Recommended Reads: Cat Chaser by Elmore Leonard

Steven Powell, who has his own blog about Crime and Detective fiction called The Venetian Vase, has sent us a reading recommendation.

At the age of 84 and with over forty novels to his name, Elmore Leonard is one of the most popular crime fiction writers alive today. His characters are typically quirky, edgy people operating on the fringes of society and trying to make a fast buck in some doomed get- rich- quick scheme. His writing style is deceptively simple: Leonard begins with an idea of a character or a situation and starts writing without any formal outline or conception of the ending. As a reader you begin to see the narrative emerge, and the characters from seemingly unrelated worlds begin to connect and you understand, to an extent, how it must have come together for Leonard in the process of writing. Leonard’s style is one of the best reading experiences for examining how a writer thinks. This approach can be hit and miss, sometimes the books can meander indefinitely and have a rushed tagged- on ending, as with say Freaky Deaky (1988). But when it works, it’s dynamite! Cat Chaser (1982) is Leonard at his best. It has all the hallmarks of a classic Leonard tale— sex, violence, quirky characters  and several unexpected plot twists.

With Cat Chaser Leonard shifts the setting from his fiction’s first home of Detroit and introduces us to George Moran, an ex-US marine turned Miami hotel owner whose struggling business caters mostly to lovers looking for a quick afternoon tryst. Moran makes a return trip to the Dominican Republic where he served as part of Operation Power Pack in 65. Moran is looking for Luci Palma, a revolutionary who shot and wounded him during the hostilities, but instead he meets his one- time lover Mary, wife of Andres De Boya, the former head of the Dominican Secret Police, who is now an exile in Miami.  Moran plans to whisk Mary away from her millionaire, torture-expert husband but only if he can escape the hustle of a Dominican conman who claims Moran shot him during the war, a workshy alcoholic private eye, and a cold blooded professional killer all with their eyes on De Boya’s millions.

It may seem improbable, but Leonard is able to bring these disparate plot elements together perfectly. The novel gives a great sketch of its tropical settings. The characters are compellingly bizarre. The jokes are funny and the last half of the novel is written at a breakneck pace. As Leonard says in his influential Ten Rules of Writing, ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.’ Not a word seems wasted in this rollicking yarn. This is not something every crime writer could claim today. Leonard’s successors in the field, authors such as James Sallis and James Ellroy may have been more experimental with the crime fiction genre, but none have written books as compulsively entertaining as Cat Chaser, although some readers may find the denouement to contain one twist too many.

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