Tishomingo Blues: way over the top

January 27, 2002|By Jim Haner | By Jim Haner,Sun Staff

Tishomingo Blues, by Elmore Leonard. William Morrow. 320 pages. $25.95.

Dashiell Hammett may have invented the genre, and Carl Hiaasen might be funnier at it on his best day, but the debate over who's the all-time king of the whack job crime novelists just ended. Living or dead, Elmore Leonard tops 'em all.

After dishing up an even three dozen hard-boiled, snub-nosed, fat-lip-and-a-bourbon-shooter best sellers, Leonard now delivers a certifiable masterpiece of such twisted ingenuity that he transcends even his own bad self.

His new thing, Tishomingo Blues, is that good.

By now, of course, Leonard has sold several billion books and movie tickets -- so all the world is familiar with his cast of Detroit hustlers, Hollywood shysters, dead-eyed dicks, greasy con men, shaky-handed gamblers, heavy-bosomed dishwater blondes, double-dipping cops and innocent bystanders who turn out to be not so innocent in the long run.

This time, he packs his whole bag of tricks off to Tunica, Miss. -- "The Casino Capital of The South" -- to bring us a bunch of amphetamine-dealing cracker reprobates known as the "Dixie Mafia." A dumber, meaner crowd of knuckle-dragging dipsticks has not emerged from popular fiction since Jimmy Breslin's The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight.

The story gets rolling with the arrival in town of one Robert Taylor, a smooth-talking, Jag-driving, pistol-packing, steady-loving, blues-lyrics-quoting, Motor City entrepreneur who wants to take over the local drug and skin trade and establish a branch office of the Dee-troit mob.

Simple enough. The rednecks versus "Super Fly." Instant conflict. Bud-a-bing, country style, with a dollop of racial tension to up the ante. But there's, uh, some wrinkles. Seems our hero has brought a band of hired guns to back him up -- more precisely, a trio of Mexican hit men, led by a dude named Tonto.

At about the same time, an itinerate high-diver named Dennis Lenahan shows up. He's made all the usual rounds for a man in the aquatic trades -- the Acapulco cliffs, the piers of Atlantic City, countless circuses and theme parks -- and he's looking for a steadier gig to see him through midlife.

So he signs up for a job at the Tishomingo Lodge & Casino. Lights himself on fire nightly and plunges four stories into a tank of water as part of a tourist sideshow. Piece of cake, until he peers down from his perch one day and sees the aforementioned knuckle-dragging rednecks kill some guy.

Of course, they find out he saw everything and take a sudden interest in killing him, too, which makes him fast friends with the Motor City interloper. All of which leads, somehow inevitably, to a bloody .50-caliber showdown in a dry creek bed during a Civil War re-enactment .

Only Elmore Leonard could come up with hairball stuff like this and make it work. The man lays down such a seamless line of bull that it feels like a documentary. Then, you try explaining it to a friend over a cold one, and it comes out sounding like the plot line from a Japanese cartoon.

It's the dialogue that sells it --page upon page of knowing patter, vernacular thrust and parry and conversational back story that immediately sucks the reader in and sets the hook. It's a voyeuristic rush that just won't quit.

Tishomingo Blues ain't just reading, friend. It's bloodshot eyeballs at 4 a.m.

Jim Haner is a reporter for The Sun. He previously worked for The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Miami Herald. He spent a year living in New Orleans and as a youth lived in Atlantic City, N.J., now the Casino Capital of the North.

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