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Dive-Bomb?

  Tishomingo Blues
Elmore Leonard
William Morrow & Co., 2002
Rating: 3.4
 

Posted: March 7, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Crime-novel czar Elmore Leonard has reached his post as dean of the caper-writers thanks to a winning anti-formula that seems to eschew linear, A-to-B-to-C plots in favor of leisurely, almost meandering scenarios. Leonard's protagonists -- or at least, the characters whose POVs he follows most closely -- often stroll almost accidentally into their situations. Narrative tension doesn't build in the usual high-octane, nail-biting style of potboiler thrillers, but evolves slowly and organically as Leonard's chess pieces survey the scene and take their time figuring out their next moves. And, of course, there's his penchant for smart, snap-crackle-pop dialogue.

But that formula doesn't always guarantee success. In fact, in Tishomingo Blues, Leonard's most recent effort, his instinctual playing to those strengths seems more of a diversionary tactic. In earlier works like Glitz, Out of Sight and Pronto, the stories unfold like origami, as those chess pieces move around in a ballet of illusory pacing that belies their solid construction. Tishomingo Blues attempts to follow that blueprint, but it's not a good fit.

Dennis Lenahan, a New Orleans-born high diver performing twice daily at the Tishomingo Lodge and Casino and Tunica, Mississippi, witnesses a murder from atop his diving perch. What's more, he's spotted by the killer. In the hands of lesser craftsmen, here the plot would run to a standard on-the-run scenario. But Leonard lets his characters circle each other for awhile, going about their daily business, as Lenahan ponders whether or not to go to the authorities. Soon he's befriended by a smooth-talking con man named Robert Taylor, who seems to enjoy rattling the cages of local bad guys (including Lenahan's shooter) to no apparent gain.

Of course things, as the cliche goes, aren't quite what they seem, and soon Lenahan finds himself on the fringes of a subtle power struggle between the local "Dixie Mafia" and a band of interlopers, building to a climax at -- of all things -- a Civil War battle re-enactment.

Leonard's familiar tricks are all in place -- the morally ambiguous protagonist, the deceptively loose structure of events, the laid-back, biting exchanges of dialogue. But instead of being an integral part of the story, they get in the way, papering over serious holes in plot and character development. Taylor's offer to Lenahan -- a chance to "sell his soul," buy into the organization's takeover of the Tunica drug trade -- should spark something of a moral dilemma, but the diver seems disturbingly unconcerned about his choices. Arlen, Leonard's main villain here, appears too dumb for his own good. While his letting Lenahan live after witnessing the shooting can be overlooked, later actions (most specifically, willfully stumbling into an ambush during the re-enactment despite muted suspicions) don't jibe with the smarts a man in his position would have to possess.

More troublesome than these plot holes, however, are the shoddy brush-strokes of character interaction. Taylor, for one, proves adept at poking his rivals into situations from which he'll benefit. But many of the other relationships between principals seem to serve little purpose. Taylor's dalliance with his boss's wife is completely perfunctory and pointless, and has no impact on the rest of the plot. And Lenahan's developing romances with a tabloid-addicted landlady and a sexy newscaster fizzle out with no warning, in favor of a completely unexpected (and also pointless) hook-up with the wife of one of the bad guys. Little about these interactions makes sense in the context of the story.

Leonard has been quoted as saying that this book has been the most fun to write. One suspects that maybe he's a re-enactment buff, and the research and attention to detail jazzed him. Because as a crime book from a proven master of the form, Tishomingo Blues is naggingly unsatisfying in spite of its familiar ingredients. One hopes the planned film version -- with Don Cheadle slated to direct (and, as of this writing, possibly star as Taylor as well) -- will fare better.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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