The 27th novel by Elmore Leonard, published in 1989 as his renaissance from pulp fiction to the bestseller list was underway, killed me softly. It begins as a routine caper, headed for a bit of home invasion as a pair of crooks tangle with a married couple. It's all carried over with Leonard's sharp, often inspired dialogue, illustrious research and just enough quirkiness to keep me turning the pages. The novel coasts toward its conclusion and when I wasn't looking, knocked me to the mat.
Armand Degas, alias The Blackbird, a "half-breed tough guy" from Toronto, drags himself out of a bar to take work in Detroit, where a mafioso's father-in-law is staying in town for a Tigers game. Bending one of his rules (never let them start talking) and sticking to another (never leave any witnesses), Blackbird returns to Walpole Island, an Indian reserve on the Canadian side of the channel where he once lived with his brothers, one now in prison, the other dead.
Blackbird contemplates transitioning into civilian life on Walpole Island. Realizing how ridiculous this would be, he's held up by Richie Nix, a "punk" ex-con with a motor mouth and a hair trigger temper. Busy breaking into houses and trashing the ones without anything to steal, Richie cooks up a protection racket, planning to blackmail a successful local realtor with continued property damage unless he pays up. Needing a partner, Richie lets Blackbird in on the scam.
Killshot introduces some heart and soul with Wayne and Carmen Colson, an empty nest couple in their forties. Wayne is an ironworker who's welded together most of Detroit's highrises. Tired of waiting at home for her husband to decompress at the bar, Carmen has gone into the work force as a real estate agent. Hoping to transition Wayne into a career where they can spend more time together, she gets him an interview with her boss, a successful local realtor.
Visiting the realtor's office, Richie and Blackbird mistake Wayne for their victim. The ironworker draws the men out to his truck, where he introduces Blackbird to a sleever bar and throws Richie through a window. The thugs lick their wounds and begin to prowl around the Colsons' home in Algonac. Their next move is even more disastrous, with Richie turning a 7-11 he follows Wayne to into a shooting gallery. Blackbird finds himself on the Colsons' porch with Carmen pointing a shotgun loaded with Magnum shot at his face.
With the rap on The Blackbird and Richie a federal one, the FBI offer Carmen and Wayne the services of the Witness Protection Program. Carmen seizes on the opportunity to transition into a new life and new home, in Cape Giradeau, Missouri. But under federal watch, the couple discover less of whatever they're looking for, complete with a sleazy U.S. Deputy Marshal putting the moves on Carmen. Unwilling to wait for their tormentors to be arrested, Carmen and Wayne return to Detroit to play out the hand they've been dealt.
No author makes me conscious of what a slave I've become to plot like Elmore Leonard does. Without twists (!) and turns (!) at the end of every paragraph, Killshot coasts along, almost as if you were just hanging out with some particularly interesting (or dangerous) friends for the weekend. When I realize I'm hooked merely reading about Carmen Colson or Richie Nix sitting in traffic -- simply being Carmen or being Richie -- throw in professional murder, amateur racketeering and home invasion and I'm riveted.
Leonard's writing is frequently a laugh riot:
* The guy said, "I'll tell you what I want. I'll tell you my name too, in case you ever heard of me, Richie Nix. N-i-x, not like Stevie Nicks spells hers." Armand shook his head. He'd never heard of either one.
* Donna told him to stay out of the bars at Sans Souci, Indians from Walpole Island drank there and got ugly. Oh, was that right Richie dropped by one evening and glared for an hour at different ones and nobody made a move. Shit, Indians weren't nothing to handle. Go in a colored joint and glare you'd bleed all the way to the hospital.
* Her mom retired from Michigan Bell but couldn't stay away from the telephone. She'd call Carmen every day to give her recipes Carmen never used, or talk about the weather in detail, the arrogance of doctors who her made her wait knowing she was suffering excruciating back pain, eventually getting around to Wayne. "What time did the man of the house come home last night If it was before seven you're lucky, depending how you look at it. If you don't mind that booze on his breath when he comes in and gives you a kiss then you're different than I am, I won't say another word." Wayne said, "You'd have to wire her jaw shut."
Leonard's best work not only survives the conventions forced on it, but thrives under those conventions. One of his tricks is that his wit is put to work revealing character, always. Opening an Elmore Leonard novel is like spending time with old friends. This explains another trick, how Killshot builds to such a taut, exciting finish with what seems like such a routine plot. Instead of reading about crimes, you're caught up finding out what's going to happen to your friends.
A little seen film adaptation of Killshot made it to screens in 2008 after a torturous road to release.
With the massive success of Pulp Fiction, Miramax Films optioned film rights to four Elmore Leonard novels for Quentin Tarantino, a big fan of the author. Those novels were: Bandits, Freaky Deaky, Killshot and Rum Punch. Tarantino picked the latter to adapt and direct (as Jackie Brown) and for a brief time, considered producing Killshot with Tony Scott directing, Robert DeNiro playing The Blackbird and Tarantino playing Richie. Mickey Rourke and Joseph Gordon-Levitt ultimately took those roles, with Diane Lane and Thomas Jane playing the Colsons for director John Madden, whose film sat in the vault for nearly three years while studio co-chairman Harvey Weinstein's divorce from Disney was finalized and he set up The Weinstein Company.