Saturday, August 24, 2013

A Few Words about Elmore Leonard

   Many moons ago, Dean Koontz published a book called How to Write Best-Selling Fiction.  At the end of that book, Koontz included a chapter discussing writers any aspiring novelist was advised to study.  There were a lot of prominent names in that chapter, and some names that were not yet nearly as prominent as they became later; one of them was Elmore Leonard.
   At that time, Leonard was not yet a best-seller, but it was clear that he had all the makings.  In his comments on Leonard, Koontz said (if memory serves) that one day some smart publisher would lay a large stack of dollars on Leonard and ask him to deliver the ultimate novel about city street types, and Leonard would deliver because there was nobody better at that kind of book.
   I hadn't yet read Leonard then, and didn't know the name, but I recognized some of his western titles (Hombre, Valdez Is Coming, "3:10 to Yuma").  Not long after that, Avon Books gave a push to the paperback release of Leonard's City Primeval; I picked up a copy and read a few chapters.  A few chapters was enough to get hooked, and Leonard went on the buy-this-guy-on-sight list, and with good reason.
   There's a story, can't recall where I saw it, about Leonard's time as an advertising copywriter; he'd listen to customers -- in this case people who actually drove the pickup truck being advertised -- and a customer made a comment Leonard wanted to use in the ads, but they wouldn't let him: "You don't wear that sonofabitch out -- you get tired of looking at it and you go buy a new one."  Leonard had an ear for good dialogue right from the start, and he excelled at creating it.  Leonard's ear for dialogue is unsurpassed, and his people -- good guys and bad guys alike -- are so bloody interesting that you have to hang around to see what they do next.  In the Clint Eastwood film Gran Torino there's a line that sums up quite a few of Elmore Leonard's characters: "Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn't have fucked with?  That's me."  That's also a hefty number of Leonard's people, hero and villain, male and female alike.  And unlike so many fictional heroes and villains who seem to have more than a touch of comic book about them, Leonard's people -- from the leads down to the two-line walk-ons -- feel like the kind of people you'd find sitting on the next bar stool.  They feel like people you see every day on the street and you never really notice them unless you cross them somehow.  And Jeez, are they fun to watch.
   If you've not read his novels yet, chances are you've caught some of the films, among them Jackie Brown (from the novel Rum Punch), Get Shorty, Mr Majestyk, Out of Sight, and Hombre.  Good as those movies are, the books are better, fast and lean and often funny and scary at the same time, and never dull, and Leonard brought this off with amazing regularity over a career that spanned nearly 60 years.
   When John D. MacDonald's work began to appear in hardcover, there were several quotes that appeared regularly on the dust jackets.  One was from Gerald Walker, saying that MacDonald "knows everything dangerous that there is to know about people."  Another was from Kurt Vonngut, who said that "To diggers a thousand years from now . . . the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen."  Both quotes could, I think, be fairly applied to the work of Elmore Leonard as well.

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