Saturday, August 24, 2013

Be Cool, Elmore Leonard: Paying Homage to a Man Who Proved Hard Work Pays Off, Part II



A funeral was held earlier today for Elmore Leonard, the acclaimed Detroit, Michigan-area crime novelist who died this last Tuesday at age 87. Detroit Free Press staff reporter Jim Schaefer explains that Leonard’s Mass included “tears and laughter, and military honors for his time in the Navy during World War II.” He adds:
About 325 people gathered inside Holy Name Catholic Church in Birmingham on Saturday morning to say good-bye. The listeners included longtime friend Mike Lupica, a sportswriter and novelist, and Timothy Olyphant, an actor in the FX TV series “Justified,” which is based on Leonard’s works.

“Elmore truly was gifted with creativity, skill and talent,” the Rev. Joe Grimaldi said during his homily. “The twinkle in his eye showed he also enjoyed having fun.”
Fun was certainly had as well by Leonard’s millions of devoted readers. In Part II of The Rap Sheet’s tribute to this late author, posted below, we offer more than two dozen recollections of his work, as well as thoughts on his legacy, contributed by novelists and critics both. Part I of our feature can be enjoyed here.

Again, Rap Sheet readers may add their own thoughts on Leonard’s life and work in the Comments section at the end of this post.

James W. Hall, the author of Dead Last and 12 other novels featuring Florida Keys-based investigator Thorn, including the soon-to-be-published Going Dark:

Back in the early ’80s, before I’d published my first novel, I wrote Elmore Leonard a fan letter. In it I told him about my experience with teaching LaBrava (1983) in a university class and how delighted I was to find that a novel I loved also stood up to critical analysis. We’d spent a lot of time in class dissecting the book’s techniques. I mentioned we were particularly impressed with his use of black-and-white image patterns that recurred throughout the novel (which in part has to do with black-and-white movies and black-and-white photographs and black and white people). I was speaking as a fan and as a professor of English, and I really expected no response. However, a few weeks later I received a very gracious note from Elmore thanking me for my comments and expressing his gratitude that someone was teaching his novels in a literature class. But then he went on to say that he didn’t think he’d do very well in that course, because he had no idea in hell what an image pattern was.

Ah, yes, one of Dutch’s classic zingers.

Years later he wrote a wonderful blurb for my first novel, and afterwards we were thrown together on several occasions and got to know each other fairly well. At some point I learned that he’d incorporated my long-ago fan-boy letter to him in his “funny letters speech” that he gave regularly at libraries and on book tours. I was honored to have become a butt of Dutch’s jokes.

Whether or not Dutch Leonard was actually aware of the literary substance of his own work, we’ll never know for sure. But there’s a lot of evidence that he was quite a student of literature and read widely not just in the crime-fiction genre. To retain his blue-collar reputation, though, he couldn't admit to any of that. One of his friends and contemporaries, Bob Parker, had a Ph.D. in literature, but he rarely discussed that phase of his life and was happy to project the leather jacket version of himself. I think Dutch was cut from the same cloth as Parker. Every bit as smart and just as funny, and a writer who based many of his aesthetic values on Hemingway’s muscular, minimalist prose. A writer’s writer. A man who spawned a thousand painfully inadequate imitators.

But as they say in the sports world, you can’t teach quickness. In Dutch’s case, he’d mastered the poetic cadence of speech as only someone with a great ear can do. He often cited George V. Higgins as an influence on his dialogue and you can hear that, of course. But Dutch pushed into new territory. That dialogue in LaBrava and Stick and most of his best books is the heart and soul of the work. The characters come alive and inhabit three-dimensional worlds in large part because they talk with such crunchy energy. No one really talks that way. But everyone, in a perfect world, should.

Charles Ardai, the editor at publishing house Hard Case Crime:

Dutch was one of the greats. That goes without saying, but let’s say it. He made me smile more times per book than almost any other author. Now, a smile isn’t always what you’re looking for from a book, but sometimes it is, and when it is you could never go wrong pulling an Elmore Leonard book off the shelf.

His sentences, his dialogue--it’s all been written about, to death. It’s like writing about a soufflé. You can say light, you can say airy, but the only thing that means a damn is when you put a forkful in your mouth. Dutch’s books were delicious. Are delicious. But it hurts to know that we’ve tasted a new one for the last time. 

I remember the first time I read Gold Coast and Stick and Swag. Max Phillips introduced me to them. He loved them and knew I would too. He was right.

When Max and I started Hard Case Crime, Dutch was one of the first people I reached out to. Could he maybe write us a book? How about letting us reprint one of the two or three of his that were then out of print? No and no. But he wrote back and shared his memories of the period that inspired us, his thoughts about some of the guys we were thinking of reprinting--Erle Stanley Gardner, John D. MacDonald. More recently he found out about our friends the Outdoor Co-Ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society and sent them a huge crate full of his books, which they then spent weeks devouring on the grass in New York’s Central Park. Topless. With cops watching from a few yards away, or pretending not to watch, then coming over to banter nervously with the girls. It was a perfect Elmore Leonard scene.

The leader of that merry band tells me that Dutch took a photo of himself wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the OCTPFAS logo and a photo of a buxom dame unencumbered by brassiere. He indicated that they were not to publish it, not to share it on their blog. She keeps it as a cherished memento.

