Saturday, 16 August 2014

The Switch by Elmore Leonard Review (Life of Crime)

Elmore Leonard is known for his crazy-good, realistic dialogue who’s also a skilled and imaginative storyteller able to create memorable characters and plots. But every great writer puts out a stinker every now and then and The Switch is without question a stinker! 

A pair of low-level criminals, Louis Gara and Ordell Robbie, decide to kidnap the wife of well-to-do real estate developer, Frank Dawson, and hold her hostage for $1million. There’s just one snag though: he doesn’t want her back. 

The premise sounds more like a throwaway joke or at best an idea for a short story, but for a nearly 200 page novel? No. The thin plot is streeeeeeeeeeetched by Leonard over scores of pages with precious little happening to validate its length. It takes a third of the novel before Mickey (Frank’s wife) is kidnapped, then at least another third before she’s let go over a misunderstanding, then the novel meanders at an excruciatingly slow pace until the blessed end. Does anything happen during the novel? Hardly anything - characters mostly just stand around and yammer about nothing. 

The absence of action would’ve been tolerable if the characters had been worth reading about but they weren’t. Our heroine, Mickey Dawson, is as bland a character as any Leonard has ever created. She has no personality and is a doormat of a wife, walked all over by her cartoonishly awful husband, Frank. 

Frank’s role is clear: he must be a bad guy and the reader must hate him. So he talks down to his wife, arguing over her about how much he drinks while he sloshes his way through another bottle of whiskies. You couldn’t get a more flat character portrayal than you do with Frank. Mickey on the other hand does her best to ignore it all and pretend everything’s fine, a tactic she employs throughout the story even when she’s being held hostage. And we’re supposed to be rooting for this Stepford Wife?

Neither character could be said to be even remotely realistic. Why would Mickey put up with being treated so poorly when she clearly didn’t love Frank? And why, when she possesses no traits to make her interesting, would Leonard make her the main character? She is beyond boring to read about. Her arc is that at the end she finally stands up to him and demands he pay her a bit more alimony than he said he would. Woo - you go, girl! 

Louis and Ordell were easily the only two characters that made this novel tolerable. Leonard writes the pair with a clear fondness for their roguishness, and their friendship is believable. The only enjoyable moments in this novel are when the two are together and scheming, especially once things start going wrong. 

I don’t usually quote blurbs but I take issue with the one for The Switch because it’s misleading: 

“Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara hit it off in prison, where they were both doing time for grand theft auto. Now that they're out, they're joining forces for one big score. The plan is to kidnap the wife of a wealthy Detroit developer and hold her for ransom. But they didn't figure the lowlife husband wouldn't want his lady back. So it's time for Plan B and the opportunity to make a real killing - with the unlikely help of a beautiful, ticked-off housewife who's hungry for a large helping of sweet revenge.”

That last sentence - “So it’s time for Plan B…” - implies that the plot moves from being one thing to another when it doesn’t. The whole novel is about the kidnapping and Leonard drags it out for the entire book. That last sentence of the blurb IS the ending of the novel. Leonard ends the whole thing on the implication that Mickey joins Louis and Ordell in taking her husband for what he’s worth. So, nice going blurb-writers, you gave away the final twist!

The Switch has been made into a movie called Life of Crime starring Jennifer Aniston as Mickey, Tim Robbins as Frank, Mos Def as Ordell and John Hawkes as Louis - the latter two playing characters previously portrayed by Samuel L Jackson and Robert De Niro in Tarantino’s underrated Jackie Brown. I can’t say I’m encouraged to watch the movie after reading this piss-poor novel by an otherwise excellent writer. 

The Switch is a totally forgettable, completely uninspired crime novel featuring a cast of two-dimensional cutouts, a couple of realistic characters, and little else to justify reading it. Leonard is a fine writer though so, instead of The Switch, I highly recommend checking out his other books featuring his characters Chili Palmer or Raylan Givens to understand why he’s so beloved. Those books not only feature good dialogue and characters but also fun, fast-moving plots - unlike The Switch.

The Switch

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