Back From The Dead
Published: January 22, 2013
What would you do if your dad was Elmore Leonard? Write imagist poetry, political intrigues, short stories about country curates or stifled suburban wives and their minimalist marriages? The one thing I’ll bet you wouldn’t do is set yourself up as a purveyor of lowlife, urban thrillers. Pa’s always going to have the drop on you.But here comes Back from the Dead, Peter Leonard’s fifth thriller – and just as lowlife and urban as its predecessors. Just as teeth- clenchingly, chest-clutchingly, unremittingly exciting, too. Don’t pick the book up if you have any intention of putting it down before you’ve got to the end.And don’t let the fact that Back from the Dead is the sequel last year’s Voices of the Dead put you off starting your Leonard Jr studies here. Though Back... resolves both the core story and many sub-plots of Voices..., it contrives, too, to be satisfyingly nutritious in and of itself.That’s because Leonard’s heroes and villains exist almost solely in terms of dialogue and action. To know them is to see what they say and do under pressure – which is most of the time. Take Harry Levin: until what Leonard’s characters would call a couple months ago he was a scrap metal dealer settling into a nicely numbed-out middle age in early-70s Detroit. Then his daughter was killed by a car driven by a drunken German diplomat who turned out to be Ernst Hess, a one-time Nazi looter and killer and the man who sent Harry’s parents to their death at Dachau.Don’t let that Hardyesque coincidence trouble you, by the way. There are more to come but you whizz through them without a thought thanks to the punch and pulse of Leonard’s prose. Hemingway once said that all American literature comes out of Huckleberry Finn, and there’s certainly no getting away from Twain’s loose-limbed twang in these pages. “Cordell had met the Colombians through a black dude name High-Step;” “Satisfaction guaranteed or you money back;” “It was early evening, sky overcast, getting dark as Harry passed the mall and the treeless subdivisions of Troy, the lots big and open now, farms here and there.” Schoolteachers would have fits at such tense-skipping, conjunction-omitting, subject-dropping, shapeless-seeming sentences. But Leonard Sr would approve. And I think you will too.
The sequel to Voices of the Dead finds Holocaust survivor Harry Levin hot on the trail of a Nazi turned serial killer. This kind of material could easily turn into schlock but Peter Leonard handles it judiciously, with gravitas and poise and a great sense of pace and action. Moving from Detroit to Munich to Nice, this is a powerful meditation on history, memory, guilt and revenge.
Peter Leonard is a terrific talent in his own right and he will surely find himself on the best-seller lists if he continues to write thrillers of this quality. The assurance with which he writes, and the authenticity conveyed by the telling minor details makes BACK FROM THE DEAD a real pleasure to read, and a difficult book to put down before the last action-packed page.
The sequel to Voices of the Dead is a smart, funny thriller which shows that the son of legendary writer Elmore Leonard is a chip off the old block.
Leonard has managed to transcend his father’s sometimes glib narratives and create a work of startling resonance and scope. This is no tawdry exploitation of history. This is an intelligent and trenchant imagining of the psychopathology of an ideology and how it translates into a peace-time world. It is also a tremendously gripping and relentless crime novel, replete with lashings of humour, great characters, horrible characters, and moments of genuine pathos. From fending off roving packs of skinheads in Munich to the sun-soaked brilliance of the Florida coast, Levin’s pursuit of Hess leads us through the twentieth century’s deepest scars and battlefields. The best crime novels often deal with the intersection of private lives and public events. Leonard’s two Levin novels are a testament to the versatility of crime fiction, its ability to entertain and thrill us, to unspool the past and place history squarely in the crosshairs.