What have I got? Three dozen books and memories of reading them that I wouldn't swap for anything in this world or the next.

Good-bye, Dutch. You were the best.


Elmore Leonard was the last of my writing heroes to go. I met Donald E. Westlake a couple of times, and I just missed meeting Ross Thomas when he died before a mystery conference at which he was to be the guest of honor. I’ve been influenced by lots of crime writers, but those three gentlemen are the ones who inspired me most.

I met Elmore Leonard one time, and I had to finagle that. I was at the 2000 Bouchercon in Denver where he unveiled his “10 Rules of Writing,” and I tried all weekend to get a moment with the guest of honor. He was always surrounded by adoring fans and authors. Finally, running out of time, I barged into the green room shortly before he was to scheduled to take part in a panel discussion. I knew the moderator and she looked the other way while I had my five minutes with Dutch. We chatted mostly about movies made from his books (he didn’t really like any of them), but I did get the chance to tell him how much I admired and emulated his work. He was gracious and friendly.

I’ve read all of his books, some of them multiple times, and his deadpan dialogue and straightforward storytelling never fail to grab me. Want to see what I mean? Read Killshot. Read Rum Punch. Read Get Shorty. See if they don’t change the way you look at fiction. They sure did it for me.

Mark Billingham, British author of the Tom Thorne police thrillers, which include his latest novel, The Dying Hours:

As a teenager, I pretty much jumped straight from Lord of the Rings to reading Elmore Leonard, and suffice it to say, I never went back to anything that had dragons and elves in it. I think I started with Swag and Unknown Man #89, and went from there. His books were so immediate and engaging, so uncluttered and fast-paced, and of course, I was blown away by the brilliance of Leonard’s dialogue. He did everything with dialogue; every conversation, a master class.

I was lucky enough to get to hang out with him a few years back, over a weekend at a French crime festival. Faced with my gushing fan-boy gibbering, he was gracious and funny. I enjoyed listening to him crack sly, dry jokes that few of the French people in his audience understood. I was struck by his laid-back and modest attitude to his books; an approach that to me is typical of all the writers I admire and none more so than with him. He clearly took the work seriously, but not so much himself.

Of course he’ll be remembered for an immense body of work; the Westerns and the crime novels. But he was also brilliant at writing about writing. His “10 Rules” should be compulsory reading for all writers. They should be nailed above the desk of everyone who so much as calls him- or herself a writer. The simple profundity of “Try to avoid the parts readers tend to skip” is hard to top. And he knew what he was talking about, because who the hell ever skipped a word of an Elmore Leonard novel?

Linda L. Richards, editor of January Magazine, a Rap Sheet contributor, and the author of the Kitty Pangborn mysteries, including Death Was in the Blood:

Mention Elmore Leonard’s name to authors who don’t write crime fiction, and they remember his 2001 New York Times piece. “Oh, he’s the one who hates hooptedoodle, right?” That’s usually followed by a rule remembered (impressively) by number, or they paraphrase the final rule: “Didn’t he say to not write the things that people don’t want to read?” He did not. Or rather, he did essentially say that, only he said it better. In fewer words. And with more panache.

That’s what Leonard always did. He said it better than you or I ever could--and in fewer words--and he made it look like he was strolling along on a Sunday while he did it. He made it look easy, is what I’m saying. He made it feel easy.

His summarizing paragraph in that Times essay explains that feeling of ease. Among other things, he said that “if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.”

And you and I? We try to do that. Sometimes we try real hard. And maybe (as I do) we have Leonard’s “10 Rules of Writing” pinned up somewhere in our office, to help us get there more smoothly while not “perpetrating hooptedoodle,” the named and most deadly sin.

Leonard did it every time, with no effort that we could see. In more than a score of books, he brought us effortless, edge-of-seat pleasure and, in his spare time, he tried to help us do that, too.

Leonard’s influence on his craft will be felt for all time, that’s what I think. He taught us with his words about writing, sure. But he also instructed us with the writing itself: clean, sharp, tight, and deeply engaging. His lessons all live on.

Steven Powell, British scholar, editor of Conversations with James Ellroy and 100 American Crime Writers, and co-editor of a crime-fiction blog called The Venetian Vase:

Elmore Leonard was one of the few crime writers who reinvented the genre. He avoided elaborate plotting and instead told stories through the development of quirky characters and witty dialogue. His achievements seem all the more remarkable, as he followed simple rules about writing: “Try to leave out the parts that people skip.” The immediacy of his writing often gave the impression that he was talking to you directly. He took the role of entertaining the reader very seriously, and he never shortchanged you on violence, thrills, or humor. Novels such as 52 Pick-Up (1974) and The Switch (1978) were eye-openers to me. He could keep you on the edge of your seat till the very last sentence of a novel. Leonard’s narratives were not intricately plotted; they resembled more of a series of loosely connected violent events. In the last line of the stunning thriller Cat Chaser (1982), lead character George Moran asks himself, “Boy, what next?” Leonard’s thrilling concision had me asking the same question.

Some authors grasp for profound meaning in their writing as they grow in stature. Elmore Leonard ranked among the greatest of modern writers because he never forgot that his ultimate job was to tell stories: and what an incredible legacy of great stories he has left us.

