| Tishomingo Blues
by Elmore Leonard
A Non-review by J Stefan Cole
There's nothing like murder and mayhem, Elmore Leonard
style. It's like opening a window to spring breezes, like
reading a movie, or maybe listening to jazz. TISHOMINGO
BLUES, Leonard's latest romp through a cast of losers, mischief
makers and morally dubious types, lives up to expectations;
his dialogue, his characters, settings that only he could
There is something definite about Elmore Leonard's world.
Like old cowboy stories, or spies thrillers, the 007 sort.
A man's world with no excuses, no angst, where if a character
doesn't act like a man he knows what he'll be compared to.
Vulnerability not a big concern in the emotional mix. Leonard's
protagonists, though, usually have a kind of passive energy,
a slightly lost charm that offsets some of the generalized
The Leonard books I've read are set in the South, offering
that hot, sleepy softness that Southern cities like Miami
or New Orleans, or in this case Tunica, Mississippi, can
lend to even the most hard core deeds. Murder is Leonard's
specialty, and TISHOMINGO BLUES is no exception. A low life
rigger from Biloxi named Floyd Showers is sliced down, five
bullets to the back of his head, by page seventeen, and
the book is off and running. The one witness is a high dive
performer named Dennis Lenahan who was putting the finishing
touches to his stage when the killing happens eighty-five
feet below him. Dennis is a daredevil, a world champion
diver--though he didn't strike me as the daredevil type,
not that I know any. Leonard doesn't help, never taking
us into Dennis's head before a dive, but it's okay, the
book is not about diving.
Dennis moves his show from town to town, setting up in
amusement parks, thrilling the local girls with his bravery
and independent life-style. A life that in fact means sleeping
most nights in cheap motels. He tries to swing more respectable
deals with resort hotels, but few are eager for a 40,000
gallon water tank on their lawns and a side show in their
midst. Dennis has wearied of the carney scene, he's approaching
a crossroads in his career. There is the danger of breaking
his back, and diving from that high up takes a toll--think
of the impact on ear drums. So he's pretty relieved when
Billy Darwin, entrepreneur owner of the brand new Tishomingo
Lodge & Casino, agrees to let him set up on a trial
basis. It's a big step above the amusement parks.
Billy Darwin assigns "personality" host, Charlie
Hoke--Chickasaw Charlie--to look after Dennis's needs. Charlie
was a baseball player, and in his mind he's still with the
majors, a ninety mile an hour fast ball that he'll talk
up to anyone who'll listen. Dennis moves into the house
Charlie shares with a waitress named Vernice. Charlie brings
Floyd Showers in as Dennis's rigger. He lets him know Floyd's
done time, not to worry though, he knows his job. Floyd
is a pathetic, dirty, scared, weasely man, but he's quiet
and Dennis has no complaints. That is, until he witnesses
A pair of "Dixie Mafia" boys, Arlen Novis and
his pal Junebug, kill Floyd and the only reason they don't
try to shoot Dennis when they discover him up on the diving
perch is that Charlie Hoke shows up. Charlie didn't see
the killing, but he assures Arlen not to worry, then tells
Dennis to keep his mouth shut because the crime will blow
over, and Arlen will kill him if he doesn't. "Nobody,"
Charlie said, "gives a shit about Floyd." None
of which eases Dennis's mind. Not so much out of conscience
as his being potentially squeezed between the law and the
Enter Robert Taylor, black, likable, a smooth-talking,
drug-dealing malefactor from Detroit. He's got the cool
of a James Bond--even packs a Walther PPK pistol. Robert
happened to be looking out the window of his suite the evening
Floyd was bumped. He didn't see it happen behind the tank,
but he's observant and puts two and two together. He also
saw Dennis dive after the killers left, and was mesmerized.
He figures Dennis had to have witnessed whatever took place,
so he seeks him out. He has his own reasons for wanting
to know what's going, and he is genuinely taken by a gutsy
guy who can dive like that.
Dennis asks Robert if he came down from Detroit to gamble.
Robert says no. "We got casinos in Detroit. No, you
have to have a good reason to come to Mississippi, and losing
my money ain't one of 'em." Robert offers to drive
Dennis back to Vernice's house in his Jaguar. He plays jazz,
and talks and Dennis can't help but listen. There is something
compelling about Robert, his confidence maybe, his easy
manner. He tells Dennis a story about his great granddaddy
having been lynched by white landowners in nearby Tippah
County. He'd been a sharecropper and was accused of molesting
the white owner's wife. He shows Dennis a post card printed
at the time by a local newspaper man of the lynching. Back
then, some people bought souvenirs like that in the South.
