Jack Ryan

Created by Elmore Leonard

With a few notable exceptions, Elmore Leonard didn’t really write series characters, or even private eyes, for that matter. Still, his books are full of recurring characters who seemed to randomly wander in and out of his fiction, sometimes only briefly, and sometimes making themselves right at home.

And a few of them have the audacity to wander into this site’s ever-elastic definition of what a “private eye” is.

Plus, it’s my site.

In Unknown Man #89, Leonard’s 1977 offering (he seemed to crank out a novel a year, more or less), he gave us JACK RYAN, a thief who’d already appeared in The Big Bounce (1969), Leonard’s very first crime novel, following a string of successful Westerns.

But when we hook up with Jack again in Unknown Man #89 ten years or so later, he’s theoretically cleaned up his life, and is working as a Detroit process server, delivering legal documents to people who don’t really want to be ‘served.’ This being Leonard, Jack soon gets in over his head, trying to trace a skip who apparently doesn’t want to be traced, and finds himself tangled up with a motley (and mostly dangerous) array of con artists, hitmen, thugs and drunks.

Ryan pushes on, though, clinging to his code, even if he and the reader aren’t always sure what it is. Something along the lines of “We’re all making the same trip, right? Why should we fuck each other over and make life miserable?”

Not exactly the Golden Rule, is it?

Still, Jack’s heart is more or less in the right place, and his sympathies for an alcoholic widow he comes across are surprisingly effective, and even moving. Leonard rarely allowed such sentimentality or even compassion to creep into his subsequent crime fiction, so it’s worth treasing in this one. And may explain why this novel remains one of my favourites of his.

Ryan’s even made it onto the big screen. Unfortunately, it’s The Big Bounce that has been adapted, not Unknown Man #89. And not once, but twice! First in 1969, with Ryan O’Neal as Jack, and the second time with Owen Wilson stepping into the role. Even more disappointing, though, is that neither of the films are particularly good; strictly also-ran Leonard.


  • “Leonard accomplishes a rare feat in this gritty mid 20th century thriller—an action packed story that dives deep into addiction and the path out of it; the sort of truth that comes from pain and experience. Mixing deep introspection with tough characters and risky choices—the hardest one being to tell the truth and risk all.”
    — Nev March (Winter 2020, Mystery Tribune #13)



    (1969, Warner Brothers)
    102 minutes
    Based on the novel by Elmore Leonard
    Screenplay by Elmore Leonard
    Directed by Alex March
    Original music by Mike Curb
    Cinematography by Howard Schwartz
    Starring Ryan O’Neal as JACK RYAN
    Also starring Leigh-Taylor Young, James Daly, Robert Webber, Lee Grant, Van Helflin
    Pretty much a flop; notable now for being the big screen debut of master thespian Ryan O’Neal.
    (2004, Warner Brothers)
    Release Date: January 30, 2004
    Based on the novel by Elmore Leonard
    Screenplay by Sebastian Gutierrez and George Armitage
    Directed by George Armitage
    Producers: Jorge Saralegui, George Armitage, Steve Bing
    Executive producers: Brent Armitage, Zane Weiner
    Starring Owen Wilson as Jack Ryan
    Also starring Morgan Freeman, Sara Foster, Gary Sinise, Charlie Sheen, Vinnie Jones, Bebe Neuwirth, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Harry Dean Stanton
    Remake of 1969 flick which starred Ryan O’Neal, based on Elmore Leonard’s first crime novel. “Re-imagined” as a romantic comedy, and set on the exotic North Shore of Oahu. Owen Wilson as a likeable drifter/thief who hooks up with a thrill-loving woman specializing in good looks and petty scams. When she tries to seduce him into double-crossing his former boss, a shady real estate developer, for a chunk of cash, it could be the perfect score or the perfect set-up.
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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