August 22, 2013

The Great Elmore Leonard, RIP

I first started taking crime fiction seriously when I began reading the books of Elmore Leonard. A friend had brought a couple back from America in the early eighties and loaned them to me. I'd just begun to include American crime fiction as a staple part of my leisure reading, beginning with George Higgins and - another American import who wasn't published in the UK - K.C. Constantine and his Mario Balzic novels. Shortly afterwards came my introduction to Robert Parker's Spenser, which sent me back to the Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald ... and on and on.

These were all great books to read - involving, swift-moving, funny, great dialogue ... but Elmore Leonard stood out even from this pack. His style involved you immediately in the action and in the thought processes of his main characters. Here are some first lines:

"The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming."—Glitz (1985)

"Chris Mankowski's last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb."—Freaky Deaky (1988)

"The Blackbird told himself he was drinking too much because he lived in this hotel and the Silver Dollar was close by, right downstairs."—Killshot (1989)

"Dale Crowe Junior told Kathy Baker, his probation officer, he didn't see where he had done anything wrong."—Maximum Bob (1991)

Each beginning places you with the lead character and looking at an event through his point of view. You're both witnessing the event and involved in it at the same time, and before you know it, Leonard's peculiar ability has you understanding and empathising with a character whom you've probably never met the likes of, nor are likely to.

He said that when beginning to write a book he would write 'as' the characters until he heard their voices and knew what they were going to say and how. His tactic then was to get them talking as quickly as possible in the book so that they can lead the story where it's going to go. Reading his crime novels you're never worried about finding out 'who done it' - largely because you know in the first couple of pages who the bad guys are and what they've done. You read his books to enjoy the way the characters interact with each other, the way they change their minds or do something spontaneous (given vivid life in Tarantino's Jackie Brown when Robert de Niro shoots Bridget Fonda in a car park because he's irritated with her). You read his books with a huge grin on your face because his characters are entertaining, not because his plots are compelling (though they are often complex).

Now that he's gone I realize that I'll never be entertained in quite the same way again. Nobody else writing has his knack of rendering speech that seems natural and compelling at the same time. No one else can catch the sense that a character is actually thinking as he or she speaks - the way they monitor themselves or include in their speech the reactions of the person they're speaking to. No one else can drive a plot simply through the characters doing what they both want and need to do - not because the author wants them to for the sake of the plot, but because it's a natural course of action for them and they can't help themselves.

He often said that if it sounded like 'writing', he cut it out. Well in his best work - which was most of it - he never sounded like he was 'writing', just reporting on the characters that he'd made up but who were nonetheless real human beings. I'm grateful he was here and more than sad that he's gone.


  1. I feel the same way, Keith. For me the main consolation is that I haven't read all his books yet. I have Mr. Paradise and Pagan Babies on my nightstand now. Do you know if the book he was working on at the time of his stroke is close enough to completion it can be published?

  2. Hi Louis
    I haven't read anything from the various comments and from the obituary written by his researcher to say whether his new book was near completion or not. I think if it had been close they might have said something. However, I guess his publishers might want to publish it anyway ... perhaps his son, Peter, might complete it!