By Elmore Leonard
Delacorte. 292 pp. $18.95
ON his way to becoming our greatest crime novelist Elmore Leonard acquired 20 years' experience of the Hollywood film industry. Although most writers would agree with the producer in Leonard's new novel, Get Shorty, that the most lucrative form of writing is a ransom note, the second most lucrative form is screenwriting, and like many novelists Leonard kept the wolf at bay by writing for films during his lean years.
If you look at Leonard's career his relationship with Tinsel Town is obvious, for almost all of his books have been sold to Hollywood, and several have made it through the production process and onto the big screen. In Leonard's own words, Get Shorty is his "Hollywood novel," and he has drawn upon his familiarity with the "magic" of moviemaking to give us a deliciously nasty and engrossing satire of show biz. He skewers the industry with its own arcane patois and foibles, concocting a fast-paced and hardboiled comedy of Tinsel Town manners.
One of the most often aired complaints about the contemporary film industry is that the biz is now run by bloodless bottomline types who don't exhibit the instinct for cinema, the passionate feel for movies that the rug salesmen, fishmongers, gamblers and crooks who founded Hollywood did. In Get Shorty, Leonard's latest triumph, a good dose of the old blood is pumped back into the cinematic arts by a man who is, like those old rough-edged moguls, a natural. Chili Palmer is a loan shark who loves any jacket so long as it's made of dark leather, and he works as a collector for the kind of lending institutions that operate out of phone booths and smoke too much.
Chili's experiences eventually illustrate that what you really need to make it in Hollywood are the street-hardened qualities of a tough shylock. Like persistence. A debtor in Miami gets lucky when a plane he was supposed to be on goes down in the Everglades, but Chili's the kind of collector who doesn't let a welsher off the hook just because he's officially listed as dead. Plus, Chili has class. He doesn't like to break legs; it's the money he wants, and he's got that wiseguy aura, that star quality, that presence that compels a debtor to pull out his wallet when Chili says a mere three words, "Look at me." And, yes, he's got luck, too. Chili's got this knack for being in the right place at the right time. Like in Hollywood, where he breaks into a starlet's home to remind her old beau, Harry Zimm, another slow-pay dreamer, of his financial responsibilities.
This fortuitous meeting introduces Chili to a new career. Harry's niche in showbiz is splatter flicks and creep shows, but his own passion for movies has led him to the casinos where he not only lost a 150 large of his own cash, but all of his investor's dough. And there's this problem with his investors -- they're new to movie-making, and actually want something for their money. Chili agrees to assist in the production of Harry's new film so he can collect his end, and also because, let's face it, like most of us, he's irresistibly drawn to the glitz of show biz.
Get Shorty is cast with classic players from the Leonard repertory company. There are slick drug dealers, malignant goofballs and mafia sorts chewing the scenery. The love interest is Karen Flores who, though best known for her breasts and screams in Harry's Slime Creature series, has a firmer grasp of the Hollywood scene than Harry ever did. This cast whips up plenty of stylish Leonardian suspense, but what's even more fun about Get Shorty is the darkly comic rendering of Tinsel Town, where America's dream life is packaged for resale by the hands of schemers and fools and even some highly talented people. The inside joke of Get Shorty is that it's a riveting story about the way stories are told.
There are two obvious streams of tough guy writing -- the Chandler-Hammett tributary on the one hand, and the less clearly defined, more noir-ish branch that flows from W.R. Burnett through Cornell Woolrich and others, on up to George V. Higgins. Leonard has grafted the knight errant detective from the Chandler-Hammett school onto situations and plots that originate somewhere up the darker stream. He specializes in heroes who, though willingly engaged in criminal activities, don't have any truly terrible qualities. They won't take any guff from a belligerent Chicago Bear, but a blind man's cup is always safe in their presence. His work is a mixed drink, for he's taken a healthy shot or two from both vigorous streams, then poured them over ice cracked in a style that is all this own.
The master once again employs many of his favorite tricks in Get Shorty, storytelling devices that, if he were a monocled director and spoke his W's as V's, would certainly be known as "The Leonard Touch." After you close this wonderful book the title hits you one more shot, a delayed shot, and you realize you've had the touch put on you again, perfectly, by the very best in the business.
Daniel Woodrell's most recent crime novel is "Muscle for the Wing."