Elmore Leonard had been writing for 22 years when his agent, the legendary H.N. Swanson, told him to read George V. Higgins's seminal crime novel about the Boston underworld, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. This was in 1972; Leonard was 46. He'd worked in advertising and written westerns—stories and novels—and he'd also written screenplays and the scripts for industrial films. But after reading Higgins and his expositionless, dialogue-heavy style, Leonard learned how to "loosen up" and "get into scenes quicker," and he found his voice as he turned to the crime fiction that would make him famous—beginning with a series of books set in Detroit. These novels make up the first of three volumes devoted to Leonard's writing by the Library of America. Volume one features 52 Pick-Up, Swag, Unknown Man No. 89, and The Switch.
Gregg Sutter, Leonard's longtime researcher, calls the first three books "an energy trilogy." They were also the last three books Leonard wrote as a drinker, and in Unknown Man No. 89, the author's own struggle with the bottle can be glimpsed in the protagonist's alcoholism. Leonard has said:
I never wrote when I was drinking or drunk—I knew better than to do that—though I did work hung-over. ... I didn't think it had much of an effect on my writing until I quit. … By then I was in AA and perhaps not taking myself so seriously, either. I had learned to relax and not think of it as writing.
On Jan 24, 1977, at 9:30 in the morning, Leonard had his last drink—Scotch and Vernors ginger ale. He divorced his wife, Beverly, in May. Unknown Man No. 89 was published in June.
With permission, please enjoy the first chapter of Unknown Man No. 89, courtesy of the Library of America's Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1970s, edited by Gregg Sutter. You're sure to be hooked.—Alex Belth
A friend of Ryan's said to him one time, "Yeah, but at least you don't take any shit from anybody."
Ryan said to his friend, "I don't know, the way things've been going, maybe it's about time I started taking some."
This had been a few years ago. Ryan remembered it as finally waking up, deciding to get off his ass and make some kind of run.
His sister drove him down to the Detroit police car auction, where he bought a 1970 maroon and white Cougar for $250. His sister didn't like the Cougar because it had four bullet holes in the door on the driver's side. Ryan said he didn't mind the holes. Didn't mind; he loved them.
The friend of Ryan's who told him about the car auctions was a police officer with long hair and jeans and a big Mag under his leather jacket who worked out of the Criminal Investigation Division at 1300 Beaubien. His name was Dick Speed. He showed Ryan around the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice and what went on behind the courtrooms and told him about serving papers and how a guy could do pretty well if he didn't mind driving around in his car all day. The way Dick Speed explained it, it didn't look too hard.
Ryan met a few process servers. He studied them to see if there was a process server "look." There didn't seem to be one. They could have been working on the line or delivering dry cleaning. Only one of them stood out, a short and sort of fat Jewish guy who wore leisure suits and seemed to know everybody in the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice. His name was Jay Walt. Ryan couldn't figure out what made the guy so sure of himself.
Ryan was thirty-six by then and starting to worry that maybe he was a misfit, a little out of touch with reality, that all the people strapped to their boring nine-to-fives were right and he was wrong.
He had sold insurance one time, for three weeks. He had sold new cars for several different Detroit dealerships; but, each place, the sales manager or the owner turned out to be a pain in the ass. He'd worked construction and driven a truck. He'd been with Local 299 of the Teamsters as a business agent for a while and got into a couple of fistfights that were interesting. He'd worked on the line at Chevrolet truck assembly in Flint, quit before he went out of his mind, and got a job at Abercrombie's store in Troy, but only lasted two weeks. One day during the Christmas rush he told a lady if she didn't like the service why didn't she go someplace else. He'd said to her, "Why should a nice person like you stand around taking a lot of shit?" Ryan was always polite. He had also been into a little breaking and entering when he was much younger and working for a carpet-cleaning company; but it was more for fun than profit: see if he could get away with it. He had been arrested only once, for felonious assault—belting a migrant crew chief the summer he picked cucumbers up in the Thumb—but the charge was dismissed. He had never served time.
What he got into serving was legal papers and it surprised him he liked it and was good at it. It surprised him that he was patient and had a knack for finding people. He wasn't afraid to walk up and hand someone a writ or a summons. As long as he didn't know anything about them personally it was all right. What they did, whatever trouble they were in, was their business, not his. He was polite, soft-spoken. He never hassled anybody. He would identify the individual and hand over the paper and say thank you, best of luck, and that was it. He couldn't remember many of the faces and he liked it that way.
