Review by Bill Kirton
No writer would want to be compared with the late and very much lamented Elmore Leonard; it would be the kiss of death because he’s incomparable. Having said that, there are many aspects of The Car Bomb which recall the great man’s style and preoccupations.
First of all, it’s set in
– a Detroit not
yet as low as it is today but well on the way down. LoCicero notes that ‘the
corruption is rampant in this town’ and calls it a ‘hapless city’.
Next, the citizens he shows us have the same confusing moral compass that sets good guys and bad guys on the same level, each with characteristics which belong to the other end of the spectrum to that which they seem to occupy.
The central character, local TV anchor Frank DeFauw, a handsome, charismatic, family man with a regular mistress and a taste for other casual, extra-marital encounters, is said by his son Bobby, many of his friends and colleagues (and by Frank himself), to be ‘full of bullshit’. At one point, even as he’s thinking about his other son, Tommy, who was killed in a boating accident, he ‘glimpsed an attractive redhead pulling a ballpoint pen and a pad of yellow sticky notes from her purse’. And this is one of the (very few) ‘good’ guys. Another character’s opinion of him was that ‘he was not just smart, but clever and intuitive about people, dedicated, caring and, probably more than any white guy she had ever known, color blind’.
Opposite him, his school friend, Judge William O’Bryan, whose job it is to uphold the sanctity of the law and hand out judgements in court, is as corrupt as they come and totally lacking in compassion. When Frank asks him why a person he (Frank) thinks is innocent would kill his wife and kids, the reply is chilling. ‘Why do evil or fucked up people do any of the things they do? Because they’re evil or fucked up.’
Frank’s real enemy is another journalist, Wil Barnes, whose columns are almost invariably about Frank’s peccadilloes. And yet this ‘little prick’, which is how Frank usually refers to him, uses operational methods and techniques which mirror those of Frank. With these figures at the centre of the narrative, along with many others demonstrating equally ambivalent moral stances, notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ seem irrelevant. The use of children here and there in the narrative suggests that there is nonetheless a notion of innocence, but it’s an innocence that gets compromised (at best) by events.
There are other narrative and stylistic factors which put this story firmly in the ‘Leonard school’. From the shocking hook of its opening chapter, the pace is unrelenting. It’s movie-ready, cutting fast from instant to instant, keeping everything in the ‘now’, never dwelling too long on any episode. The narrative takes us right into the middle of a pre-existing set of people and circumstances, all alive, vibrant, busy. We jump from setting to setting, seeing things which are happening simultaneously in different places to different people. It’s making use of the confused, fractured nature and texture of reality.
And then there’s the dialogue – sharp, witty, natural – all of it in the moment. Frequently, the end of a chapter is marked by a sharp one-liner. On one occasion, for example, Frank’s wife Marci says something nasty about Judge O’Bryan. Frank says ‘Jesus, I always thought you liked him’. She replies ‘I do. But none of us is perfect. You should hear what I really think of you’.
Cliff-hangers abound and they’re varied. As well as those involving specific threats or actions, there are the more subtle ones, as when Marci tells Frank that she intends to file for divorce. Frank walks out onto the deck and sees a seagull on the bow of the boat moored at their dock. He decided that ‘if the gull stayed in place for at least the next five seconds, everything would be okay. Starting his slow, even count, he got as far as three’.
This book satisfies the criteria for both crime (
UK) and mystery ( USA) novels, which aren’t always
the same. It has interesting characters, clear settings, great dialogue,
page-turning pace and teases at the reader’s own attitudes to morality. OK, it isn’t
by Leonard, but it may well be a sort of homage to the master.