One of my favorite aspects about Elmore Leonard’s writing was that by shifting perspectives constantly he had the ability to make you sympathize with a character so that the hero of the story might not be who you thought it was at the beginning of a book. Fans of television’s Justified who pick up Pronto for the first time will probably be confused as to why the first half of the book makes Raylan Givens look like a doofus being easily outwitted by Harry Arno. It’s only late in the story that Raylan emerges as the real main character while Harry fades into a whining supporting role.
Leonard would even take a character that appeared sympathetic in one book and make them far less so in another. Probably the most famous example of this was how the main characters in The Switch became the bickering lowlifes of Rum Punch. (Better known by its movie title of Jackie Brown.)
In the Leonard universe, being cool was the thing that counted most. Whether the lead was a cop or a crook, all sins were forgiven so long as they were cool about it. When they became uncool, they became unlikable and almost by default the villains of that story. Jack Ryan from The Big Bounce and Unknown Man #89 is unique because it seems like Leonard couldn’t decide if he was cool or not.
Ryan certainly doesn’t seem like a good guy at the beginnin of The Big Bounce where he’s in hot water after beating up a guy with a baseball bat. Ryan loses his job picking cucumbers and is lucky not to land in jail. He follows that up by brazenly stealing a bunch of wallets after walking into a house while the owners are partying on a nearby lakeside beach. However, a local resort owner sees something worthwhile in Ryan and hires him as a handyman. Jack isn’t entirely sure how he feels about this job or having someone trust him. New temptation arrives in the form of a woman named Nancy, the mistress of a wealthy businessman who is tired of hanging out at his lake house and has been entertaining herself by shooting out random windows and running other people off the road in her car.
Nancy entices and teases Jack into engaging in some vandalism and house breaking with her, but she has a bigger goal in mind. Her lover is going to have a large amount of cash in his house, and she wants Jack to help her steal it.
The Big Bounce was Leonard’s first contemporary crime novel, but he already had his hallmarks of sharp dialogue and a variety of offbeat characters engaging with each other while working their own angles. What makes it interesting is how it hinges on which way Jack will turn. Nancy seems like a kindred soul and that the two should instantly become a Bonnie & Clyde style duo. However, seeing Nancy’s random cruelty and disregard for other people seems to awaken Ryan’s seemingly dormant empathy.
It’s a very different Jack Ryan that we meet in Unknown Man # 89. Set years later in Detroit, Jack has gone straight and is a process server with a reputation of being able to find almost anyone. Mr. Perez comes to town from Louisiana and hires Jack to find a man as part of a complicated stock scheme. A criminal named Virgil Royal is also looking for the same guy to recover some money he thinks he’s owed.
When Jack meets the missing man’s drunken wife Denise, he finds himself falling for her and starts to screw up Perez’s business. To keep things on track, Perez brings in a redneck thug while pushing Jack to help him finalize the deal. Jack begins his own schemes to help Denise keep the money for herself even if she doesn’t want it.
Another element has been added to Jack at this point with his being an admitted alcoholic who has been on the wagon. While he certainly liked his beer in The Big Bounce, there was never a sense that Jack was a drunk so that element seems to come out of nowhere and a bit clumsily used to establish an instant connection between him and Denise as he tries to help her get sober.
There’s an odd arc to Jack through these two books with him starting as a cocky small-time petty crook whose ego has him on a permanent path of self-destruction who eventually comes to appreciate the value of someone giving him a break after meeting a truly bad woman. Then the subdued Jack Ryan who works an offbeat but honest job finds himself embroiled with criminals and doing some pretty shady stuff in order to help out an innocent woman. Or at least that’s what he says. It often feels like Jack is rebelling against Perez for his arrogant assumption that Jack has been bought and paid for. So there’s the return of a Jack Ryan acting in destructive ways out of pride, just in service of a nobler cause.
Re-reading the two books back to back illustrates how Leonard's characters were very often not what they appeared to be, or even who they thought they were themselves.