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" Split Images"
by Elmore Leonard.
Review by John Gabree

In 30 years of writing, Elmore Leonard has turned out countless short stories, more than a dozen screenplays, including "Mr. Majestik" for Charles Bronson and "Joe Kidd" for Clint Eastwood, and 22 novels, including the western classics "3:10 to Yuma" and "Hombre." But it is with a run of crime novels in the last decade that Leonard has become familiar both to critics and to book buyers.

In "Split Images," the villain is a rich Palm Beach playboy who gets his kicks killing people, preferably, but not necessarily, bad guys. The protagonists are a beautiful magazine writer and an honest Detroit homicide detective. The victims include a parking attendant, a Haitian refugee and a Dominican diplomat and cocaine importer. Although it is formally a detective story, and a tidy one at that, "Split Images," like the thrillers of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, is more interesting for its palpable characters than for its labyrinthine plot.

Anyone who watches much television knows that writing convincing dialogue is not easy. Leonard records the way people talk with the punctiliousness of an ethnologist on a field expedition in darkest Appalachia. He has an ear for the ragged rhythms of spoken American. He also notices what people don't say to each other; the conversations in this novel move with the halting indirection found in real life. His people blurt out thoughts better left unspoken and step around things that need to be said.

It will be too bad if Leonard's reputation as a genre writer frightens away the audience for general fiction. He is a careful observer of social milieus on the fringes of society, the hustlers and lowlifes, the terminally poor and the terminally rich, and the constabulary. Although his books are violent, he renders killing in an offhand way all but the most squeamish will find inoffensive, and his deadpan, sometimes gallows, humor brightens even the darkest terrain. "City Primeval" is already in paperback and "Cat Chaser" is "coming soon." Don't miss them. (1983)



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