Martin Edwards, British solicitor and author of both the Harry Devlin series and the Lake District mysteries (Frozen Shroud):

Elmore Leonard was fun to read--Get Shorty is probably my favorite of his novels--but I also enjoyed his “Rules of Writing.” I’m sure he recognized that the only rule is that there are no rules, but you have to be an exceptional writer to ignore some of his tips. Above all, he was right to say that it’s best to “eave out the part that readers tend to skip.” There are plenty of good books that would be even better if they didn’t contain stuff that is skippable. But if you skipped an Elmore Leonard, you were missing a treat.

Robert Wilson, author of the Javier Falcón series (including The Blind Man of Seville) and this year’s Capital Punishment:

It was 25 years ago that a friend of mine, who was writing a series of crime novels, looked at some travel stories of mine and said, “You should write crime and the writer you should read is Elmore Leonard.” The first book I read was Stick and from the moment I read the first line I was hooked, and I read the entire Elmore Leonard canon. Like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett before him, he took crime fiction to another literary level. He made me into an evangelist. My father-in-law, a famous screenwriter with a profound interest in dialogue, became a huge fan of Leonard’s as did many of my other friends, even those who had no interest in crime fiction. He is one of the few writers who make you feel that you’re not reading writing. You are so forcibly embraced by story and character that you enter into a domain that’s more powerful than cinema, because it becomes your world. Your are living it. You are in the heads of the characters. There is no distraction. It offers the complete experience. He is unparalleled in the crime fiction world.

Max Allan Collins, author of the Nate Heller series (Target Lancer), the latest Mike Hammer novel, Complex 90 (with Mickey Spillane), and the forthcoming thriller What Doesn't Kill Her:

Elmore Leonard signed a paperback edition of The Big Bounce for me at a long-ago (probably 1977) Bouchercon, commenting that he’d walked out of the movie version. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’d liked it. After all, few novelists had a better feel for movies than Leonard, whose stripped-down no-nonsense style reflected storytelling abilities found in his own screenplays and works of his that had become films (including The Big Bounce ... I bet he didn’t like the second version, either).

Leonard, when I encountered him on perhaps half a dozen occasions, was always good-humored and kind. He was a pro who had seen Westerns go away and replaced them with crime fiction, but there was always a gritty, Wild West nature to his stories. He cared much more about character and the dialogue that builds it than plot, and he helped crime fiction grow up into something less genre-bound. He brought humor to the work without losing any of a crime story’s nasty spine. I have always protested his “10 Rules of Writing,” because they are designed to make you write like Elmore Leonard, and (I have said) we already have one of those. We still do.

Thomas Kaufman, author of Drink the Tea, Steal the Show, and Erased and Other Stories:

The first Elmore Leonard book I read was Cat Chaser, followed quickly by Unknown Man #89, 52 Pick-Up, Glitz, Bandits, Valdez Is Coming, and so many others.

Two elements I’ve noticed. The first is that his stories usually have people who want to reinvent themselves. It’s an American kind of story, dating back to Gatsby and probably even further. What is it about that theme that is so attractive? So many of Leonard’s heroes are trying to re-imagine themselves. Think Chili Palmer, Karen Sisco, Jack Foley, George Moran, Vincent Mora, Stick--the list goes on.

The second element is the dimensional nature of his characters--there’s something incredibly free about Leonard’s people. As if Leonard were directing a play and his characters were somehow like actors. The director has told them to improvise, so long as they stay in character. The result? As I go deeper into a Leonard book, I find I can’t say for sure which way a character will jump, I can’t predict what he or she might do next. Yet, when they do it, it feels unexpected, and at the same time inevitable. And above all else, I can believe this character would make that decision. That’s because Elmore Leonard wrote about complex, believable people. He was the kind of writer you trusted. The kind you’d follow anywhere.

Robert Crais, creator of the Elvis Cole private-eye series (The Sentry, Taken) and author of the 2013 standalone thriller Suspect:

Most people knew Elmore Leonard from Get Shorty or Justified, or Be Cool or Bandits, so this may surprise you, me being a crime writer, but my favorites are his Westerns. Not to say I don’t love the quirky, violent, funny crime novels that made him famous--I do--but I discovered him way back in my teenage years through cheesy, stained, secondhand paperback copies of Hombre and Valdez Is Coming, bought for 17 cents each (I still have them) at the same used bookstore in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where I discovered Raymond Chandler.

Now, after the news of his passing, I can’t stop thinking about those days when I was a young, wannabe writer reading those paperbacks. And then Leonard became a star, the hippest of the hip, the very definition of lit cool ... only, that was stuff others put on him. Elmore Leonard was the real deal, a blue-collar writer who went to work every day, and worked every day of his life. No pretensions, no B.S., no attitude--he was totally cool, all right, but not because of John Travolta or Annie Leibowitz or Quentin Tarantino. He was cool because Dutch was a writer who did his own thing, his own way, and he was--and remains--a helluva inspiration.

