Dennis Lenahan’s lifestyle is precarious in more ways than one. He risks his life every day diving off an eighty-foot tower into a nine-foot-deep tank that looks about the size of a teacup from his swaying perch. He feels himself getting older, losing his spring and possibly his nerve. Like many Americans, he wonders how much longer he can continue in his line of work and what he could possibly do if and when he has to change careers in midlife. His traveling show brings him to Tunica in Tishomingo County, located in northeastern Mississippi, not far from Memphis, Tennessee. There Dennis’s lifestyle becomes even more precarious when he becomes involved with drug dealers, extortionists, killers, and his archenemy’s wife.
Tunica advertises itself as “The Casino Capital of the South.” Gambling (or “gaming,” as casino operators everywhere prefer to call their business) has brought glitzy prosperity to this corner of the poorest state in the Union. It has attracted the usual types who lurk on the fringes of gambling meccas, including prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers, grifters, and thugs. The criminal aspect has also attracted the attention of Elmore Leonard, whose crime novels have previously been set in Detroit, Miami, and Los Angeles. He has devoted many years to studying the kinds of people he writes about. Leonard does not write mysteries, private-eye stories, or police procedurals (although police appear in many of his novels). The common denominator in most of his crime novels is that some sort of caper is in the offing. In Tishomingo Blues, the caper is Robert Taylor’s planned takeover of the illicit drug business in the nouveau riche world of Tishomingo. As in most of Leonard’s crime novels, the plot develops in its own slow, meandering way. Many unforeseen events force the principals to change their plans. All seem to realize, like Leonard himself, that life is never a simple matter of moving from point A to point B, which is what makes Leonard’s novels more “lifelike” than most genre fiction. Leonard could take his working motto from the eighteenth century Scottish poet Robert Burns: “The best laid plans of mice and men/ Gang aft a-gley.”
Tunica, the third largest gambling center in the United States, works hard to attract tourists. Dennis’s diving show is only one of the many types of free entertainment being offered to the crowds who will eventually leave their money in the slot machines and on the gambling tables. One of the main tourist attractions is the annual reenactment of the Civil War Battle of Brice’s Cross Roads, with local men donning the uniforms of North and South and firing blank charges from antique rifles and cannons. Throughout Tishomingo Blues, elaborate preparations are being made for this reenactment, which will serve as the climax of Leonard’s novel when the shooting finally gets started.
While rehearsing atop his diving platform above the Tishomingo Lodge and Casino, an enormous concrete tepee covered with neon tubes, Dennis sees Arlen Novis and another member of the so- called Dixie Mafia murder Floyd Showers, a former convict and known squealer. Novis, who wears a cowboy hat and dresses like a country-music star, understandably does not become aware that there was a witness with a bird’s-eye view of the crime until after it has been committed. Then he sends a warning via Chickasaw Charlie that Dennis had better keep his mouth shut—or else. Novis has such a evil reputation in the area that he does not doubt his ability to scare anyone into silence, and Chickasaw Charlie warns Dennis that Novis means business.
Arlen Novis is another of Elmore Leonard’s “redneck monsters.” Leonard began his literary career as a writer of westerns and switched to crime novels in the 1960’s, when western novels began to lose their popularity because of television’s saturation with Western series such as Maverick, Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train, Bonanza, and many others. Leonard, however, retained his saloon-wrecking cowboy villains, who provide spice and sudden surprises to stories about present-day crime in modern urban settings.
Another of Leonard’s familiar stock characters is the lethal, streetwise black American from Leonard’s hometown of Detroit. Leonard has a gift for mimicking...