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20 january 2022
The first title listed in the Guardian's thousand novels you must read – thanks to the convention that numeral titles go before the alphabet – is Elmore Leonard's 52 Pickup (1974). Dated now, but I don't think irretrievably so, 52 Pickup is a tautly-plotted specimen of '70s noir.
The film that 52 Pickup reminds me most of is Don Siegel's Charley Varrick (1973), in turn based on John Reese's 1968 novel The Looters. In 52 Pickup as in Charley Varrick, a protagonist gets mixed up with desperate guys who want something out of him, very badly. In both, the protagonist, despite appearances, is cleverer and tougher than he first seems, and the bad guys quickly have their hands full dealing with him.
Though in Charley Varrick, one should really say "worse guys." Charley is a crook to start with, just a more pleasant crook than his enemies. In 52 Pickup the protagonist, Mitchell, is a clean businessman minding, well, his own business. Mitchell is a WW2 veteran, an upstanding citizen, a husband, father, inventor, and entrepreneur. That's his appeal to three would-be blackmailers: Alan, Leo, and Bobby. Leo runs a sleazy pre-Internet operation where guys can take photos of nude models, though few of the clients bother with the pretext of a camera. Mitchell doesn't even frequent joints like that, but when he randomly becomes acquainted with one of the models and strikes up an unlikely (for him) mid-life-crisis romance with her, the blackmailers think they have their perfect target.
I'll spoil a little of the plot, though not its final workings, in the rest of this commentary. The stupid trio threaten to expose Mitchell to his wife and his community as an adulterer, unless he pays them a hundred grand. By 1974, this is not much of a threat. Mitchell in fact tells his wife Barbara about the affair right away, and the impact on his grown kids and on his business might be difficult but not $100,000 worth of difficult. So he tells the blackmailers to get lost.
In a crucial, but far less plausible plot twist, the blackmailers then kill Mitchell's girlfriend, make a snuff film of the murder, and set the killing up so that it looks like Mitchell did it, though hiding the evidence – and the corpse – so they can use it against him.
I didn't ever quite buy this development. Like Barbara, I thought "You see people shot in the movies. It can look real" (151). But Cini, the girlfriend, does really turn out to be dead. The idea that this troupe of incompetent crooks could pull off the perfect murder strains even the genre-fiction suspension of disbelief that is the basis for reading books like this. Having coolly and undetectably killed somebody, the crooks revert to their bumbling ways, and Mitchell stays one step ahead of them the rest of the way.
This plot flaw doesn't doom the book; you can bracket it, accept that the three stooges have been able to heighten the pressure on Mitchell, and get back to the intrigue. 52 Pickup is a sharp entertainment and well able to distract a reader through a day or two, almost a half-century after its publication. Few books are so fortunate.
Leonard, Elmore. 52 Pickup. 1974. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.