He decided he liked process serving because he was his own boss. He could work two hours a day or twenty-four; and because he liked it, he usually put in at least twelve. He didn't mind being in the car most of the day. He liked to drive around and listen to music or, about a hundred days a year, a Detroit Tigers baseball game. It didn't matter what place they were in. Ryan's ambition, up until the time he was twenty, was to be a major league third baseman. He'd looked good enough to get a tryout with the Red Sox; but he couldn't hit a breaking ball if the guy hung it up there in front of him. They told him he'd never make it. He had connected with that Chicano crew chief, though: hit him with a baseball bat on the hard-packed clearing in the cucumber fields when the guy came at him with a knife. Ryan had learned early that in street fighting, if there was no way to get out of it, you hit first and made it count and usually it was over. It was a good thing to know and keep with you.
The only problem he anticipated in his work was taking shit from people who didn't want to be served: people who'd give him a hard time, like he was the one taking them to court. But he handled it in a way that surprised him. He just didn't let these people bother him. He realized they were frightened or reacting without thinking. They were so pissed off at the first party, the plaintiff, they had to take it out on somebody and he was standing there, responsible. He realized they didn't mean it personally, so why get mad or upset?
He was told process serving was a dangerous occupation and that most process servers carried a gun. But Ryan never packed. A friend of his—not the cop, Dick Speed, another one—said, "But look, this guy sees you come in, he knows if he gets served he's going to lose his ass maybe. What if he's got a gun? The guy's scared shitless he sees you come in, bam, you're dead."
Ryan had been threatened with getting his head taken off. He had had guns pointed at him and waved in his face. He had served a guy, in a child-custody case, who had beaten up a couple of policemen. He had walked into the headquarters of a blacks-against-the-world group and had gotten all the looks and the bullshit and had walked out with an adding machine, a repossession.
"You're not even that big," his friend said, "that you'd scare anybody."
"In this work," Ryan told his friend, "you can be a boy scout, a humanitarian, you can be an ass chaser, there's plenty of that. I mean broads, ones that're lonely or grateful. You can lean on people, stick it to them if you get a kick out of that. Christ, like a guy I know, he's in the collection business now, Jay Walt. He likes to torture people, get them to squirm and whimper. You can do that. Or you can wish them luck and not horse them around any. We're all making the same trip, right? Trying to get along. Why should we fuck each other over and make life miserable?"
But never get personally involved, he might have added. That was rule number one. Don't get too close and start feeling sorry for people. You want to do that, go work for the Salvation Army.
The second week on the job, when he was still a little nervous, Ryan did buy a .38 Smith and Wesson Chiefs Special; but he never got around to carrying it. He could if he wanted to, it was legal, and it was in his top dresser drawer if he ever needed it. In his wallet he had a shield that was in the shape of a star and identified him as a constable, Oakland County, and business cards that advertised his private practice, SEARCH AND SERVE ASSOCIATES, JACK C. RYAN. He worked mainly in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties, which took in the Greater Detroit and Pontiac areas and as far east as Grosse Pointe and Mount Clemens on Lake Saint Clair.
By the end of his first year, Ryan had a list of attorneys who were sending him their service work. He'd stop by the Troy Municipal Court and pick up a batch there from the clerk two or three times a week and then stop by the Oakland County Circuit Court in Pontiac. He was getting enough business that he didn't have to go all the way downtown to the Detroit courts too often. What surprised him the most, he was organized. He planned his calls carefully, sometimes knocking on a door as early as four in the morning and handing the guy the paper before he had his eyes open. He served on the average of fifteen to twenty legal papers in a twelve-hour day, put upwards of two thousand miles a month on his car, and grossed between twenty and twenty-five thousand a year. Not bad, considering he was getting five or six bucks a service from the courts—zip if he failed to serve the paper—and twelve or fifteen, plus mileage, from the attorneys. Ryan was good and he knew it, and so did the court clerks and the attorneys who called him to handle the tough ones. They could take Ryan's word for it: if a defendant couldn't be found, then he wasn't around anymore, or he was dead. They knew his word was good and that he never signed the affidavit on a service he didn't complete—like the Belle Isle Bridge servers, guys who were known to drop a summons in the Detroit River (or a trash can) if locating the defendant appeared too difficult, or if it took them into a rough, inner-city neighborhood.
