Friday, August 23, 2013

Elmore Leonard

by Russel D McLean

“I once asked this literary agent what kind of writing paid the best.  He said, “Ransom notes.”” 
– Harry Zimm, Get Shorty

For me, Elmore Leonard – who died on 20/08/13 – was and will remain the most influential crime writer I read. His place in history is assured, and while Chandler and Hammett may have invented modern America crime fiction, Leonard (after a brief time writing westerns) took it to places that I don’t think anyone expected. He really did give murder back to the people who did it right, and more than that, he wrote in their language and he didn’t (often) filter his crime through the lens of the procedural.

In fact – US Marshals Givens and Sisco aside – I’m having trouble remembering too many cop characters who took the lead in Leonard’s work. The ones who stick in the mind are the characters who’d be bad guys in any other novel: Harry Arno, Chili Palmer, Bobby Deo, Ray Barboni. Leonard treated his criminals with a respect that is rare in crime fiction. Even his sociopaths felt real. Bobby Deo, from Riding the Rap, could have been a simple one-joke character – a criminal who likes to cut people’s fingers off with his gardening shears and has fantasies about facing off with Marshall Givens in a High Noon-style climax – but Leonard isn’t afraid to make him charming and occasionally normal. Deo is fascinating, and the banality of his sociopathy is far more chilling than if he’d been a scene chewing, blood spattering psycho.

“That’s right, you got a divorce. You remarried – what about your present husband?”
“He died last year”
“You go through ‘em,” Nicolet said. “What kind of work did he do?”
“He drank,” Jackie said
Jackie Brown

Like Chandler, Leonard had a habit of creating fireworks on every page. Even when the plots were paper thin (and they occasionally were) you read for the verbal sparring of his characters. Leonard wrote dialogue the way Mozart wrote Symphonies. Most of the time you didn’t need a dialogue tag to know who was speaking, and you could feel your eyeballs moving with the pace of a character’s speech.

First time I encountered this was when my Dad gifted me a copy of Mr Majestyk when I was 16 or 17. He wanted me to try other things apart from the Science Fiction I was devouring on a daily basis. I wasn’t so sure, but I took the book and made a promise to read it. It wound up in a pile of books I meant to read someday. Then, a few months later, I saw the John Travolta starring Get Shorty, based on another of Leonard’s books and immediately started devouring my dad’s backlist of Leonard novels. I had a lot to choose from.

“Majestyk didn’t say anything. He gave the guy a little smile. He had enough to think about.” 
– Mr Majestyk

When I was younger, me and mum would buy dad an Elmore Leonard novel every birthday or Christmas (so it seemed) and what I would do every time was decide which one he’d read based on the distinctive two tone colouring of the covers. At that time, Leonard covers were cool and striking

and you could tell which one’s he’d read by which colours were on the cover. But as I discovered fast, there was more to Leonard than just cool covers. Maybe the association helped ease me into Leonard’s world, but I doubt it. You could come cold to Leonard and still admire his ferocious skill.

What Leonard wrote weren’t Agatha Christie novels, or books where the cops always won out and locked up the bad guys in time for tea. These weren’t even “subversive” books about the point of view of sadistic bad guys. They were books about knock-around guys and working criminals. The kind of characters you could meet almost anywhere but who had chosen a life that revolved around breaking – or more usually bending – the law.

But there was something else about Leonard that really affected me: the man could be screamingly funny. For a while, I thought that was his schtick; he was the guy who wrote the funny crime novels. But Leonard wasn’t a one trick pony. Novels like Touch and Killshot showed a more serious side, and while perhaps they weren’t as well received, I still think they were masterfully constructed. For all its flaws, I still think Touch is an underrated book, and the fact that it’s about a guy suffering from Stigmata actually adds a layer of interest rather than detracting from what many would have seen as Leonard’s style.

“I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs.”
– Elmore Leonard

More than anything, Leonard was a storyteller par-excellence. One of the oft quoted blurbs on his books has him “sidling up like a bar-room buddy with a story to tell” and that’s how it always felt. You could always rely on Leonard. He had a voice. A voice that never interfered with the story he was telling, that always masterfully disguised itself within the action of a narrative, within the words of his characters. A Leonard book was always unmistakeably a Leonard book, but it was also its own entity. He allowed his characters to tell their stories. He never judged. Never manipulated. Just let them speak.

His list of 10 writing “rules” remain important to me. Although I believe I may have broken his second (“avoid prologues”) a few times. But I still think that those ten aphorisms are more important than anything one could ever learn on a creative writing course. To this day I still cringe when I find myself using the word “suddenly” but I’m proud to say that I’m fairly certain I never used “all hell broke loose” right behind it. He’s also the reason that, as a writer, I avoid writing in a Scots “patois”, instead suggesting accent through cadence and rhythm. As to adverbs, well, I quite those suckers long ago. Never looked back.

I never met Leonard. He was one of my “to meet” list writers (so far I’ve managed one, and chickened out of meeting another) and now I’ll never get to tick him off that list. By all accounts he was a good guy, well liked by people. But it’s his writing that I and many others will remember him for. Because he could write. Brilliantly and consistently (whoops, there go those adverbs). His novels – even into his 80s – were often more energetic and effortlessly cool than writers of half his age. My proudest professional moment was having a magazine review I wrote of COMFORT TO THE ENEMY quoted on Leonard’s publisher’s website: “An excellent read….Concrete evidence of a master crime writer still at the top of his game.”

And that, for me, was a truism about Leonard the writer. Sure, some books were not quite as a good as others, but he was always entertaining, always worthwhile. Where some writers vary in wuality from book to book or find themselves dropping off, Leonard was always exciting. A lesser Leonard was a still brilliant book by any other standard. I can count on one finger the books that I wasn’t so keen on. Yes, I even loved his Floridian comedy, Maximum Bob.

Maybe all of this is why Leonard’s passing feels so oddly personal to me. I never met the man, but I knew his writing. A new Leonard book was like meeting with an old friend and finding they were just as dynamic and interesting as ever. For me, he felt like a permanent part of the world. Bookstores and publishers and pretenders to the throne came and went, but Leonard stayed. Until now.

So thank you, Mr Leonard. As a writer, I was inspired by your works. But more importantly, as a reader, I was consumed and enthralled by them. You were – and will remain – one of the few writers whose books I read and re-read, whose characters I reference in conversation, whose dialogue always brings a smile to my face .

Elmore Leonard, 1925-2013

5 Elmore Leonard Novels you should read

Riding the Rap – it’s a later Leonard, but for me, Bobby Deo is the ultimate bad guy. And his fate had me gasping halfway between shock and laughter.

Get Shorty – The sequel was inferior, but the original book is a sharp and savage Hollywood satire.

Mr Majestyk – the first book my dad gave me, it’s a short, sharp tale of revenge. Bloody brilliant.

Out of Sight – effortlessly sexy tale of the attraction between a US Marshall and a professional bank robber who’s on the run. Like, Get Shorty, this was made into a successful movie, and its easy to see why when you read the book.

Rum Punch – Filmed as Jackie Brown, its an effortlessly cool entry into the Leonard Canon.

1 comment:

John McFetridge said...

Chris Mankowski in Freaky Deaky is a cop as a main character. That book and Pagan Babies don't get mentioned very often but they're both terrific books (I guess with so many to choose from they can't all get mentioned all the time ;)).

This article Elmore Leonard wrote for Detroit magazine about the homicide squad is very interesting (I think, anyway):