(Editor’s note: This is the 85th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Las Vegas writer, poker player, and former professional musician Mike Dennis. His crime novel, The Take, is due to be released later this year by L&L Dreamspell Publishing. Dennis’ self-titled noir fiction log can be found here.)
“What’s the best way to make a lot of money fast? Without working, that is.”
Ah, if only Ernest Stickley Jr., aka Stick, had never asked that question. He would’ve saved himself a lot of trouble, because used-car salesman Frank Ryan had the answer. But of course, if Stick had never asked the question, Elmore Leonard wouldn’t’ve written Swag, a fast-moving 1976 novel about two small-time criminals on the make in Detroit.
Frank’s response to the question: “Armed robbery.” And immediately, he and Stick spin off into a life of knocking over liquor stores and supermarkets.
They do pretty well, actually, because they follow Frank’s Ten Rules for Success and Happiness. Those rules include, among other things: “Always be polite on the job,” “Never flash money in a bar,” and “Never tell anyone your business.” The two of them live well, spending most of their free time hanging out at the pool of their apartment complex, hitting on “broads.”
But then they get greedy, and ... well, rules are meant to be broken, aren’t they? Or maybe just bent a little?
Leonard plies readers with his incomparable style and sharp ear for dialogue, as he takes us into stolen cars with Frank and Stick, then right into their heads as they pull job after job. The reader might as well be riding in the back seat, or maybe even be their getaway driver. I almost felt like I deserved a cut of each score, so intimately did I know these two.
The breezy pace of the novel takes them (and us) around the Detroit area, through all of their criminal shenanigans. A couple of bodies show up, but hey, it just couldn’t be helped, right? When they pay a visit to Sportree, the shadowy owner of a ghetto bar, Stick doesn’t like him. “Colored guys” make him nervous, you know. But Frank assures him that Sportree can be trusted, and the first cracks in their partnership appear.
Swag is vintage Leonard, an excellent story of honor among thieves, and a worthwhile read for crime-fiction lovers.