A Toast To Elmore Leonard – Crime Fiction Writer Extraordinaire
On August 20th, the literary world lost a great American fiction writer, a pulp fiction giant, and 1994 Edgar Award winner. Elmore Leonard passed away at the age of 87. He always looked old to me. I like to think he spent a lot of time in seedy bars sitting near ex-cons, appearing as an innocuous old man minding his own business as he eavesdropped on them. He probably didn’t even register on their radar as they plotted their next crime. You know he had one ear cocked to their conversations and noted everything, right down to their snappy dialogue and stains on their shirts.
Often called “The Dickens of Detroit” and “Dutch,” he has inspired generations of writers. Crime novelist George Pelecanos says he created “something new in crime fiction – he gave depth to all the characters, the antagonists and the protagonists.” Leonard’s books – he wrote Westerns as well as crime capers – were funny and thrilling, says Pelecanos, and “will stand the test of time and be read hundreds of years from now.” David Highfill, vice president and executive editor of publisher William Morrow, said, “There was, is and will be only one Elmore Leonard. He was the most original in this prolific age of American crime fiction, the original jazz man. His voice – sly, gentle, funny, often startling, always human – will speak to readers for generations to come.”
If you haven’t read his books you’ve likely seen some of his many movie adaptations. In the Get Shorty movie, who can forget the super-suave Chili Palmer, played by John Travolta? Or the borderline psychotic played by the late Dennis Farina? Russell Crowe starred in the Western 3:10 To Yuma, playing a dangerous outlaw who was a seemingly human fellow. I’m a big fan of another Leonard character, Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal, who in Riding The Rap is cool and confident and plays by his own rules when it comes to dealing with the backwoods Kentucky county he grew up in. It can be seen on FX, or on Superchannel in Canada. The biggest Hollywood stars portrayed his off-beat characters, including Paul Newman, George Clooney, and Clint Eastwood.
Elmore Leonard created fascinating, deeply flawed characters who lived on the edge. You cheered for some and hated others. All were interesting. Skewed motivations, poor decisions, weaknesses, and their often tragic backgrounds made for great reads: taking out a hit contract for a few thousand bucks, going in with a two-time loser on parole who the police were probably watching, or falling for some crazy broad “who always had the stink of gin on her breath.”
His novels are a safe entry to a hard world. He began writing Westerns and moved into a long string of contemporary crime novels littered with process servers, hit men, low-lifes, gun-runners, bounty hunters, felons, and many small-time criminals; outrageous and dysfunctional people who would often run on both sides of the law. They couldn’t ‘leap tall buildings in a single bound.’ Elmore Leonard’s characters bled and cried and died.
Let’s not forget the suspenseful and thrilling aspects of his writing, as well as the humor. For example, while arresting a yammering perp, the marshal, Raylan Givens, said, “If you’re gonna talk I’ll put you in the trunk and I’ll drive.” Or detective Vincent getting robbed in Glitz holding two bag of groceries, unable to go for his gun: “You see that car? Standard Plymouth, nothing on it, not even wheel covers?” It was a pale gray. “You think I’d go out and buy a car like that?” The guy (stick-up man) was wired on something or not paying attention. Vincent had to tell him, “It’s a police car, asshole. Now gimme the gun and go lean against it.”
Danger was an ever-present element, and what kept me turning the pages. I didn’t care much for his later stories as they were thinner and heavily reliant on dialogue, losing the former balance to his prose, but the pre-90’s stuff was fabulous. Chapter One from Killshot is a tremendous opening sequence. As a writer, I always try to remember Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, particularly his last one, which I find quite funny: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” It’s a difficult one, but worth striving for.
I’ve read more Elmore Leonard than most other authors combined (James Lee Burke runs a close second). If you are looking for a good read by Elmore Leonard, I’d start with the Edgar Award-winning or His website is a good spot to have a look at all of them. Reading him is like the old Lay’s potato chips ad where you “can’t eat just one.” And that’s a guarantee.