10. Unknown Man #89, 1977
Elmore Leonard’s follow-up to 52 Pickup and Swag opened with a setup that he would use time and time again: The short story as the first chapter.
The first chapter of an Elmore Leonard novel often seems disjointed and out of sync with everything going on. It doesn’t always have to do with the main plot and it feels more like straight narration. The opening chapter is often essential in establishing the main character for Leonard’s narrative, though sometimes that isn’t always the case (see Rum Punch and Killshot).
In Leonard’s 1977 caper, he introduces us to Detroit process server Jack Ryan (no, not that Jack Ryan), who was in the 1969 crime novel The Big Bounce. The previous novel is not required reading, though recommended. In fifteen short pages, he fleshes out the character’s personality, his past, and even offers a few vignettes that run from sad to funny and, in one case involving a doctor, both.
The opening chapter technique is something he has repeated in numerous novels including Get Shorty, Tishomingo Blues, The Hot Kid and many more.
How is the rest of the novel? Very good. Ryan is a more sympathetic hero than in the previous 1970’s crime novels. Stick and Harry Mitchell aren’t bad guys, but they aren’t terribly sympathetic, either. They’re made good by the characters they associate themselves with. Ryan is flawed, but he looks really good compared to the cast he surrounds himself with. None is worse than Raymond Gidre, a racist sociopath with a few memorable scenes where his penchant for murder hits home. Even the guy Ryan is looking for at the start of the book, Robert Leary, has a few murders on his sheet.
The story doesn’t always hit dead center, but the pace is very strong and it was clear, even then, that Elmore Leonard was going to be something special in the crime genre. He had the dialogue skills of George V. Higgins and a lot more skill at prose. If you need proof, just read that opening chapter and find yourself being sucked into a world that seems long and forgotten.
Fun fact: Jack Ryan is mentioned by name in the previous Elmore Leonard novel, Swag, by Sportree, the main antagonist of that novel. I suppose that name-check is what inspired Leonard, though it is also possible he might have been working on both at the same time.