Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Elmore Leonard's Kitchen

I've been reading Elmore Leonard's Killshot, originally published in 1989. In this great, quick read, Leonard depicted a very ordinary Detroit area couple confronted accidentally by a pair of homicidal thugs, centering a complex plot around this confrontation.

Like many mystery writers, Leonard uses food and cooking to develop character. Tony Hillerman, Georges Simenon, Robert Parker and the more exotic/obscure Qiu Xiaolong all frequently tell readers about the eating habits of their policemen, detectives, victims, and criminals. I covered some of the ideas on this in my June 08, 2008, post: Tuna-Noodle Casserole, Literary Version.

Kitchens are the major setting for action in Killshot -- as well as other sites such as a hotel room where an unfinished breakfast helps touch off homicidal rage, a Seven-11 where victims and thugs go for snack food (the thugs steal it while holding up the store and killing the clerk), and so on. The foods in Killshot are a far cry from the very refined food habits of Parker's detective Spenser and Susan, his picky-eater psychoanalyst girlfriend, and even from Hillerman's detectives' favorite Whataburgers.

Leonard's readers get to know Carmen, wife of the novel's key couple, after the first acts of violence have occurred. She's in her kitchen. It's late afternoon; her phone, which is "on the wall next to the window over the kitchen sink" rings. At that moment "she had her hands in meat loaf, working a raw egg, onions and bread crumbs into the ground beef and pork." As she dries her hands, about to pick up the phone, she looks out into the woods. "She was pretty sure a man was standing in [the woods], in the tangle of dense branches; not at the edge but back in the gloom, his form blending, most of him concealed." It's one of the killer thugs: Carmen's domestic peace is about to be shattered. From this point, her kitchen is a focal point for action, and eventually the scene of the book's dramatic ending. (p. 106-107)

While Carmen serves her husband meat loaf, kielbasa and cabbage (p. 125), or pork chop and escalloped potato casserole (p. 239), Donna, the girlfriend who provides a hideout for the thugs serves mixed drinks and heats up a Swanson's chicken pie (p. 247) or a wide selection of other TV dinners and frozen foods. There's also a role for the thugs' choice of frozen pizza and frozen waffles (but detail here would be a spoiler).

Obviously, lots of non-food details also build the pictures of these antagonists, as well as depicting the policemen who ineptly try to save the situation. The suspenseful plot builds in a wonderful way, but the food and kitchen details add a great deal to the atmosphere Leonard created.


Jen said...

I love Elmore Leonard - I think I have to go back to reading some of his novels.

~~louise~~ said...

Intriguing! I LOVE this post! Thanks for visiting my blog, Mae.

Janet Rudolph said...

I haven't read Killshot since it came out. I'll add it to my TBR pile (or in this case to my TBRA(again) pile.

Don't miss my Mistletoe Mysteries list on my blog. Mystery Fanfare.