Nev March takes a closer look at Elmore Leonard’s Unknown Man #89 which was published in 1977, just after his novel Swag, and preceding The Hunted. The book is a sequel to The Big Bounce.
Nev is the author of upcoming historical mystery set in colonial India, Murder in Old Bombay which won Mystery Writers of America/ Minotaur’s First Crime Fiction Award. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and sons.
Using Raymond Chandler’s seminal essay, ‘The simple art of Murder’ to measure what makes a great detective book, Elmore Leonard’s Unknown Man #89 gets more than passing grades—it reveals the quandary of a ‘regular guy’, a sometime scamp, coming to terms with what he can and cannot stomach in the world around him. It lays bare the arguments that an alcoholic wields to persuade himself, with honesty that can only come from the pain of experience.
Although lesser known than Leonard’s bestsellers Raylan, Tishomingo Blues, Be Cool, Get Shorty, and Rum Punch, the novel Unknown Man #89 is a tale of action, deduction, and soul-searching choices.
A crime/mystery writer may find in that seminal 1950 essay from Raymond Chandler ‘The simple art of Murder’ a few yard-sticks with which to judge a book. A great detective novel is difficult to construct because:
“The cool-headed constructionist does not also come across with lively characters, sharp dialogue, a sense of pace and an acute use of observed detail. The grim logician has as much atmosphere as a drawing-board. The scientific sleuth has a nice new shiny laboratory, but I’m sorry I can’t remember the face. The fellow who can write you a vivid and colorful prose simply won’t be bothered with the coolie labor of breaking down unbreakable alibis. The master of rare knowledge is living psychologically in the age of the hoop skirt.”
Such a book must deliver lively characters, sharp dialogue, a sense of pace, an acute use of observed detail, grim logic, vivid and colorful prose, along with the coolie labor of breaking down unbreakable alibis and rare knowledge of the time and place in the story. A tall order indeed.
“…The fellow who can write you a vivid and colorful prose simply won’t be bothered with the coolie labor of breaking down unbreakable alibis…”
Tracing the origins of detective stories through British writers to the realistic ‘American’ style, Chandler insists such a book must be honest: Referring to police detectives he says, “The boys with their feet on the desks know that the easiest murder case in the world to break is the one somebody tried to get very cute with; the one that really bothers them is the murder somebody only thought of two minutes before he pulled it off. But if the writers of this fiction wrote about the kind of murders that happen, they would also have to write about the authentic flavor of life as it is lived.”
Detective novels are indeed art, because “a more powerful theme will provoke a more powerful performance. … It is always a matter of who writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with.”
In this rough world, a true-to-life unfair, cruel world, says Chandler, “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. … The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.”
In Unknown Man #89 the protagonist Jack Ryan, a process server, delivers legal documents to people who don’t want to be ‘served’. Ryan is a man of contradictions, the fulcrum upon which the story turns.
The first chapter is entirely backstory, letting the reader know how this scamp arrived into his curious career by way of some more notorious ventures. Isn’t this exactly what writers are warned NOT to do? However, we learn Ryan’s home-spun philosophy. “We’re all making the same trip, right? Why should we fuck each other over and make life miserable.”
So, instead of being bored with all this backstory, we now wonder whether this young fellow will become more hard-bitten in his morose new career, or will stick to his moral code. The story takes off when a nasty client (nice contrast with Ryan’s intrinsic decency) asks him to find a missing person.
On the surface, this is the tale of a skip-tracer asked to locate a rather nasty lowlife. However a thug with a grudge is also looking for the same man. Ryan keeps bumping into the thug. He gets a lead from the skip’s ex-wife, but the skip soon turns up dead—killed by the thug, who the missing man had cheated out of the spoils of burglary. Ryan’s troubles grow when he finds that his client Perez is ruthless, and has a hired killer as a pet. But he’s not without allies: an old friend who’s a cop, and his sometime girl-friend help him out.
Once the skip dies, the story ramps up to a whole new level. Ryan’s client plans to cheat the ex-wife. First he, and then the ex-con thug pressure Denise, the ex-wife, who’s a drunk—and Ryan cannot stand by and allow watch her self-destruct with alcohol. In the second half, the stakes rise when Ryan falls for Denise.
With riveting dialog that is as audible as a conversation overheard in an elevator, each character distinct and unmistakable, the three parties converge: Ryan and Denise double-cross the client Perez, setting him up, using the thug to do their bidding. The book’s jacket copy misleads a little, calling this a ‘triple-cross’–not quite accurate.
A few contrived devices weaken the plot’s credibility—a snitch who chooses just the right time to squeal, helping out Ryan. But in an endgame that surprises, a hero who is both selfish and altruistic, and self-driven opponents who mess up Ryan’s plans, this book delivers.
Written in 1977, the noir writing allows references that would today kill a book’s chances of being published: the N word, an equally offensive term for Caucasians, outdated attitudes toward women however remain true to the time and place, the mean streets of Detroit and the hard-bitted sub-genre. Although politically incorrect on a score of points, the book reflects what Chandler called ‘an authentic flavor of life’.
Written in 1977, the noir writing allows references that would today kill a book’s chances of being published…
What makes this book is Chandler’s final measure, “Truth”: the unvarnished portrayal of an alcoholic who remembers in excruciating detail the thought processes that allow us to delude ourselves. Leonard accomplishes a rare feat in this gritty mid 20th century thriller—an action packed story that dives deep into addiction and the path out of it; the sort of truth that comes from pain and experience. Mixing deep introspection with tough characters and risky choices—the hardest one being to tell the truth and risk all.
In Unknown Man #89, Leonard gives us the contradictions that create a nuanced character. Ryan is competent, but gets in over his head; he’s driven by the lure of money but finds that he cannot stand by and watch a girl self-destruct. Ultimately he’s a hero because he can’t be a bystander, gets involved and won’t let the girl be cheated of her cash. What does he want, Denise asks, in a pivotal moment. Ryan replies, “To feel good about myself, about what I’ve done.” And there, at last, is Chandler’s real detective, a good man.
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