Steve Nester, the host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio show heard on the Public Radio Exchange (PRX), and a frequent contributor to The Rap Sheet:

I thought Elmore Leonard was going to live forever. He had survived the jungles of pulp fiction to swagger across the best-seller lists, but, of course, sooner or later every writer’s typewriter goes cold. I interviewed him on my mystery-author radio show back in 2002, when Tishomingo Blues was originally published. It was the first book of his I’d read. He asked me to call him Dutch, an address that sounded as if we were old friends. He sounded as happy to be on the show as I was to have him: relaxed but to the point. I asked what advice he had for beginning writers, and he said, “Read all you can and never use exclamation points.” Thinking of his books, I can’t believe how much he could get out of so little. His prose made it clear that superior technique stated a point with concision and clarity, and that there’s more elegance and poetry in directness than in complication. That his books translate wonderfully to movies should give everyone hope.

Simon Wood, the author of No Show:

A couple of years ago, I was on a panel at the Tucson Festival of Books, and in the second row, I was being eyeballed by this old fella. It didn’t matter what I said, I couldn’t get a rise out of him. Not even a glimmer of a smile. Just this dead-eye, poker-player stare. Thirty minutes into the panel, it hits him. That stone-faced, old bugger is Elmore Leonard. I’ll admit I freaked out at this point. I’m trying to be funny and charming and hopefully entertaining, talking about thrillers and crime when the grandmaster of crime is sitting right there. There was only one thing I could do: raise my game. I never got a smile, but he didn’t walk out either--so I consider that a win.

Thinking about his books today, I managed to finally nail down what they meant to me. Through his characters he illustrated the struggles of staying on the right side of the law. Whether it was good guys or bad guys, you witnessed the levels his characters went to--and they came in all shades. We could all have sympathy for a devil like Jack Foley (Out of Sight) and his various schemes, but we couldn’t for the dark and twisted Armand Degas (Killshot). Even his heroes had their problems. Raylan Givens is a lawman who worked his own brand of justice. Poor Harry Mitchell (52 Pick-Up) was a product of his own mistakes and had to suffer for them. You could say Elmore Leonard wrote about good guys and bad guys. But he didn’t. He wrote about people and their personal morality--for better or worse. That’s Elmore’s human touch.

Terrill Lee Lankford, author of Shooters and Blonde Lightning:

Elmore Leonard was a master craftsman long before he had that epiphany after reading George V. Higgins’ classic novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and decided he had found the true path to writing novels. He made some adjustments to his style. He brought his Westerns into the present day. Then he did what he did better than even Higgins could. Since then, generations of writers have learned from him and will continue to learn from him. His influence runs deep. There are legions of Leonard imitators, some good, some bad. But you can spot them a mile away. They cannot do it better.

I can’t pick a favorite book of Leonard’s. There are so many great ones. But the one I think of most often is probably City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit (1980). If any book ever screamed “urban Western,” this was it. From the title to the very last, dry line. Funny, lean and brutal, it's prime Leonard. It’s a book of his I don’t see mentioned that often, probably because there was no film made from it. Fifteen years ago or so I asked him about the movie rights to that book. He said MGM held it captive in a safe and it would take a master boxman and an army of lawyers to get it away from them. Too bad. I’d like to see that flick. But it probably wouldn’t hold a candle to the original book. Few of his film adaptations did, but they were always interesting to watch, if for no other reason than to see how Hollywood could mess up a good thing. The ones that were the best were those that tampered with the material the least. I saw [screenwriter] Scott Frank and Dutch at a book festival in Santa Barbara not long after Get Shorty was released. Dutch read a chapter from the book, then they showed the scene in the movie that was based on the chapter. The dialogue was verbatim. The audience began laughing halfway through, because it didn’t appear that anything had been changed from the book. Afterwards, Frank was red-faced and said adapting Leonard was really more like transcribing than writing. But what most people in the room didn’t realize was that Scott Frank had finally figured out what so many screenwriters before him had not understood: the best way to adapt Elmore Leonard is to stay as close to the book as possible. It seems simple enough, but in Hollywood this is rare thinking indeed.

Another great book of his that I don’t hear mentioned often enough is Maximum Bob (1991). There is a bit in it that I always remember when anyone ever talks about action as character. A cop has been killed in a barbershop by the not-so-smart bad guy. The cop’s love interest, a probation officer, remembers him telling the bad guy about his gun philosophy during an earlier encounter: “If I pull it, I shoot it.” The cop’s unfired gun was found in his dead hand in the barbershop. He had pulled it, but he had pulled it too late. The bad guy knew he would have to surprise the cop to kill him. And now the probation officer knew she couldn’t make the same mistake of not having a gun in her own hand when she next encountered the bad guy. So much said with so few words.

Magic.

Lee Goldberg, TV producer, longtime author of the Monk novels, and the co-author, with Janet Evanovich, of The Heist:

The wonderful thing about Elmore Leonard’s writing is how unobtrusive it is ... it gets out of the way and puts you right there with the characters. And oh, what great characters they are, each one every bit as rich and complex as those in “literary fiction,” emerging through action and dialogue rather than belabored, self-conscious prose. He knew the power of simplicity and humor to convey character, ethical issues, and the often contradictory impulses that shape what we do. His characters are never simply good or bad. Even the most vicious sociopath in one of his stories can be surprisingly likable, gentle, and polite in certain situations. His cops and marshals were often more bloodthirsty and lawless than the criminals they pursued. Nobody was simply a good guy or a bad guy in an Elmore Leonard story. I return to his books not just for the pleasure of a great story well told, but to learn how to say more with less (something I’ve failed to do here) and to use humor to reveal character.

