Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Elmore Leonard: An Appreciation


We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Howard Shrier, to our group.

When Elmore Leonard died in August, shortly after suffering a stroke at age 87, tributes flowed fast and furious in newspapers, on blogs and other media. Some were from writers you would expect to love Leonard (Robert Crais, Michael Connelly); others came from those on whom he would seem to have had little or no influence (Jackie Collins).

I suppose I fall somewhere in between. My crime novels, save for one, have been first-person private eye stories. With the exception of his classic Western, Hombre, Leonard never wrote in the first person. Nor did he ever feature a private eye as a protagonist. My first loves and most direct influences were Ross Macdonald and Raymond Chandler, and, later on, Robert B. Parker, Crais and Dennis Lehane, all of whom featured first-person private eyes who mixed humour and action in a blend I found satisfying and inspiring.

And yet Leonard became my favourite writer of all time, of any genre. Over the past thirty years, I read and reread his books compulsively. Though his voice and mine are vastly different, and his use of multiple points of view something I have only tried in one book (Lostport), I can pick up any novel of his, even one whose ending I know perfectly well, and savour it for its economy, brilliant dialogue and mastery of time, place and character.

He began his writing career in the early fifties, penning Western stories for the magazines that flourished in those years. Available now in various collections, the stories developed themes he would build on throughout his career: decent men in trouble, whose character is revealed through the action they take to get out of it. His Western heroes often appeared quiet and unassuming on the surface and were easily underestimated by their enemies; a good example is the story “3:10 to Yuma,” which was filmed in 1957 with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, and again in 2007 with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. Ford and Crowe played the bad guy; Heflin and Bale the quiet, decent good guy.

Elmore Leonard (Photo: Vince Bucci/Getty Images)

He soon began writing full-length Western novels, two of which are arguably among the best ever written: Hombre, adapted into a classic film starring Paul Newman, and Valdez is Coming, another classic that starred Burt Lancaster. The latter fits perfectly with the theme of the underestimated hero: Bob Valdez, a mild town constable, who seeks to right the wrong done to an Apache woman, is nearly murdered for his trouble, and, summoning his past as an Army fighter, takes on a small army of men rather than back down.

As good as his Westerns were, the world of crime beckoned and in 1969, Leonard published The Big Bounce, a caper set in rural Michigan. It was not particularly successful as a book or film (starring Ryan O’Neal) but it paved the way for more crime books and out they poured.

Like his Westerns, the first few novels (Mr. Majestyk, The Moonshine War) were set largely in rural areas. It wasn’t until he began to exploit the urban jungle of Detroit that he came into his own. Between 1974 and 1980, he published Fifty-Two Pickup, Unknown Man No. 89, Swag, The Switch, City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit and Split Images, each one better than the last. He avoided using a series character, in part because he didn’t want film studios to be able to option more than one book at a time. Not until City Primeval did he introduce a cop hero. The protagonists of the other books include a car thief, a process server and a Detroit housewife and her kidnappers.

From the start, he showed a great talent for bad guys. Their dialogue, their inner voices, their rhythms became more intricate, more colourful, more musical over time. It was like watching a great jazz player develop his chops. His villains are greedy, impulsive, fearless—classic sociopaths determined to take exactly what they want. They share a lot with the gunslingers of his Westerns; as long as they have a gun they can stick in someone’s mouth, they feel empowered and impervious.

In the early eighties, he began setting stories in Miami, bringing new colours and flavours into books like Gold Coast, Cat Chaser, Stick and LaBrava. Again, the heroes are an unusual bunch. Cat Chaser, for example, features the owner of a small seaside motel who falls in love with the wife of a powerful Dominican expatriate and finds there’s a price to pay. Joseph LaBrava is trying to make it as a photographer in South Beach; he winds up in the middle of an intricate plot to kidnap a former film star.

(Photo: Paul Sancya/AP Photo)
There is more to both men, however, than meets the eye: the motel owner, George Moran, is a former marine who is tougher than he appears to be. LaBrava is a retired and very resourceful Secret Service agent who gets in the way of the would-be kidnappers. Decent men in trouble, easily underestimated by their enemies. The trail back to his Western themes is abundantly sharp and clear.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, his output and acclaim grew. Critics across the globe routinely hailed him as the greatest living writer of crime fiction. Many a literary writer confessed to being fans. When Glitz—my all-time favourite of his novels—was published in 1985, Newsweek put him on its cover. He continued to mine his settings in Detroit and Miami in books like Freaky Deaky, Maximum Bob, Out of Sight, Rum Punch and Mr. Paradiso, while exploring new territory, including New Orleans (Bandits), Italy (Pronto), Los Angeles (Get Shorty, Be Cool), Rwanda (Pagan Babies) and Harlan County (the story “Fire in the Hole,” adapted into the hit FX series Justified).

