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Book review: “Swag” by Elmore Leonard

Frank Ryan has his 10 rules, and Stick — Ernest Stickley Jr. — buys into them.  The result is very lucrative.

Ryan’s Rules was the original title of Elmore Leonard’s 1976 novel, called Swag in all of its later editions.  And the rules are fairly simple, starting with “(1) Always be polite on the job.  Say please and thank you.” And “(2) Never say more than is necessary,” and on down the line to “(10) Never associate with people known to be in crime.”

These are rules for a successful career in armed robbery. And they work.

Following them, Frank and Stick are a lot more successful than they’d ever imagined, pulling off 25 robberies in the Detroit area in three months, netting about $150,000 (or, in present-day figures, something approaching $700,000).

They stash some of it in a bank, spend some of it on new clothes and other baubles and move into an apartment in a suburban development where a lot of young, shapely women — Frank and Stick call them “career girls” — lived and hang around the pool.

Oh, and they keep a pile of money in a detergent box under the sink for walking-around money.

The high life

Frank and Stick are living the high life.  But Stick is edgy.  It is an existential thing.

He’d say to himself, What do you want to do more than anything?

Go see his little girl.

All right, but what do you want to do with your life?

He didn’t see himself owning a cement company or a chicken farm or a restaurant.  He never thought much about owning things, having a big house and a powerboat.  He didn’t care one way or the other about clothes.  He’d never been much of a tourist….

Maybe, Stick told himself, this was the kind of life he always wanted but never realized it before.  Hold up one or two places a week, make more money than he could spend, and live in a thirty-unit L-shaped authentic California apartment building that had a private swimming pool and patio in the crotch of the L and was full of career ladies laying around waiting for it.

It sounded good.

Didn’t it?

Yeah, Stick guessed it did.

“Cute at that age”

Leonard is one of those rare genre writers who is more interested in his characters and their interior monologues than in the genre’s formula, in this case, the crime novel formula.

For one thing, it’s rare enough for a crime novel to be told from the perspective of the criminals.  For another, it’s uncommon for those criminals to have complex, layered personalities.

Frank and Stick are criminals, but it’s clear that Stick is a pretty good guy, thoughtful, tender even, clear-headed.  Frank is different.  It’s not that he’s bad, but he’s a former car salesman who is doing this crime stuff as a lark and riding the way of success.  He’s a naif.  Stick isn’t.

Leonard, though, doesn’t limit himself to giving these two guys and their complicated feelings.

Consider the conversation that Stick and Leon Woody have.  They don’t exactly trust each other when they meet, even though they are supposed to do a larger job together with Frank and some other confederates.  And, ultimately, both are involved in gunwork that results in people dying. Such is the criminal life.

But, for this scene, Stick and Leon are just two guys shooting the shit:

He waited until the music came on.  Leon Woody looked over at him, maybe to see what he thought of it.

“You have a little girl?” Stick said.

“Yeah, little eight-year-old.  She small…”

“I got a little girl seven,” Stick said.  “She’s going to be in the second grade next month.”

“Is that right.  Yeah, they cute that age, aren’t they?”

Stick said yeah, they sure were.  After that, he couldn’t think of anything to say.

“You throw up a lot”

Two guys, working the same job together, living in the same place, using the same auto — they get on each other’s nerves, like any other couple.

Frank was shaking his head, a little sadly, patiently.  “Sometimes, you know what?  You sound like a broad.  A wife.  Poor fucking martyr’s got to sit home while the guy’s out having a good time.”

“I’ll wait up for you,” Stick said.  “Case you come in, you fall and hit your head on the toilet when you’re throwing up.”

“How long you been saving that?”

“It just came to me, you throw up a lot.”

This squabbling continues as time goes on, but so does the success Frank and Stick have in their gun-toting occupation.

“Overextend themselves”

Stick figures the mutual irritation is natural and decides:

“He could live with it, as long as they kept the jobs simple and didn’t overextend themselves.”

Ah, but isn’t that the story of life?

By the time the duo has committed its 31st robbery, Frank is wanting to stretch some of the rules.  So, they do. 

And their comfortable life gets blown to bits although more because the broken rules involve working with other criminals who are more professional and more ruthless.

And also one career lady who is just a sweetheart.

Such is life.

Patrick T. Reardon


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