I was lucky enough to meet him on two occasions, and I’d intended both times to tell him how much his writing meant to me, but that’s not what ended up happening. We didn’t talk about writing at all. We shared a few Hollywood anecdotes, but mostly we just chatted about this and that. Amusing, time-passing small talk. In some ways, that was more gratifying and revealing than me gushing over him or grilling him. The easy familiarity he could create in person was the same experience he created in his books. I realized that his writing talent came naturally, that it wasn’t so much a skill as it was an outgrowth of who he was. And that, in itself, was a writing lesson ... and maybe a life lesson, too.


I felt cooler every time I read an Elmore Leonard novel. And when I was lucky enough to meet him, I felt grateful. He was one of the very best, in every way.

Stephen Miller, contributor to The Rap Sheet:

Elmore Leonard gave me my love of crime fiction.

Despite being a fairly voracious reader even as a young boy, my tastes had always been safe and predictable. My great aunt loved Agatha Christie, so being a dutiful kid, I read a lot of Christie, particularly the stories involving the Belgian detective my sister called “Pirate.” My father adored Dashiell Hammett, so I read The Maltese Falcon, not really understanding it at the time, but loving the dialogue. I took a class in mystery fiction during my sophomore year at Indiana University, during which I was introduced to Dorothy L. Sayers, Georges Simenon, and Wilkie Collins. I enjoyed them all. But, looking back from the distance of more than 30 years, they now seem middlebrow and a bit stale. And they certainly didn’t arouse a passion for the genre.

Then, one day I was in the student union and walked over to the magazine section. There on the cover of Newsweek was a crime writer I had never heard of before with a bizarre first name. The article coincided with the publication of Glitz (1985), and the cover photo featured the classic Elmore Leonard stare. His eyes stared right at the camera as though he was interrogating the viewer. A cigarette dangled from one hand. I seem to recall the cover photo showing Leonard wearing a turtleneck and sports jacket. I had to learn about this guy.

I bought the issue immediately, took it back to my dorm room, and inhaled it. The cover story featured an interview with Leonard to be sure, but it also mentioned several other writers whose names were totally unfamiliar to me--Donald E. Westlake, Arthur Lyons, and Ross Thomas. There were others, but those are the three I remember now. These authors not only had the total essence of cool, but they possessed voices that seemed fresh, knowing, and more than a little irreverent. These were writers I just had to read.

Over the next several weeks, and after a number of trips to off-campus used bookstores, I made serious headway with these new writers. And despite occasional detours into other types of reading whenever obsessions develop, I always return to crime fiction. I don’t believe that would have been the case if Elmore Leonard hadn’t appeared in my line of sight back then. The man introduced me to a type of sensibility that stuck. I wouldn’t have become the reader I am without him.

Simon Kernick, author of the thriller Ultimatum:

Elmore Leonard’s great talent was his ability to tell a thrilling, pacy story in a realistic manner, and to tell it quickly. He always said “Leave out the bits that readers skip,” and although that sounds like common sense, very few writers manage it, and none as effectively as Leonard. He was an original, clever storyteller and his pioneering use of dialogue (i.e., actually writing it as people say it) has been a huge influence on modern writers everywhere. He’ll be sorely missed, but never forgotten.

Peter Robinson, author of the Chief Inspector Alan Banks novels, including Watching the Dark and the brand-new UK release, Children of the Revolution:

I think the Elmore Leonard books that affected the most were the Detroit novels, especially 52 Pick-Up and City Primeval. This is partly because I lived across the river in Windsor, Ontario, for a while and knew the place quite well, but it was also the first time I'd been exposed to such tight, thrilling, pared-down writing since I first read Chandler and Hammett. I was fortunate enough to meet “Dutch” a couple of times at conventions and to interview him for a Toronto magazine. He was a real gentleman and a fascinating interviewee. We talked for ages longer than necessary. His “10 Rules” are a must for every writer to try and break successfully! He's a great loss to the crime-writing community.

Matt Hilton, author of the Joe Hunter thrillers (Rules of Honour):

I’m more familiar with Elmore Leonard through the movies based upon his incredibly fine work, and quite probably through the writing of a generation of authors inspired by his work. Sadly, I never met Leonard in person, and am saddened that I will not now get the opportunity. It’s probably time for me to go read some of his acclaimed backlist and get to know him through his writing.

Paul Johnston, author of the Alex Mavros mysteries (Black Life):

I never had the pleasure of meeting Elmore Leonard, but he is (and continues to be, even after his passing) one of those authors whose voice was so gripping that you felt he was in the room with you. By coincidence, I’ve been watching the end of the third season of Justified on Greek TV these days, so he was already in my mind.

Of course, we all rave about his dialogue, which is indeed unsurpassable in the genres he wrote in. But I think it’s easy to overlook that he was a great comic writer too, even if the humor was dark--the way I like it--and intercut with sudden violence. He was unusually blessed in recent years by fine screen versions of his works, but the novels Rum Punch, Out of Sight, and Get Shorty remain superior to the movies because of his unique style. Hats off to him, too, for writing out of his comfort zone. Djibouti was a late-career surprise. I raise several glasses to him.