He began to fare better in movie adaptations of his work. Some of his best novels were never filmed or turned into stinkers, like the 1985 version of Stick directed by and starring an overmatched Burt Reynolds. But Get Shorty and Out of Sight were both extremely well done and faithful to the novels, as was Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino’s adaptation of Rum Punch.

In his later years, he began a series of stories featuring the U.S. Marshal Carl Webster, also known as the Hot Kid (Comfort to the Enemy, Up in Honey’s Room); published his first children’s book (A Coyote’s in the House); set a book among the pirates of Somalia (Djibouti); went back in time to the Spanish-American war (Cuba Libre); and in his last book, Raylan, interwove three stories about U.S. Marshal, Raylan Givens and his friend and sometimes nemesis Boyd Crowder.

Coincidentally, Raylan came out the same day in January, 2012, as my third Jonah Geller novel, Boston Cream. Both featured plots involving organ theft. Just my luck, I thought. I have to compete with the all-time master of crime, like a mosquito flying into the windshield of an oncoming truck.

I had the pleasure of meeting Leonard in 1987, when he came to Toronto for the International Festival of Authors. I had managed to track down his unlisted phone number at his home in a suburb of Detroit and had a long phone conversation with him about his characters and his use of point of view. A few weeks later, we met for ninety minutes at his Toronto hotel and continued the discussion. I’ll never forget some of the things he told me, including this primer on point of view.

Elmore Leonard in 1983 (Photo: Rob Kozloff/AP Photos)
In his great novel Glitz, there was a scene he didn’t think was working, between casino executive Tommy Donovan and his wife Nancy, who was the real brains in the couple. He’s half-drunk most of the time and she can cut him off at the knees when she wants to. But the scene wasn’t catching fire, he told me. Their bickering was too corrosive, not getting him where he wanted to go. So he drafted in a third character, a wisecracker named Jackie Garbo who helps run the casino, and wrote the scene from his point of view. The result is a classic. Now he had levity to balance the acid in the scene. Jackie can’t believe the husband, Tommy, is reckless enough to show off and take on Nancy when he’s half in the bag. He can barely hide his astonishment and amusement as she cuts him to bits. It was a brilliant solution to a problem, worthy of the man whose Ten Rules of Writing are sacred to many a writer and writing teacher.

If you have never seen the rules, they are well worth reading and remembering. You can find them hereThe one I try to abide by the most is number ten, which he always claimed was the secret to his success: “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” It’s a brilliant summation of his approach to his craft and he was, above all, a master craftsman.

And a musician at heart. And a romantic, whose characters often fall quickly and deeply in love, like Vincent and Linda Moon in Glitz, or escaped convict Jack Foley and Marshal Karen Cisco in Out of SightAbove all, he was a true original. One can argue there would have been no Raymond Chandler without Dashiell Hammett before him; no Ross Macdonald without Chandler; and no Parker, Crais or Lehane without that first great triumvirate before them. But Leonard owed nothing to anyone. He forged his own path from the harsh Western landscapes of the Arizona Territory to Detroit and beyond. He created his own brand of hero and a fantastic collection of bad guys.

“Wonderful things can happen when you plant seeds of distrust in a garden of assholes,” says Vincent Mora in GlitzIt would be hard to come up with a better description of what Elmore Leonard did for more than 40 years. His garden of assholes is Babylonian in nature. It pains me to know there will be no more books forthcoming. No more good guys like Vincent, no more bad guys like Boyd Crowder. But I do have a shelf full of his books that have given me enormous pleasure since I first picked up a copy of Swag in a used bookstore in 1984, read the first page, and was instantly hooked. And they will keep giving me pleasure until the last one crumbles from overuse.


Howard Shrier is the author of four novels featuring private investigator Jonah Geller—Buffalo Jump, High Chicago, Boston Cream and Miss Montreal—and  one standalone thriller, Lostport.

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