Elmore Leonard: Master of verbal tics and black humor
Acclaimed American writer who praised plain writing achieved literary daring across 60-year publishing career
Although the death of the American writer Elmore Leonard – on Tuesday, aged 87, in Detroit, from complications from a recent stroke – is certainly a matter for sadness and regret, the writer would not want to be responsible for anyone speaking of the news “sadly” or “regretfully”.
One of his much-circulated 10 Rules for Successful Writing – in which he distilled the approach that brought him six decades of bestsellerdom – was that dialogue should never have any descriptive modifier. “‘Leonard is dead,’ they said,” is something like the way the news should be communicated, according to his stylistic strictures, which always emphasised simplicity. Another is “try to leave out the parts that readers skip”.
If there was a Leonard formula, it was remarkably efficient. The publication this year of the paperback edition of Raylan, his 45th novel, means that he achieved a 60-year publishing career that began with The Bounty Hunters in 1953. It was a literary longevity approached by only a few other novelists, including Agatha Christie and Georges Simenon.
In common with them, Leonard is generally classified as a crime or mystery writer, but he began and ended his career with stories more or less belonging to the genre of the western. He was strict about the definition of that form: stories set on the frontier of the American old west, such as The Bounty Hunters and its immediate successors. However, he retained many characteristics of the western – standoffs between law officials and bounty hunters, protagonists living on geographical and moral borders – when his books moved east and into a different genre.
With The Big Bounce (1969), Leonard found his dominant voice as a writer: comic crime stories, generally set in either his main hometown of Detroit – where he moved aged nine – or Florida, where he wintered. The key to the appeal of these books was their black humour. Revealingly, Leonard commended Ernest Hemingway for the economy of his sentences, but felt that Hemingway was prone to earnestness.
Leonard’s characters both made jokes and were the butt of them. In his crime novels, he satirised most aspects of the criminal justice system. A flight attendant smuggles gun-runners’ profits in Rum Punch; a notoriously draconian judge is savagely anatomised in Maximum Bob; and, in Swag, an honest used car salesman turns to robbery to supplement his income, coming up with “10 rules for successful robbery”, which can be read as a larcenous companion to Leonard’s list of rules for writing.
The plots, though, were largely a mechanism for Leonard to get his characters talking – the literary skill at which he excelled. A man who insisted that his prose style was achieved by leaving out what fancier writers left in was notable in his dialogue for putting in the things that many novelists left out: the hesitations, repetitions, sawn-off phrases. “She’s gonna be, lemme see, sitting in the Caffe Rapallo at noon. Ezra Pound Garden at three, Vesuvio’s at five. What we worked out,” runs a surveillance report in Pronto, where an American on the run in Italy is advised to blend in by learning to “dig architecture, history, art, different related kinds of shit. You know what I’m saying?”
This ear for speech – resembling a tape-recorder set only to capture jokes, slang and verbal tics – made Leonard a natural target for Hollywood, even though most of Hollywood’s shots at his novels missed, until the glorious Get Shorty (1995), with John Travolta as loan shark Chili Palmer and Danny DeVito as a tiny, whiny movie star. Ironically, Leonard finally got the film he deserved with a story which – possibly because of his earlier experiences in film-making – drew sardonic parallels between mobsters and movie moguls.
For most of his career, Leonard was undervalued by critics, both because of his consistently high sales and his facility with dialogue: some critics distrust speech-led novels as shooting scripts for future movies. Only in his later years did he get the credit he deserved, with testimonials from writers with lit-cred, including Martin Amis, and the imprimatur of two of the coolest movie directors of our time: Quentin Tarantino, who turned Rum Punch into the movie Jackie Brown (1997), and Steven Soderbergh, who adapted Out of Sight (1998).
This new cultural credibility seemed to give Leonard a greater literary daring, departing far from the American crime franchise he had established in fascinating experiments including Cuba Libre (2001), a historical novel set during the Cuban wars of independence, and Pagan Babies (2000), a dark story featuring a missionary priest in Rwanda.
The fickleness of readers and reviewers means that a long literary life is often doomed to end in obscurity or at least decline. Leonard, though, remained in print with both old and new books – he was reportedly well advanced on his 46th novel when he died – and in demand. Justified, a hit American TV series about a deputy US marshal in Kentucky, was based on Pronto and other Leonard stories and encouraged the author to write what became his final published book: Raylan, fittingly, was, in atmosphere, something like the westerns that had launched his career.
As shown by his frequent praise of plain writing, Leonard disliked the idea of style. In his way, though, he was a high stylist, able to capture in around 200 pages how American low-life looked and sounded.