Of course, I am among those who somehow just assumed that Dutch would always be with us ... as his work always will be. He was more than generous to me and to every writer whom I know who followed in his footsteps. Rarely is there a person of such talent who is as giving of his time to others. He was as much a delight as a person as he was as a writer.

The first book I read of his was Mr. Majestyk--it was well before his glory days, but I still remember the book with fondness: I mean, who else could pull off a thriller about a melon farmer up against the system? But it was Stick that convinced me that Elmore Leonard was the real deal: a master of character, dialogue, and plot who just happened to like working the mystery-thriller vein. Any writer in any genre can learn from this master of economy and precision.

Last thing: I love that Dutch was quietly proud of his work and took it seriously. I introduced him once a few years back and got to the point where I said, “author of 25 books ...,” at which point there was an “Ahem” from the front row. I looked up to see Dutch with his hand raised. “That’s 27, matter of fact,” he said quietly.

Linwood Barclay, the author most recently of A Tap on the Window:

Elmore “Dutch” Leonard was one of the giants of crime fiction. While his legacy is as great as those of James M. Cain or Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett or Ross Macdonald, he did not write like any of them. He wasn’t striving for the perfect metaphor. He never tried to dazzle with clever writing. He didn’t contrive complicated plots. I’d be surprised if he did much plotting at all. What he did do, in book after book, was throw a bunch of interesting characters together and waited to see what would happen.

That’s the key. Elmore Leonard’s spare writing, his economical use of language, was his genius. Less is more.

Consider the following paragraph, in its entirety, from Riding the Rap: “Raylan got ready.”

This follows a long stretch of dialogue from a prisoner, Dale Crowe Junior, who Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens is transporting to another facility. Crowe is rambling on about how he could end up doing five years for nothing more than a busted taillight.

And then comes that three-word paragraph.

Here’s what it tells you. It tells you Crowe’s jabbering is intended as a distraction. It tells you he’s getting ready to get the jump on Raylan. It tells you Raylan is on to him. It tells you Raylan’s waiting for Crowe to make his move, and when he does, he’s going to be sorry.

All that, in three words.

You have to be an absolute genius to get that much out of that little. I’m really going to miss Elmore Leonard.

Nancie Clare, co-founder of Noir Magazine and the former editor-in-chief of LA, The Los Angeles Times Magazine:

If you are a fan of mystery fiction--no wait, a fan of fiction--who is lucky, you came to Elmore Leonard’s novels and short stories early in your reading life rather than later.

For a brief time I was the editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine, and every year we did an issue devoted to mysteries. In the magazine world there is a mad scramble for interview subjects, “gets” we call them. As in Brad Pitt is a huge get. I think my biggest get--certainly in the top three--was Elmore Leonard. And because we loved an embarrassment of riches, I assigned Megan Abbott to write the piece. Her questions were on point; his answers were a revelation. On being asked if he had read any of the hard-boiled masters, his reply was frank: he never read Chandler, was light on Hammett, and Spillane, he opined, was good--but his books never changed. But Spillane influenced him nevertheless. After a Detroit News article that compared his female characters to Spillane’s, Leonard was on the case. He stopped thinking of female characters as women and started to regard them as people. And from that the world got Karen Sisco.

Leonard was different, funny--both in a “ha-ha” way and in an eccentric way. One of the keys to Leonard’s success was just that: he had a healthy contempt for anything smacking of self-righteousness. Even his good guys had wonky moral compasses. And he had a huge appreciation for the humor found in the most unlikely places. I think he was best with criminals who were stupid, but thought they were smart, like Boyd Crowder. In Leonard’s stories most of the success enjoyed by his criminals was the result of dumb luck, cunning, and the availability of muscle, rather than the possession of a keen criminal mastermind. He was eccentric; in a world of word processors, Leonard wrote in longhand. He said doing so brought him closer to the work, that even when things were crossed out, when there was a line drawn through them, the words were still there. Every fan of fiction should be eternally thankful to Leonard for that.

Russel D. McLean, author of The Good Son and The Lost Sister:

It’s still strange to think of a world without Leonard. He was 87. That’s a good long life, but some people you just expect to be there forever. Leonard was one of them. A new Leonard novel, for me, was always an event, something to look forward to. My dad gave me a copy of Mr Majestyk when I was 16 or 17 and I always wish I’d read it sooner than I did. But it was a movie that convinced me to read Leonard’s books. Get Shorty--the one with John Travolta--was what finally sent me haring to read this guy’s work. And I got hooked. Like Chandler before him, Leonard had fireworks on every page.

I never knew Leonard. Except through his books. He’s one of the few authors I will willingly reread, and on a regular basis. He’s the guy who showed me that crime fiction didn’t have to just be about cops and procedures. He’s the guy who wrote crime novels about real people, talking the way real people do (albeit much, much cooler). And more important, his books weren’t about justice and catching the bad guys. He’s the guy who created Chili Palmer, Raylan Givens, Karen Sisco, so many others. He was a giant not just in crime fiction, but in fiction. And he will be missed.

