LEONARD'S 'BLUES' SINGS WITH HIS CLASSIC STYLE

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One thing that's always been true about Elmore Leonard is that he takes his world with him. With "Tishomingo Blues," his 37th novel, Leonard's traveling road show pulls into Tunica, Miss.

Ten years ago, that would have seemed an odd setting for Leonard, whose modern novels have never strayed too far from the street. But when you consider that Leonard began No. 36, "Pagan Babies," in Rwanda, maybe it's not that far after all.

Besides, like almost everywhere else these days, casinos have come to the Delta, and they attract Leonard's sort of folks: drifters, schemers, and not-too-bright dreamers, and those are just the heroes. The bad guys - the women are never pure, but they're rarely bad - are evil, greedy, and ultimately stupid.

Leonard's newest hero is Dennis Lenahan, a high diver who's getting on in years but can't give up the rush of leaping from 80 feet. He may still want to dive, but he's tiring of the road, so he cold-calls Billy Darwin, whom he'd met up with once before, long before Darwin became manager of the Tishomingo Lodge & Casino.

"`You want to dive off the roof?' Darwin asks.

"`Into your swimming pool,' Dennis said, `twice a day as a special attraction.'

"`We go up seven floors.'

"`That sounds just right.'

"`But the pool's about a hundred feet away. You'd have to take a good running start, wouldn't you?'

"Right there, Dennis knew he could work something out with this Billy Darwin."

And right there are several elements that make up an Elmore Leonard novel: The dialogue is spare and rapid-fire, for example. He adds to it only grudgingly, preferring his characters to do most of the work. Leonard has always evinced a puckish humor, too, and in "Tishomingo" he does so particularly.

The character Vernice explains how she lost weight on "the Jenny Crank diet," for example.

Then later, a roadhouse prostitute makes her pitch:" `Hi, I'm Traci. You want to see my trailer?'

"`I bet it's nice,' John Rau said, `but I'm waiting to see the proprietor. The bartender's gone to check.'

"`Junebug left,' Traci said. `You want, we could party till he gets back. I don't have an appointment till three.'

"John Rau said, `Traci, I'm with the state police.'

"And she said, `Oh, was I going too fast?' "

Another Leonard trait is how seamlessly he weaves the outside world into his. Not only do Mississippi's casinos provide a backdrop in "Tishomingo," but so do Civil War reenactments, allowing Leonard two vantage points on the present while peeking at the past.

Leonard clearly holds dear another part of Mississippi's past, too, as the birthplace of the blues; old bluesmen such as Charley Patton and particularly Robert Johnson make several appearances in the minds and hearts of characters. And according to an introductory page, before Tishomingo was a casino name, it was a locale in a blues performed by Peg Leg Howell in November 1926.

Leonard doesn't know only bygone players, either: Though he doesn't make them characters, as he did members of Aerosmith in "Be Cool," Leonard shows he also knows a thing or two about Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, and Erykah Badu. Not bad for a guy who's making the turn toward 80.

Such pop references lend verisimilitude, but Leonard doesn't need to rely on them because the people he creates lend even more. Floyd Showers, for example, dies in Chapter 2, but Leonard imbues him with plenty of life nevertheless: He was "a skinny guy in his fifties with a sunken mouth and skid row ways about him. He always had a pint of Maker's Mark and cigarette butts in the pockets of the threadbare suitcoat he wore with his overalls, wore it even during the heat of the day." Later on, someone else observes, "Man's name was Showers and looked like he never took one in his life." In just a few sentences, Floyd becomes real.

It would be overrating to put "Tishomingo Blues" on the top shelf of Leonard's library with "Rum Punch" and "Maximum Bob," but it's a strong entry that reassures faithful readers who feared, on the weakness of "Pagan Babies" and "Be Cool," that Leonard had run dry.

Like Dennis Lenahan, Leonard may be getting on in years, but he's not ready to give up the thrill of getting on the high platform, soaking up the cheers, and diving right in.