July 23, 2012

The game of the name - Peter Leonard's escape into the past.

Peter Leonard is the son of the Great Elmore Leonard, and in case we were in any doubt, there's an encomium from his dad as the preface to Voices of the Dead. In it, Leonard senior praises Leonard junior for having read his Ten Rules of Writing, especially the one about leaving out the parts that readers find boring.

Well, that's certainly true here. Voices of the Dead moves along like a steam train, barely pausing for breath (if a steam train breathes ... ). Set initially in 1971, it tells the story of Harry Levin, a Detroit scrap metal merchant, who finds himself hunting down an ex-Nazi who he remembers from the war, and who is still roaming the world killing Jews who might incriminate him. The story moves back to Dachau in 1942 for some key scenes that explain Harry's actions and give context, perhaps, for contemporary readers who don't know what went on in the concentration camps.

This aspect of the story, and particularly a scene where Hess, the ex-Nazi, is recognised in a street, is immediately reminiscent of William Goldman's Marathon Man, and indeed Hess has some of the characteristics of Goldman's villain, played memorably by Laurence Olivier in the movie. He's arrogant, clever, daring and ruthless. Fortunately he's matched by Harry, who doesn't fit whatever perception we had of scrap dealers by being active, fit and good with a gun. Ah, but he's an American scrap dealer ...

Leonard's style is very dynamic. It's full of active verbs, short sentences and key details, especially when it comes to time:

Harry took a cab from the airport to Washington Hospital Center, a big white building complex on Irving Street. He arrived at 8:37, went to the reception desk and asked where his daughter, Sara Levin, was. A black woman with a well-trimmed Afro, reminded him of Angela Davis, told Harry to have a seat, pointing at couches and chairs arranged in front of a picture window with a view of a courtyard, someone would be out to talk to him.
   There was no one else in the waiting area. Harry scanned the magazine rack, picked up TIME. The headline said: “The Occult Revival,” with an illustration of a guy wearing a black hood, and in smaller type: “Satan Returns."

Note the exact time of arrival - not 'about eight thirty' but precisely 8.37. This is a constant motif throughout the book - giving precise times - and the effect is to add credibility to Harry's actions. It places him at a certain location at an exact time and adds a sense of tension, as though detailing the times is leading us to a definitive point where the story will end. The description of the cover of TIME adds to the precision, and you just know that Leonard has been doing his research on the period and found this magazine cover to refer us to. The reference to Angela Davis, a black activist of the period, also helps position the story in its era.

Leonard's phrasing also hurries the story along:

Harry took a cab to the Washington DC Police Department on Shepherd Street, met with Detective Taggart in a room with a long table, two ashtrays on it, pink walls and a clock. Taggart looked about forty, dark curly hair, sideburns, light green dress shirt, brown tie pulled down, slightly askew, revolver in a black shoulder holster under his left arm.
A 'standard' way of writing the first sentence here would have been:

Harry took a cab to the Washington DC Police Department on Shepherd Street and met with Detective Taggart in a room with a long table, two ashtrays on it, pink walls and a clock.

Using 'and' somehow slows the sentence down infinitesimally, renders it into two halves - taking a cab to the police department AND meeting with Detective Taggart. By exchanging the 'and' for a comma, Leonard 'runs on' the reading process, makes the meeting with Taggart part of the same internal breath as you read.

Similarly, in the second sentence, Leonard's punctuation emphasises speed. Consider if it had been punctuated like this:

Taggart looked about forty. He had dark curly hair, sideburns, a light green dress shirt and a brown tie pulled down, slightly askew. He wore a revolver in a black shoulder holster under his left arm.

This is perfectly acceptable but 'writerly' in that the description is broken down into discrete elements composed into sentences. In Leonard's original version the descriptions are again run together, separated only by commas, giving the effect that they're almost asides, inessential details to Harry's real purpose, which is to find out what Taggart knows. The fact that you're not allowed to draw a breath - between sentences - adds literally to the 'breathless' speed of the reading process.

Two other stylistic choices add to the pace of reading. First, the use of descriptive phrases as sentences:

Everything on the left side from the front fender to the trunk was crushed, pushed halfway through the interior. Roof peeled back like a sardine can. Steering wheel bent out of position. Driver’s seat angled sideways against the front passenger seat.

The last three sentences here omit the definite article and a verb: 'THE roof WAS peeled back like a sardine can.' This emphasises the immediacy of Harry's viewing of the car, his eyes roving over the roof, the steering wheel and the driver's seat. We see what he sees.

A sense of immediacy is also given by Leonard's use of his father's most famous stylistic creation - the active present participle:

“That was an unprecedented time in our history. Unparalleled,” Hess said. Looking like he wanted to relive the past, pumped all of a sudden, grinning, recalling the good old days.
Traditionally, this might have been written like this:

“That was an unprecedented time in our history. Unparalleled,” Hess said, looking like he wanted to relive the past, pumped all of a sudden, grinning, recalling the good old days.

The present participle 'Looking' here is part of a descriptive phrase. For example, '"Yes," he said, walking to the door' - the speaker is described in an action, and the action is in the past, the tense established by 'said'.

By using the formulation of:
... Hess said. Looking like he wanted to relive the past ...

   ... Leonard tells us what was said, but then the present participle after the full stop launches us into the present, which is re-emphasised later in the sentence by the use of 'grinning' rather than 'he grinned'.

Alternatively, if it had been written:

... Hess said. He looked like he wanted to relive the past ...

     ... the full stop followed by the simple past of 'He looked like' slows the pace because there's a breath for the full stop and the verb is in the past.

Later on the same page we have a similar usage:
Hess looked nervous now, face turning serious.
Note 'face turning serious' - a present action rather than: 'Hess looked nervous now; his face had turned serious.' In Leonard's version we're in the scene; in the 'standard' version, we're being told about it after the fact.

Elmore Leonard more or less invented the use of the present participle in this way and his son pays homage effectively.

Where the son is less effective than the father is in concluding his book. Elmore frequently has acts of casual violence springing from almost nowhere to finish off the bad guys. We've wished for it during the course of the book, but the arrival of the conclusion is often a surprise because it's not built up to. As in life, the violence comes as a shock to everyone.

Peter Leonard goes for somewhat the same effect in Voices of the Dead, but somehow it doesn't quite come off. The set-up to the conclusion is effective but the denouement is over too quickly - it's as if the paciness of the storytelling up to that point actually infects the manner in which Leonard concludes the book. If it had been more drawn out it would have heightened the tension.

Leonard has chosen a controversial theme for the book and there are difficulties trying to make a thriller out of the Holocaust. Do you engage in a broader discussion of Hitler's project to purify Germany by eliminating non-Aryans? Or is it acceptable to take this merely as the backdrop and concentrate instead on a more personal story? This is the route that Leonard has taken and on its own terms, it works. It must be tough to write thrillers with the name Leonard when that name is already well-established amongst the pantheon of crime writers. Perhaps that's why he's gone into the past - to separate himself chronologically from his father's current work.

On the other hand, he could just have used a different name.

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