The author excels at slick dialogue and unique details.
By BOB HOOVER
"Tishomingo Blues" by Elmore Leonard (Morrow, $25.95)
This is No. 38 from the master of noir lite, and when you write that many books, it pays to have the formula down pat.
Let's see if we can figure it out:
Take a modestly cool guy with an instinct for self-preservation and stick him into a dangerous spot with quirky bad guys. Then construct a slow-moving plot where all the cards -- and a chick or two -- fall in your hero's favor, and you've got Elmore Leonard fiction.
Snappy dialogue: You also must be quick on your feet with dialogue and detail, two areas where Leonard is a master and why his books are so successful.
He also has a diabolical eye for America's mass culture, with an emphasis on tacky Southern settings. This time, he's combined a Mississippi River gambling casino with a Civil War battle re-enactment and tossed in some of his familiar slick Detroit criminals to stir the drink.
Dennis Lenahan is a high-diver who travels the Southern carny circuit with little ambition but lots of skill and charm. He gets a summer gig at the Tishomingo Lodge and Casino in Tunica, Miss., and quickly becomes a witness to a murder while on his platform 80 feet up.
The shooters have no problem spotting him as well. They are members of what Leonard calls the "Dixie Mafia," small-time drug dealers who have this part of the state all to themselves until the real mobsters move in from the Motor City.
Their advance man is Robert Taylor, whose black Jaguar and skin draw the attention of the local thugs. He helps the process along by flashing a postcard of his grand-granddaddy getting lynched from a Mississippi bridge.
Setting the scene: It's not the plot that holds our attention, but Leonard's talent for setting the scenes, from a juke joint/cathouse in the Mississippi woods to the look of a hard-core re-enactment "soldier" who knows the authentic recipe for salt pork.
Driving most of his fiction is dialogue, a lot of it unrepeatable here, but it's slick, contemporary and fun. The problem is that, after a while, his characters all sound alike, especially when he dispenses with attribution.
Then, there's his narrative style, minimalist at best. There are no descriptions of sunsets or romantic love-making here, just basic sentences to get readers from Points A to B.
Leonard's 38th is a lot like his 37th and maybe even his 24th. They do tend to blend together. Still, 38 is funny and fast-moving, just the thing for airport check-in lines, which are neither.