Lucid Leonard

Rating: NNNElmore Leonard is a great master of disposable fiction, and for all the regard he receives as the "greatest.

Rating: NNN

Elmore Leonard is a great master of disposable fiction, and for all the regard he receives as the “greatest living crime writer” — a sobriquet handed him by the New York Times that might be disputed by Ruth Rendell, Minette Walters, James Ellroy, Lawrence Block, and, when she’s on her game, Patricia Cornwell — you occasionally feel that Leonard in hardback is just a bit pricey.

I like him a lot, and when he’s at his best (52 Pickup, Freaky Deaky, Rum Punch, City Primeval, Get Shorty), he’s so unassailably slick that you step back in awe at the casual tone he’s trademarked, his loopy dialogue and elastic narrative sense.

In Tishomingo Blues, an itinerant high diver arrives in Tunica County, Mississippi, and sets up his tank and tower at the (fictional) Tishomingo Casino. He proceeds to become involved with a Detroit drug dealer and a passel of redneck Mafiosi whose interlocking interests in the local drug trade lead to a climactic confrontation in the middle of a Civil War battle recreation.

Set far away from Leonard’s home turfs — Detroit and Florida’s Gold Coast — Tishomingo Blues has the feel of a book created by an writer who’s relied heavily on his researchers.

It also hinges on the passivity of the central character, who lacks the improvisatory elan of Leonard’s best protagonists, so the story mostly happens around him rather than to him or through him.

Tishomingo Blues is definitely paperback Leonard. Readers who really need an Elmore Leonard fix might note that his last novel, Pagan Babies, which has half a Third World setting and a Graham Greene-like whisky priest as a protagonist, is now out in paperback and is altogether a more satisfactory work.

At his not-best, Leonard’s still pretty good, but I’m not sure he’s $40-worth good.

TISHOMINGO BLUES by Elmore Leonard (William Morrow), 256 pages, $39.50 cloth. Rating: NNN

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