by Elmore Leonard
Publisher – HarperTorch
Summary: In Elmore Leonard’s The Switch, a philandering jerk’s wife is kidnapped – and he doesn’t want her back. This plot – though not original to Leonard – offers so much potential. Unfortunately, while The Switch is readable, it is unbelievable and several cuts below Leonard’s best efforts.
Review: Borrowing heavily from O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief” (1910), Elmore Leonard crafted The Switch, a 1978 novel that focuses on what happens if a husband doesn’t want his kidnapped wife back. The idea is terrific, as evidenced by the fact that it was also the basis for the 1986 movie Ruthless People with Danny DeVito and Bette Midler.
Dialogue, Settings, Artsy Touches
In many ways, Leonard’s fans won’t be disappointed, as The Switch contains his usual strengths – snappy dialogue and good use of its settings (Detroit and the Bahamas). Leonard also uses some nice artistic touches that aren’t often seen in mystery novels. For instance, rather than simply stating that one character sees another character’s photo in a newspaper, Leonard describes the scene this way –
“Ordell looked down and saw half of Richard’s face in the lobby of the King’s Inn, about four o’clock Friday afternoon. It was Richard’s picture on the front page of the Detroit News, the page folded once and lying on a set of rose-colored matched luggage, three pieces and golf clubs” (p. 231).
Also, Leonard adds an element of complexity to the book in describing the interactions between the characters. As the kidnap plot unravels, the relationships among the characters shift. Leonard does a good job of developing these complex interactions.
Leonard’s fans will recognize the main characters in The Switch –
– Frank Dawson – the crooked businessman, who is also a philandering, alcoholic jerk.
– Mickey Dawson – his unassertive, unfulfilled wife.
– Ordell Robbie – the cool, black criminal from Detroit’s meanest streets.
Though these characters often have different names, they appear in various guises throughout Leonard’s novels.
Leonard has stated he initially had trouble creating realistic, sympathetic women characters and that he has worked to fix the problem. Unfortunately, in regard to Mickey, he is only partially successful. Leonard tries so hard to make Mickey a modern, liberated woman that it rings untrue. Some touches are unintentionally amusing as Mickey finds liberation by not wearing a bra, and smoking marijuana with criminals. Leonard even includes an awkward reference to feminist author Susan Brownmiller.
Unfortunately, Leonard does not confine his social commentary to Mickey. Leonard makes it clear in dozens of ways that Frank is a complete jerk. In one passage, Mickey ponders why she married Frank, and this allows Leonard to discourse on the organizations, people, and practices that he dislikes –
“He [Frank] was nice; he was neat; he was a business major; number three man on the University of Michigan golf team; he was a Catholic. What else? He was a Young Republican. He belonged to the Jaycees, Rotary, Knights of Columbus. He read books on personal achievement in business, the stock market, and real estate” (p. 252).
Making Frank completely nasty hurts The Switch on two levels. First, it ruins the book’s realism; second, it drains any suspense, as there is no doubt in the reader’s mind as to how Mickey should treat Frank. Leonard makes other unsubtle comments through inclusion of a pathetic neo-Nazi and through one character’s participation in organized labor demonstrations.
A Better Option
I’m always suspicious of mystery novels that attempt social commentary. After becoming successful, most mystery novelists seem to feel that they have to prove themselves as serious writers by pontificating on “the issues of the day.” In my experience, they generally fail on both levels. The Switch isn’t bad, but it could have been so much better. For a better Leonard, try Swag (1976) which doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a terrific mystery.