Anthony Rainone, a Brooklyn novelist, screenwriter, blogger, and too-infrequent contributor to The Rap Sheet:

For me, it was 1989’s Killshot. I was just starting to explore crime fiction, and I was mesmerized by the cadence of Elmore Leonard’s sentences, and the clarity of what he wanted to present minus the “stuff people don’t want to read.” I immediately started reading whatever else I could find by him. No one was writing like Leonard. No one ever will, because of the unique way he saw the world.

I met him for the first time at a New Yorker Festival, and my gosh, he couldn’t have looked less like a Hollywood crime master--frumpy sweater, white athletic socks, and running shoes. I don’t remember the exact words spoken. But he was direct and truthful, just like his writing. I remember one specific piece of advice he gave me: he said to find a writer and know his work inside and out. Study it. See where the commas are placed, the periods. See how long the sentences run, which are short or long?

I think any writer, regardless of genre, would do him- or herself well to pick Elmore Leonard as a writer to study. His work will be timeless.

Robert Eversz, author of the Nina Zero series (Zero to the Bone):

Elmore Leonard was a master of the craft of writing fiction, the rare writer admired by other writers for his technical skills, as well as by readers for the entertainment value of his stories. I could write about his use of dialogue to define character and structure narrative, his ability to stress the telling details of a scene and eliminate the chiefly decorative ones, his understanding of how white space draws the eye forward, the virtuosity of his plots, or any one of a dozen other aspects of writerly craft, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll pluck one of his books from my bookshelf--Rum Punch calls to me right now--and appreciate how effortlessly he flings me into the vividly authentic world his characters populate.

Ayo Onatade, a contributor to Shots and Shotsmag Confidential:

When I think of Elmore Leonard I remember an author who brought me a lot of joy whilst reading his work. His self-deprecating style came through in his writing, and anyone who read his “rules” would be better off for having done so. His place in history will not be forgotten, mainly because he has had a major influence on so many of us--readers, critics, bloggers, and authors alike. His writing has always been sparse and to the point, but also snappy and heartfelt. His work is not solely for crime-fiction readers, but for all. He has always, in my opinion, had a broader appeal. My one and only meeting with Elmore Leonard was when he came to the UK to receive his Diamond Dagger Award. He was as gracious as I expected him to be, and whilst I don’t get tongue-tied often I certainly was when I met him.

As to the books that he wrote that affected me the most, there are two that spring to the fore: LaBrava and Rum Punch. Two totally different books, but both of them were realistic and gritty. You can’t read either book without appreciating the sense of place and the extremely well-written characters in both tales. Leonard’s death is a major loss to literature as a whole, but he will also have a place in history as someone who wrote the type of novel that many aspired to produce, but that few were able replicate.

Christopher G. Moore, author of the Vincent Calvino P.I. series:

It is hardly tragic that a man dies at 87 years of age. Rather, such longevity ranks as a kind of victory that most of us will unlikely achieve. What would have been tragic is if Elmore Leonard had decided never to write a book. He had every reason not to. He worked a full-time job; he had a family, but he chose to write Westerns, and later crime fiction. Many crime writers feel a debt of gratitude for his novels. He was an unofficial mentor to hundreds if not thousands of writers.

I happen to be one of them. I’ve read a number of reasons why he was important to so many writers. What these writers share is the belief that Elmore Leonard had a unique talent, and it not only informed his fiction, but it also shaped their vision of the high standard a novel could accomplish. His life and books are a study of what a combination of attitudes, skills, luck, and determination can produce: outstanding novels, decade after decade. Elmore Leonard never went out of date. His books are timeless.

He set a high bar for writers. Not the kind of bar you visit in order to drink and avoid the first draft of your new novel, but the Olympic High Bar you need to clear before what you write will be read and loved by a general readership.

My own debt to Elmore Leonard came from his crime fiction, books such as Get Shorty and Glitz, and Rum Punch. You knew he’d heard and seen stuff in the human relationship that the rest of us hadn’t heard or seen. The cadence and rhythm of his dialogue created a musicality that forged his characters in your memory. He rendered into words a world about people from the underclass of criminals and thugs, transforming their fictional lives into something real, tangible, and true. Mastering character at his level of writing is as difficult as time travel.

Elmore Leonard’s novels are a gift for future generations. None of us can predict the future direction of writing and publishing, but so long as there are dreamers and creators who have a good story to tell, I predict a lot of them will benefit from Elmore Leonard’s legacy.


Elmore Leonard taught us all how to write. Before he came along we were still using complete sentences, promiscuously strewing them with adverbs and having our characters say, add, retort, bark, blurt, and snarl things. Elmore Leonard showed us how to write lean, straight-to-the-point, no-frills, no-fat prose. He showed us that a lot of the words we were using were unnecessary and that getting rid of them produced a new, laconic but if need be urgent tone.

Above all, he invented cool. You will never see an exclamation point in an Elmore Leonard novel. An Elmore Leonard hero getting mugged calmly asks the stickup man to look at his car and informs him, “It’s a police car, asshole.” Such a man has no use for exclamation points.

Martin Amis, a highbrow critic if there ever was one, recognized that this Yank genre writer was doing new things with the language. He cited Leonard’s use of the present participle to replace active verbs (“Cars with tourists passing slowly, sightseeing.”), claiming Leonard had “discovered a way of slowing down and suspending the English sentence.”

