Detroit holds a special place for Elmore Leonard and his fans. It holds a special place in America too — as a kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland that could be a portent of how most of American cities will end up. Of course, crime runs rampant in a collapsing society and Detroit doesn’t disappoint. Neither does Leonard, even if most of his crime novels set in Detroit feature the city before the demise of the auto industry and its subsequent collapse. He’s featured Detroit in some of his most famous works, including City Primeval, and Freaky Deaky — which is considered to be one of his best. I haven’t read either of those just yet, but I have read Swag and 52 Pick-Up and both of those provide plenty of Detroit action.
Swag, which was written far before the word became spat out by rappers, is about a low end thief nicknamed Stick joining up with a used car salesman named Ryan — who creates the perfect guide to robbery. They rob liquor stores and restaurants, eventually getting involved with some more professional Black thieves and ending up over their heads. Though Swag was written long before Detroit’s recent troubles, you can still see the roots of class differences and inequality in its casts of characters. Stick is a simple redneck with a young daughter to provide for, and he contrasts with the middle class Ryan who sees robbery as a chance to wear nice suits and look cool — a crime tourist looking for a good time. Both of them contrast with the more professional Black robbers who see them as bumbling idiots, which, of course, they are. The meanness of Detroit, the way that even robbers can get robbed, fills the novel — which concludes by someone else getting away with the eponymous swag and leaving everyone else behind.
On the other hand, 52 Pick-Up is more concerned with the differences between the older generations of Detroit, the men who made the auto industry what it was, and the newer generation of Counter Culture sleazebags. It’s about a respectable upper middle class businessman who has an affair and gets blackmailed. The blackmailers, which include a Black stick-up artist, a porn theatre owner and a genuine scumball, push him too far and he decides to get revenge, while also re-kindling the romance with his wife. 52 Pick-Up shows that, even before its present woes, Detroit wasn’t that great of a place. It revels in the sleazy, rundown side of it –the slums and strip clubs and porno theatres — and reveal a viciousness in its older and younger generations.
These are both older Leonard works and he hadn’t gained the confidence that let him wonderfully ignore the rules of grammar that he shows in his later books — but they’re still great reads. Leonard has been called the Dickens of Detroit, which he said was only made his nickname because of the alliteration, but the author and the city still had an important relationship. I definitely intend to check out his other books set in Detroit and I urge you to do the same.