One of the lynchpin’s of Elmore Leonard’s 1990 novel Get Shorty is the tale of small-time amateur airline scammer Leo Devoe. The story goes like this: Devoe owes the mob money he doesn’t have so he tries to skip town. His plane is delayed, so he gets off and drinks in the airport bar. The plane he was supposed to be on crashes, and his “widow” is able to collect $300,000 in life insurance as a result of her husband’s “death.”

It would betray the plot of Peter Leonard’s Unknown Remains to say more than that, but rest assured that those familiar with the elder Leonard’s work will find a lot of similarities in his son’s most recent novel and not just in a penchant for smalltime crooks trying to act bigger than their station and pulpy, engaging plot twists. Peter’s story can be summarized thusly: the bad guys working for the worse guys try to put the squeeze on the innocent wife of the man they can’t find.

The novel’s immediate hook is its setting: September 11, 2001. 15 years removed from the most harrowing terror attack the nation has ever known, one may be unsure what to make of Leonard’s decision to set his story where he does. Has enough time passed that evoking 9/11 is no longer as significant a decision as it would have been a few years ago? Is 9/11 still present enough in mind that if an author is going to make that decision, there has to be a resonant reason for it? There’s an argument to be made that without the reality of the event as a grounding agent, the plot of Unknown Remains would be too far-fetched to even be allowed in a pulp crime novel. That said, those of the opinion that there must be a clear narrative justification for uniting your store to the most tragic man-made disaster of the new century should not look to Leonard to offer it.

Setting that aside, there is much to like in Unknown Remains. Like his father before him, Leonard is at his best when he’s adding knots to his plotting, shaking up what the reader believes is known about characters and motivations. The climax of the book’s first act is especially jarring as one character enters abruptly while another leaves just as unexpectedly. Watching the characters turn around each other, plotting moves and countermoves, makes for exciting, page-turning stuff. In these moments, the book sings.

The novel can’t survive a third-act setting change however. Once Leonard moves his story to Florida, reuniting two characters and forcing them together to stop a collector turned murderer, the book’s twists and turns feel less exciting and more perfunctory, as if they were added to provide an ending rather than serve a natural conclusion. It would be fair to say that some of these late-story issues are just part and parcel with crime writing, that the tangling is more exciting than the untangling, but Unknown Remains loses its page-turning, beach-read appeal the further it moves from its central tragedy. For better or worse, the story’s success is tied to its connection to 9/11. By the book’s end, it’s not clear if its mystery is worth the reference.

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