Dennis isn't sure if the story is true or not, but Robert
is telling him all sorts of things, among them that he has
no agenda with Floyd being killed, unless he can find it
useful. He says Dennis can count on him if he there's any
trouble with the local trash, particularly the ex-deputy
turned ex-con, Arlen Novis.
A kind of mutual admiration develops between Dennis, the
gifted high dive daredevil, and Robert the nice-talking
dope king. Robert has sensed that Dennis is approaching
a crossroads; he intends to be there to try to influence
the outcome. Dennis's diving days are numbered, he'll soon
be forced to make some hard choices. Robert talks to him
about the great blues guitarist Robert Johnson, how everyone
said he went to the crossroads to sell his soul to the devil
in order to play guitar like he did. Robert says: "'No
doubt about it, was the devil gave him his mojo.'
'Like a charm?'
'Mojo--yeah, like a charm, an amulet, something you use
to get what you want or be what you want. Something that's
magic for you. You keep it in your mojo bag.'
Dennis said, 'It sounds like gris-gris.'
'How you know about gris-gris?'
'Yeah, I forgot. Voodoo City.'
'You have a mojo?'
'Wouldn't be without it.'
'You keep it in a mojo bag?'
[Skipping ahead] Dennis: 'How'd you get it?'
Robert turned his head. 'What?'
'I bought it.'
'How do you know it's the real thing?'
'I believe it. That's enough to make it work.'"
Elmore Leonard doesn't really trade in heroes, he doesn't
trouble the reader overmuch with big words like morality.
His leads are just a bit apart from everybody else. Robert
tempts Dennis with exciting possibility, Dennis more or
less drifts towards a response. The tension over which way
Dennis will go is treated with a light touch.
Whores are sprinkled here and there throughout the story,
mostly cheerful and very Southern with their cold "coke-colas".
White trash bad guys are in abundance, most of them nearly,
"all the way stupid". There is businessman Walter
Kirkbride, whose drug dealing turf Robert wants in on. And
there's the state criminal investigator, John Rau, who surprises
the local constabulary by showing up to investigate Floyd's
killing. It's a colorful cast.
Rau wants prints taken from Floyd's dead fingers. The sheriff's
detective can't believe it: "We know who he is. Jesus
Christ, don't you? It's Floyd Showers. He ratted somebody
out and got fuckin popped for it." It's pretty much
a jungle of loose laws and laid back corruption in Tunica,
Mississippi, but John Rau looks to be the one with the intelligence
and integrity to right at least this wrong. It's not long
before he figures out that Dennis must have been on the
ladder and seen the killing.
But there's a hitch that puts justice temporarily in the
back seat: The good citizens of Tunica, and whoever else
shows up from all over, are about to make a reenactment
of a Civil War Battle, Brice's Cross Roads. This is something
taken very seriously, between theater and street fair, where
guys from all walks come to dress up as Yanks or Rebs to
replay a bitter, bloody battle. John Rau, Arlen Novis, Charlie
Hoke, Kirkbride--just about every character in the book
partakes. Robert's in as a Confederate Scout, even Dennis
is dragged in as a Yankee Corporal.
I asked myself why anyone would want to do this. I know
reenactments take place, and plenty is spent on the right
uniforms, rifles, swords, even regulation long johns. The
reenactment read to me like big boys dressing in drag for
two days, assuming a fantasy life that just happened to
be about war. But the battle is also intended to serve as
the denouement for the many plots and schemes propelling
the story, and the bit of history woven in adds a nice layer
to a book that is really as much about dialogue riffs as
With all the tough guy talk, and dirty doings--I forget
how many are dead by the end, a reenactment of the bloodiest
war in American history, the book is still a fun read. It's
a world where the guys who get done in are mostly the guys
who deserve to get done in, and the reader doesn't have
to worry. There's an internal logic to the killings, not
like an unannounced gripe that knocks off a few thousand
innocent bystanders. And it's okay to swagger cowboy-like
in a book. It's cost free. It can get scary when real leaders
do it, acting like fictional characters on a global stage.
I don't know if there is virtue to a book like TISHOMINGO
BLUES, but there is a kind of wayward decency to its few
Toward the end, Robert and Dennis return to guitarist Robert
Johnson, how everybody said he must have sold his soul.
Robert: "Well, who would know better than the man himself?
What he did was leave the Delta, went down to Hazlehurst
where his mamma lived, and went into the woodshed. You know
what's meant by woodsheddin'? It's getting off by yourself
and finding your sound, your chops, what makes you special.
Robert Johnson went off for a couple of years and learned
his style. He went back to the Delta..." Interesting
talk coming from a dealer, but that's Elmore Leonard.
©March 2002 J Stefan-Cole