Ryan lived alone. He had a small one-bedroom unit in a fairly new apartment building in Royal Oak. He had been married once. He married a nice quiet girl who came into her own during the five years of their marriage and turned into a tough little hard-headed woman who liked to pick and find fault and was always right. He'd ask her, "What's it like being always right?" And she'd say, "You should hear yourself. No more Mr. Nice Guy, huh? Boy, have you changed." And things like that. He hadn't changed. He had gone by the book and purposely picked a sweet little June Allyson and discovered too late that when you take the girl next door into a different life she isn't the girl next door anymore. So he said fuck it—going through the motions of playing house, being someone he didn't want to be—and got a divorce.
His sister and brother-in-law, stuck in their little ranch house with four kids and a lamp in the picture window, told him he'd probably never grow up: he was like a little brat who always wanted his own way. He had dinner there and listened to them about three times a year. Every once in a while he would ask them what was so great about growing up.
Lately, he was seeing a girl by the name of Rita who was a legal secretary. Ryan told her, with her blond hair, she didn't look like a Rita at all. Rita thought he was nuts. She was a little nuts herself, unpredictable; though Ryan noticed she worked at it. Rita had thought that going out with a process server—actually making calls with him—would be a kicky thing to do. Until she realized Ryan was probably doing the same thing: getting an extra kick out of scoring with a legal secretary, a girl who handed him papers to serve. She wasn't sure, with his straight face, when he was kidding or being serious. So she'd tell him he was a nut and that would somehow cover it either way.
Sometimes on Saturdays Rita would ride with him, keep him company, and once in a while she'd help him serve a paper. He'd call her and Rita would say, "What have you got, another doctor?" Doctors, scared to death of malpractice suits, were hard to get to. One time Ryan tried to make an appointment with a doctor and found out the guy was a gynecologist. So he went in with Rita for her rabbit test, the concerned hubby. But when he tried to serve the paper, the doctor actually ran. They followed him out of the clinic, saw him get in his Buick Electra and take off. A mile and a half later they finally caught him at a stop light. The doctor was locking his doors, closing the power-operated windows as Ryan got out and walked around to the Buick. The doctor stared straight ahead and wouldn'tlook at Ryan when he knocked on the side window. So Ryan lifted the windshield wiper in front of the doctor's face and let it snap back to hold the court papers against the windshield. He said to the doctor, "This is a domestic litigation. You're being sued for divorce, not malpractice." Like turning it around and telling the doctor his tumor was benign. The doctor, behind the windshield, seemed to sag with relief. Ryan heard him say, "Oh, shit, is that all? Thank you."
Ryan got his picture in the paper when he served a rock group with a summons during their performance at the Masonic Temple Auditorium. He didn't do it as a stunt. It was the only way he saw to get close to them. The lead-in to the picture caption said " Show Stopper!" Rita had the newspaper photo blown up in a photostat and mounted and hung it in Ryan's living room. He showed a nice amount of poise there on the stage in front of the rock group, the freaks gaping at him, the paper extended, and the calm, deadpan expression on his face. Ryan liked the blowup. He would never have thought of hanging something like that in his living room.
The only things he didn't like about the paper-serving business were evictions and repossessions. Kicking people out of their home was awful. Getting ten bucks a room for the job and usually having to bring boxes for all their pitiful junk. Going in and taking a color TV or a chrome and Formica dinette set was bad enough. He couldn't get used to it, sticking it to some poor cluck who'd been laid off and was behind on his payments.
"He shouldn't have bought the item in the first place," Jay Walt said. "Who's supposed to eat it, the bank? The store? No, they'd be out of business carrying deadbeats. They got no choice in the final analysis but go to court."
Jay Walt ran a collection agency now with a high turnover of personnel; he still served some paper, but more as a sideline. Ryan had got to know him, picking up some of his paper work for a split of the fee when Jay Walt was overloaded and Ryan didn't have much to do. In a way, Jay Walt fascinated him; it was like the guy was playing a part, the little hotshot in his tinted glasses and leisure suit. Everything was a big deal, but the guy never paid an invoice sooner than ninety days. Ryan figured he was so tight with a buck he must still have his bar mitzvah money. Ryan didn't know he was being a smartass when he thought this; he believed he was being funny. He didn't own a leisure suit and hadn't gotten a dime when he made his first communion.
