Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 29-30

POSTED BY MARTIN KICH

Leonard, Elmore.  Get Shorty.  New York: Delacorte, 1990.

Almost single-handedly, Elmore Leonard brought the genre of crime fiction to renewed prominence. Although the sub-genre stretches back to James M. Cain and was enriched by Cornell Woolrich and Jim Thompson, it was eclipsed by the proliferation in the categories of mystery detective novels in the 1970s.  Leonard’s crime novels have been not only extraordinarily popular but also critically acclaimed.  They have transcended the conventions of their type in the same way that Hammett’s and Chandler’s detective novels exceeded the expectations of popular literature and demanded to be treated as “serious” fiction.  Leonard’s novels now routinely receive full-page reviews in the New York Times Book Review, and his work has been already been the subject of several book-length critical studies and a steadily increasing number of journal articles.

Most of Leonard’s crime novels have been set in Detroit or Florida, have focused on criminals in predicaments only partly of their own making.  Most have thematically exploited the interplay between three groups:  criminals who are victimized by their own ambitions and predatory behavior; police, lawyers, and judges who are willing to compromise the law for the sake of justice or self-interest; and ordinary citizens who normally insulate themselves from criminality but are drawn into criminal schemes by desperation, greed, accident, or naivete.  This interplay creates a tone that shifts among hardboiled directness, dark ironies, amusing observation, and comic absurdities.

Get Shortly focuses on a Miami mobster named Chili Palmer.  Chili is a collector for a loan-shark operation.  Although he is relentless in pursuit of those who have been desperate or stupid enough to borrow from the mob and then default on their obligations, Chili cultivates a suavely intimidating rather than brutally terrifying persona.  When he follows a bad loan to Hollywood, he decides that his lifelong fascination with the movies might qualify him to become a film producer.  The negotiations involved in developing the film are juxtaposed with his navigation—or negotiation–of all sorts of complications created by his criminal associations.  The novel has been described as the most acerbic portrait of Hollywood since Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust.  It was adapted successfully to a film starring John Travolta as Chili Palmer.

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Lethem, Jonathan.  Motherless Brooklyn.  New York: Doubleday, 1999.

Since the publication of Gun, with Occasional Music in 1994, Jonathan Lethem has established a reputation as one of the most talented and eccentric novelists of his generation.  Early in his career, Lethem’s work was often categorized as science fiction, even though reviewers felt compelled to add that it was clearly something else—or many other things—as well.  In actuality, from the very start, Lethem was determined to honor genre distinctions by synthesizing and transcending them.  In Gun, with Occasional Music, he mixes the conventions of the futuristic fiction with those of the hardboiled crime novel.

Lethem returned to the crime genre in his “breakthrough” novel, Motherless Brooklyn.  The title is often mistakenly rendered as Motherless in Brooklyn.  But Lethem is exploring an entire landscape and sub-culture bereft of maternal nurturing.  The major character is Lionel Essrog, a private detective with Tourette’s Syndrome.  Along with three other orphans, Lionel was rescued from the hell of institutional care by Frank Minna, who trained the boys to work as operatives with his small-time detective agency.  When Frank Minna is stabbed to death, all four of “Minna’s men” are determined to find his killer, but without his direction, they soon begin to work at cross-purposes.  The conflicts that arise among them add an extra level of complexity to the uncertainties that they confront in their investigation.  Lionel’s Tourette’s Syndrome thus becomes a metaphor for the psychodynamic turmoil that is both at the core of his personal identity and prevalent in the milieu in which he operates.

motherless-brooklyn-composite

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Previous Posts in This Series:

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 1-2: https://academeblog.org/2015/06/24/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-1-2/.

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 3-4: https://academeblog.org/2015/07/02/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-3-4/

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 5-6: https://academeblog.org/2015/08/07/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-5-6/

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 7-8: https://academeblog.org/2015/08/11/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-7-8/

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 9-10: https://academeblog.org/2015/08/18/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-9-10/

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 11-12: https://academeblog.org/2015/09/19/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-11-12/

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 13-14: https://academeblog.org/2015/11/15/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-13-14/.

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 15-16: https://academeblog.org/2016/01/09/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-15-16/.

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 17-18: https://academeblog.org/2016/04/24/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-17-18/.

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 19-20: https://academeblog.org/2016/05/20/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-19-20/.

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 21-22: https://academeblog.org/2016/08/17/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-21-22/.

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 23-24: https://academeblog.org/2016/08/20/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-23-24/.

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 25-26: https://academeblog.org/2016/09/09/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-25-26/.

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 27-28: https://academeblog.org/2016/12/07/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-27-28/.

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Previous Series:

The final post in each series is followed by links to all of the previous posts in that series.

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/30/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-49-50/

America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: https://academeblog.org/2015/06/02/13370/

 

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