Thursday, November 15, 2012

Killshot

Writer Elmore Leonard has written a large number of books and screenplays, but he's probably best known for such works as Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Rum Punch, which was turned into the Tarantino movie Jackie Brown. I've heard many great things about Leonard over the years and was always curious to check his stuff out. One day, at a library book sale, I found Killshot (1989), Leonard's novel about a married couple who go into hiding to escape a pair of crooks, and decided to take the plunge.

Killshot, at its core, is about two couples. The first is comprised of Armand "Blackbird" Degas, a professional and calm Mafia hitman, and Richie Nix, a tough-talking low-life convict who dreams of robbing a bank in every state. They meet when Richie tries to steal Armand's car, but Armand quickly seizes the upper hand, and Richie, impressed by the older man's experience and skill, tells he's "just the guy he's looking for." Richie has a scheme to extort money from a real estate business, and Armand, who knows a good score when sees one, joins in.

That leads to our second couple: Wayne and Carmen Colson. Wayne is a blue-collar iron worker while Carmen is a real estate agent working for the same company Armand and Richie target. She convinces Wayne to come to the office to interview for a job there, and while he's sitting at the boss's desk and wearing a suit, the criminals show up and mistake Wayne for the boss. They try to push him into paying up, but Wayne, with some quick thinking and the help of a sleever bar, fights the pair off and even throws Richie through a second story window. As a result, the Colsons become a target; Richie wants revenge for the humiliation while Armand, having just completed an assignment, knows witnesses who can identify him need to be eliminated.

Less than 300 pages long, Killshot is a brisk read, and the plot is rather simple. The premise hints it could be a chase story, focusing on action as the bad guys chase the main characters and try to kill him, but Leonard is not interested in action as much as he is in the characters. The focus of the novel is not who wants to kill who and how they're going to do it but rather how these people are going to behave. Much of the book is devoted to exchanges among the respective couples as they try to figure ways out of their situations.

The relationship between Armand and Richie is one of the grizzled, old veteran and the cocky, young upstart. Armand is the thinker; he betrays little emotion and carefully considers all his actions, and he frequently gets frustrated and angry at Richie for his recklessness. Richie is prone to shoot first and not even think about questions. He's a boastful loudmouth and transparently dangerous. Armand is more in control, but Richie gives no thought to consequences. One of the interesting conceits of the novel is toying the line about which of the two men is more dangerous. Richie is so unpredictable that you never know what he's going to do, but Armand does everything with a purpose and knows how to position himself. It's the veteran with nothing to prove and the rookie with everything to prove.

As for the Colsons, Wayne and Carmen are happily married. They have a grown son in the navy, and their lifestyle is comfortable. We learn early on that Carmen's mother didn't approve of the marriage, she too knowing what it's like being married to an ironworker. But, as the story progresses, tension emerges between the two. Wayne antagonizes the police and other law enforcement officials assigned to their case while Carmen continually warns him not to mistreat the people who are there to protect them.  He also has a habit of dismissing or marginalizing her concerns, whether it's about being found by Armand and Richie, helping her mother, or the overly-friend U.S. marshal who tries putting the moves on her. While she fears for their lives, he enjoys the work he finds in St. Louis when they relocate. Whatever's wrong, in his mind, he'll take care of it. It's expected of this type of story that Wayne will emerge as the hero of the piece: a gruff, straightforward, handsome man who makes an honest living. In fact, he wipes the floor with the killers in their confrontation. But it is Carman, when she winds up in trouble, who must take action and use her wits to get out of a deadly spot. But will she be able to take the shot when brute force is called?

Curiously, both pairs also have something of an interloper between the relationships. Richie and Armand hide out at the home of Donna's, Richie's older, Elvis-obsesses girlfriend and a former corrections officer. Eventually, she starts making eyes at Armand and tells him she's afraid of Richie. Meanwhile, Carmen is harassed by Ferris Britton, a US marshal who doesn't mind letting himself into their safe house while Wayne is away. His aggressiveness drives Carmen to return to mother's place, not knowing the killers are waiting, thus setting up the climax.

Leonard doesn't pile on the action, but when violence does occur, it's a sudden, nasty, and unexpected outburst. For example,when Richie trails Wayne to convenience store to take him out, he robs the place and shoots the teenaged clerk just for the heck of it. There aren't any prolonged shootouts, standoffs, or sieges to pump things up. The characters who hold guns hold power, and at any second, it can all be over with one deadly shot.

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