I can still remember reading Stick in my 9th grade study hall, May of ’85, reading it before the movie came out. I remember the dialogue popping off the page and characters I could easily picture, even though there was little description given. I also remember thinking to myself, “This is how I want to write.”
I know I’m not the only writer, accomplished or struggling, who remembers his first Elmore Leonard book. I’d suspect some remember their first Elmore Leonard novel better than their first kiss. With forty-six books and dozens of short stories, he revolutionized two generations of novelists and screenwriters.
Elmore “Dutch” Leonard started out, with the help of a subscription to Arizona Highways magazine, writing short western stories for magazines in the early Fifties. Inspired by Hemingway because he was also “writing about guys in the mountains with rifles”, these tales were more character driven and strayed from the black and white morality the genre was known for at the time. Already, what his characters said meant as much as what they did.
He had a bit of a criminal approach when writing the short work and some of his early novels. He picked up the habit of writing on yellow legal pads,because he could work on them at his ad agency job and nobody would question what he was doing.
His westerns gained acclaim. “The Captives”, “Three Ten To Yuma” and his novels Valdez Is Coming and Hombre were turned into movies. The film version of Hombre is in the Western Writers Of America’s Top 100.
However it was in crime fiction where he truly fond his voice and made his mark. Inspired by George V. Higgins’s The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, he found the style he wanted to use to approach the genre. He took Higgins’s sprawling, dense style of dialogue and streamlined it, making it more accessible for readers and infusing it with a strong sense of pace.
For somebody who proclaimed his goal was to entertain the reader, his books dealt in the small scale. The money being fought over was usually less than half a million and the the only world threatened was their own little one. A Leonard stand -ff could just as end easily end in negotiation as it could in gunfire. When I was talking to the legendary writer James Crumley about Leonard, he said of his colleague, “Dutch is the master of the understatement.”
His books also carry a social significance that he doesn’t get enough credit for, maybe because of that understatement. Even when you don’t sympathize with his criminals, which you often do, you understand where they come from and where they are trying to get to. Many are looking for a better life but are caught in a cycle that traps them in the old one. Split Images deals with a rich psycho who finds ways to kill people and get away with it legally. Leonard was also one of the rare male writers who portrayed women protagonists in a realistic way. In Out Of Sight, when Karen Sisco talks about why she joined the U.S. Marshals, instead of the other law enforcement groups, we learn that much of it had to do with where she would feel accepted.
My first event as a bookseller was with Dutch for the release of Mr. Paradise. It was one of those times when fan boy love trumped professionalism. He patiently put up with my gushing over him, wile I handed him copies to sign. At the end of the night, he autographed mine with the inscription “Scott- Thanks for all the help”. I joked that if anybody asked what it meant that I’d say he got stuck on chapter twelve and gave me a call. Without a beat he responded, “Whatever gets you by.”
He always knew the right line of dialogue.
With over 46 books, here our 10 that will give you a good idea of Elmore Leonard’s work:
1. Freaky Deaky
At one time his personal favorite, this one is about a Vietnam vet Detroit cop who finds himself in the middle of former Sixties radicals, an extortion plot, and a few bombs. This subtle satire of baby boomers in the Eighties also has one of the best first chapters I’ve ever read.
2. Unknown Man #89
Loved by many crime fiction writers, Unknown Man #89 is part of the earlier and grittier novels of his “Detroit Era”. Leonard captures the life of Jack Ryan, a process server who can find anybody, and the streets he has to navigate when hired to find a man who’s inherited a lot of money, as well as some enemies gunning for him. This book gives you the feeling of driving through a bad neighborhood.
3. Out Of Sight
Quite possibly the quintessential Elmore Leonard book. This story of A U.S. marshal falling for the robber she’s after balances humorous dialogue and situations with sudden and hard edged violence. Also one of the best film adaptations.
4. The Complete Western Stories
All of his western short work. Most were written in the Fifties and are still ahead of their time. Three, “The Captives”, “The Tall T”, and “The Tonto Woman”, have been turned into films.
5. Forty Lashes Less One
One of his finest western novels. You could argue it’s one of his first crime novels. It deals with an Apache and a black man doing time in a turn-of-the-century Yuma prison. Most of Leonard’s inmates from this book cold easily be dropped into his modern tales.
6. Get Shorty
The book that made him a household name. This story of a loan shark in LA is one of the best and funniest send ups of Hollywood.
7. City Primeval
This could be Leonard’s toughest book. Subtitled “High Noon In Detroit”, it is basically a modern western with a cop and crook circling each other in a decaying urban landscape. The hero, Raymond Cruz, makes cameos in later Leonard novels.
Commissioned by a publisher who was a western fan, this was his last one in the genre. It’s a fun tale of two friends who square off while the newspapers look on.
9. Maximum Bob
One of his funniest, the title character in this one is a judge who tries to kill his wife with an alligator. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
10. Be Cool
While he wrote better books, this sequel to Get Shorty is also a look at Leonard’s writing process. Chili Palmer gets involved with shady music business types as a way to develop a new movie idea.