One time Jay Walt took Ryan along to show him how to handle a repossession. With them were two outside men who waited by the U-haul van and would do the lifting once Jay Walt cleared the way. Unbelievable. He walked right in, brushed past the woman in hair curlers who opened the door, and started looking around, hands on his hips, locating the stereo outfit and the color TV, where the little kid was sitting on the floor with a bowl of Spaghetti-Os watching General Hospital. The woman was asking Jay Walt who he was, what he wanted. Jay Walt said, "Honey, all the times we've talked on the phone, we're old friends. Allied Credit Service, Mr. Walt. Yeah, now you remember."
The husband came out from the kitchen wiping his hands on his T-shirt. Jay Walt didn't give him a chance.
"What's this, you're on your vacation? Taking a holiday? Your wife said you were working."
"What? I'm working," the husband said. "Over at Ranco, second shift." He was anxious, on the defensive in his own home, not even knowing what was going on.
"So how come you haven't made any payments?"
"For what? The home entertainment center. Hi-fi, speakers, nineteen-inch color TV. You're four payments behind. I told your wife, I didn't get it last week, on my desk, attention Mr. Walt, that's it, you don't own it anymore."
"See, I've only been working the past two weeks."
"You get paid?"
"We had some bills piling up. Specially doctor bills."
"You got some bills—what am I, at the end of the line? Screw Mr. Walt, huh?"
"We had to pay the doctor. Stevie's got this allergy they found out about—"
"Hey," Jay Walt said. "I'm allergic too. I break out when somebody gives me the runaround, when they lie to my face, tell me they refuse to meet a contractual obligation."
"Nobody lied to you. See, I was laid off, I was out five months, drawing just unemployment. What am I supposed to do?"
"You turn the music off and the TV?" Jay Walt asked. "No, you stop paying, but you keep entertaining yourselves." He looked over at Ryan by the door. "Tell them okay."
Ryan didn't know what he meant at first. The two guys outside. He felt funny motioning to them, like he was part of this.
As they came through the door, Jay Walt said, "The TV, the home entertainment setup, the étagère, everything."
"The what?" one of the outside men said.
"The fake shelves."
"Now wait a minute," the husband said, getting a little something into it; but he didn't move from where he was standing.
"Wait your ass," Jay Walt said. "Waiting time's over. Come on, get this crap out of here."
One of the outside men unplugged the TV. General Hospital disappeared and the little kid on the floor started to whine, making a sound like he was going to cry.
"They drop that TV on the kid, it's not our fault," Jay Walt said. "Get him out of the way." The mother yelled at the little boy, grabbed him, and marched the bewildered kid out of the room. She had to take it out on somebody.
Jay Walt said to the husband, "I was going to give you another month, you know that? But you blew it, give me that shit about the doctor."
"I can show you. Stevie's got this allergy." The husband didn't know what to do. He was getting frantic.
"Forget it," Jay Walt said.
When they were in Jay Walt's light-blue Mark IV, Ryan said, "He could've called the cops, you know that? Had you arrested."
"Sure I know it," Jay Walt said, "but asshole doesn't. Listen, you can tell them, Christ, anything, you wouldn't believe it."
"I'd believe it," Ryan said. "What do you do with his stuff?"
"Wait twenty-one days, that's the law, put three notices in the paper nobody can find, and supposedly sell it at auction," Jay Walt said. "How'd you like a home entertainment center, Jackie? Pretty good speakers, the étagère, everything, seventy-five bucks."
Rita told him he should have taken it, get rid of the Mickey Mouse record player he had. What the heck, seventy-five bucks, if he didn't grab it somebody else would. Ryan said listen, the cluck still had to make his payments; you realize that? Okay, Rita said, so it's a shitty deal. Life's full of shitty deals.
Well, maybe, but he wasn't going to get involved in that kind of stuff. He wouldn't mind having a light-blue Mark IV and an expensive hi-fi setup and a few other things. He wouldn't mind having a box at the ball park, right behind the Tigers' dugout, so he could get a good look at the guys as they came off the field and hear some of the things they said. It was possible. But he wasn't going to get a hernia trying, or give anybody else one.
He was doing all right.
At the end of three years he'd put 83,000 miles on the Cougar and traded it in on a Pontiac Catalina two-door, light-blue, with air and heavy-duty shocks, forty-six fifty-eight delivered. He was glad to finally get rid of the Cougar, though he'd still think about it every once in a while. There weren't many cars around with four bullet holes in the door.
See also: Elmore Leonard's opening lines
Excerpt from Unknown Man No. 89, copyright © 1977 by Elmore Leonard Inc. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers. You can buy Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1970s, on the Library of America website.