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The Fertile Delta 

Elmore Leonard loiters in Mississippi

Meet Dennis Lenahan. Aging high-diver. Works itinerant jobs across the South. Lands at the Tishomingo Lodge & Casino in Tunica, Mississippi. Witnesses a murder. The bad guys know it, and they want to whack him. There are complications -- and possibilities. Like Robert Johnson before him, Dennis Lenahan is standing at the crossroads. His choices: The bad guys, or the really bad guys.

Dennis is quirky, decent in most respects and, not insignificantly, surrounded by scum well beyond the rim of his diving pool. More to the point, he's the prototypical Elmore Leonard character.

Thus Tishmomingo Blues, where Elmore Leonard enters the New South with the same subtlety William Sherman afforded the Old South. Seizing a more than ample target, the best thriller writer on earth conceives this novel's denouement at, yes, a Civil War reenactment.

With Leonard, it's always about rhythm and pitch-perfect dialogue. At the Tishomingo Casino, he hits the jackpot. Consider the following exchange, as Dennis Lenahan explains the social mores of several re-enactors to Robert Taylor, his shady ally down from Detroit:

"Charlie says Arlen and his guys always get smashed they come to one of these. They're probably drinking right now."

"So either it jacks 'em up to become active," Robert said, "or they get shitfaced and don't even think of it."

"The next day they're hung over. Charlie says they take hits early in the battle and sleep till it's over. He says they're really good at taking hits."

Robert started to smile. "Come on, what're you telling me?"

"The way they go down. They practice getting shot."

Robert said, "I don't believe you," smiling just a little. "They practice? Go out in their yard and fall down? Sounds like a bunch of redneck Monty Pythons."

Anyone familiar with Leonard's extensive resume (including Get Shorty, Freaky Deaky, Maximum Bob), recognizes the streetwise patois. For one thing, Leonard never uses 25-cent words like patois. Talk works just fine. He strips away everything until the only thing left is a story, demanding to be read. Things sail along. Tidy paragraphs, filled with spare description and lots of dialogue, lead you through 300 pages faster than an auctioneer on speed.

Elmore Leonard writes like Pedro Martinez pitches. So smooth and effortless it looks easy. Anybody can do it. And anybody can; just not as well.

This time, Leonard delivers the usual pyrotechnics, wastes not one word and still finds room to skewer the fictive Dixie Mafia, the Late Unpleasantness, Tom and Nicole's breakup, and whatever else comes handy. It reads like a movie and, no doubt, soon will be one.

During a recent telephone interview from his suburban Detroit home, Leonard, 76, said he had little inspiration or divine intervention for his 37th book. It just began filling his head.

"I got the idea of a Civil War battle re-enactment, so I went to a couple of re-enactments," Leonard said. "It was very interesting information that I got there. They're so serious. I thought some of my characters ought to be exposed to re-enactors because my characters tend to be not nearly as serious about anything. So off it went."

Once Dennis witnesses the Dixie Mafia hit, the disparate plot elements take off. The celebrity host at the hotel, "Chickasaw Charlie" Hoke, also Dennis's setup man, knows the cracker crooks and cuts a deal to save Dennis.

More mysterious is the sly, cool Robert Taylor. A Detroit crook on an undisclosed mission, Robert thinks Dennis is edgy and admires the moxie it takes to dive 80 feet into a 9-foot pool that, from the top of the ladder, "looks the size of a fifty-cent piece."

Robert drives a Jaguar through the Mississippi Delta, scheming, scamming and charting collision courses. He educates Dennis about the blues: Son House, Elmore James. He's no aging hipster, though. Kid Rock and Eminem roll off his tongue just as easily.

Dennis needs Robert for protection. Robert likes Dennis, sure, but he has uses for him, as well. Like using Dennis's high-diving enterprise to launder his drug-running operation. Implausible? Sure. But Tishomingo is too entertaining by this point to quibble over such mundane matters.

Instead, Robert's band of Northern drug dealers are scheming to poach the Dixie crew's, ah, regional business, wresting control of the healthy appetite for crank, speed, pot and cocaine. Each side is populated with mean, alternately stupid and shrewd criminals. And each wants to kill the other at the Battle of Brice's Cross Roads re-enactment. John Rau, the investigator trying to track all this, fights for the Union because, as usual, there's a shortage of willing Yanks. Robert, toying with everyone, decides to side with the South, citing a little-known band of blacks who rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Leonard has the peccadilloes and petulance of these characters down pat. Two cons squabble over the fate of an untrained dog. Jerry Mularoni, the Detroit kingpin who bosses Robert and his band of merry thugs, lands the role of Ulysses S. Grant -- and ditches his battlefield tent in favor of another night at the Tishmingo Lodge & Casino. Robert sneaks room-service into the re-enactment, eschewing hard tack and similar delights.

All this and still no mention of Loretta, a disenchanted re-enactor whose kitchen specialty is a concoction called Naughty Child Pie.

None of them can touch Chickasaw Charlie, a rescued bit player from past Leonard works. He runs a fast-pitch stand at the casino and claims to have pitched for the Detroit Tigers in the 1984 World Series. When Charlie provides the play-by-play for Dennis's half-pikes and other acrobatic dives -- a gaudy entertainment for the tourist-gamblers -- baseball takes precedence.

"And I fanned Wade Boggs twice in the longest game on record," Charlie tells the crowd as they await Dennis's dive. "Went eight hours and seven minutes. In other words, I know and can appreciate what Dennis Lenahan has gone through to get where he's at today."

Born in New Orleans in 1925, Leonard lived in several cities before his family settled in Detroit when he was nine. Detroit's muscular ethos and crime-ridden streets offered abundant possibilities once Leonard began writing contemporary thrillers.

Leonard has five children, 11 grandchildren and is now married to his third wife, Christine. A recovering alcoholic, Leonard dumped booze 25 years ago with the same dispatch as his infamous hit man, Chili Palmer. (He contributed a much-lauded chapter to Dennis Wholey's recovery book, The Courage to Change, in 1984.)

After starting his career as an advertising copywriter in Detroit, Leonard began writing Westerns, then moved on to mysteries, inhabiting the hearts and minds of lowlife drug dealers, bookies, loan sharks, con men (and women) and the less-than-blameless characters in their midst. Visual style and taut dialogue powered these stories from the start. That, and a severe reluctance to pass judgment. Leonard gives his characters everyday foibles and peculiar hobbies, nuances crucial to avoiding cliched, cartoonish sketches.

Finally, in the mid-1980s, mainstream America discovered him when Glitz became a bestseller. Leonard landed a Newsweek cover. Now the adulation is routine. Carl Hiaasen, Stephen King, Walker Percy, Martin Amis, George Will and legions more have made him one of the country's best known authors. He sells an impressive 100,000 to 250,000 hardback copies of each of his books, cranked out in one- or two-year intervals. Eighteen have been made into movies and, of the remainder, 14 are optioned and in development. A collection of short stories and a novella comes out later this year. Another novel, set amid the crime spree of the 1930s Dust Bowl, is in the works.

Leonard said the secret to his prolific writing is staying in Detroit, away from the temptation of Manhattan literary lunches and Hollywood pitches.

"I don't see writing as a chore," he said. "I don't sweat it. I have a good time. It's the most satisfying thing I do."

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