draw gunfight and then being surprised when they nearly end up doing it. (Hence the title.)
Is this Leonard's great novel? There are plenty of nominees for that title, and I've almost never heard City Primeval mentioned first among of them. It's a great Detroit book certainly, but it might not even end up being my favorite if I kept reading more. Nevertheless, knowing my past habits, I'm not likely to try any others anytime soon. Why would I want to, now that I've found one to keep hold of for a while?