These are technicalities. The real greatness of Elmore Leonard is in the stories themselves, of course, in unforgettable moments: Stick bluffing the massive thug with a glass of water and a cigarette lighter; Raymond coolly dialing the Wayne County morgue as the villain he’s just shot pleads with him to call an ambulance.

But there’s more to it than the vignettes. Leonard had a theme, and it was at heart a moral one. Martin Amis summarized it this way: “Death roams the land ... disguised as money.”

Elmore Leonard wrote Westerns before he broke out as a crime writer, and my favorite Elmore Leonard book may be Hombre. Leonard wrote it way back in 1961, and in it he nailed the essence of honor. “He did what he felt had to be done. Even if it meant dying.” Nothing captures Elmore Leonard’s vision like that novel’s protagonist, John Russell, walking down that slope. “You can look at something for a long time and not see it until it has moved or run off.” Now that Elmore Leonard has run off, it’s time to see him for what he was: a great American writer, without qualifications.

Howard Shrier, the author of Miss Montreal:

Like many crime writers, I first fell for this genre after reading a book by Ross Macdonald in my early 20s. I devoured all of his books, then those by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and eventually Robert B. Parker. All were first-person private-eye writers, for the most part, and I knew that would be the genre I would explore as an author, which I have done in my four Jonah Geller novels. Why, then, did Elmore Leonard become my all-time favorite? Besides the great characters, dialogue, and settings, he was a true original. Like the songwriter Tom Waits and the playwright Sam Shepard (two other favorites of mine), he owed nothing to anyone who came before him. His crime novels grew out of the themes he first explored in his Westerns: quiet men in tough settings, easily underestimated, often at the peril of their enemies. Stick, for example, shares a lot with Valdez Is Coming: both books feature men who court trouble simply because they believe the bad guy should pay something for the death of an innocent man.

Decent men in trouble. That, Leonard once told me, summed up his approach to crime fiction. I had the pleasure of speaking with him twice in 1987. Once in a long phone conversation, once in person when he came to Toronto’s International Festival of Authors. We talked at length about his characters and his use of point of view to bring scenes to life. The best example he gave: a scene in Glitz between the unhappily married Tommy and Nancy Donovan, who run a casino in Atlantic City. The scene wasn’t working, he told me, because it was just two people bitching at each other. Then came an inspiration: he brought in a third character, Jackie Garbo, and told the scene from his POV. You get all the bitching, plus Jackie’s caustically funny take on it, and it comes completely to life.

Glitz remains my favorite of all his books, but I’m also partial to Stick, LaBrava, City Primeval, Split Images, The Switch, Out of Sight, and for sentimental reasons, Swag--the first one I discovered, back in 1984. I picked it up in a bookstore, read the first page, and thus began a 30-year love affair. It is sad to know that no more books are coming, but he left a great body of work that can be re-read time and again.

Zoë Sharp, author of the Charlie Fox thrillers (Die Easy):

The first and last time I met Elmore Leonard was at the Crime Writers’ Association Diamond Dagger event in 2006. He smiled obligingly for a photograph but didn’t say much. Reading his work, I didn’t expect him to. Only recently I read Raylan and fell in love with that spare prose and that immediacy of story all over again.

I can still remember coming across his “10 Rules of Writing” some years ago, which included gems such as “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue” and “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.” Ditto characters. But the one I loved most was, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” I’ve been doing my best ever since.

Steve Hockensmith, author of Holmes on the Range, Dawn of the Dreadfuls, and other novels:

A lot of writers try to draw lessons from Elmore Leonard’s style, and there’s certainly much to be learned from observing how he went about his business. But looking back at two of my favorite Leonard novels--1970’s Valdez Is Coming and 1991’s Maximum Bob--I’m struck by how different they are. Valdez Is Coming is a stark, propulsive, revenge-driven Western. Maximum Bob is a funny, discursive, farce-fueled thriller. Neither one fits the classic Elmore Leonard mold, as people think of it. Because the truth is this: He was bigger and better than the mold. He wasn’t a master because of some list of rules for putting words together. He simply told engaging stories and told them well. Learn from that what you will.

Cameron Hughes, Rap Sheet contributor:

Dim the lights.

Lower the flag.

Fire the 21-gun salute.

Elmore Leonard is dead.

But he’s not gone.

All sluggers want to call their shot and blast it out of the park like Babe Ruth when they step up to plate. Bands dream of hitting the same heights and winning the same glories as the Stones and the Beatles did. Scientists dream of finding something incredible in their research, just like Einstein. The young pianist yearns to be Beethoven. Every young athlete who picks up a basketball thinks of Jordan.

And all modern crime writers take a bow to Elmore Leonard.

He was the undisputed king. He raised the bar for everyone, and he hated pretension. He was a fan of Hemingway until he realized the man had no sense of humor. I have no idea what two thugs in Miami or Detroit sound like, but I’m pretty sure Leonard knew. He was an anthropologist of people and put it all down on paper. His plots were meandering but tight and his character work was flawless. His dialogue showed the talents of an artist always at the top of his game. There are so many writers, book authors, and people working in television and movies, who have been inspired by Elmore Leonard that we’ll feel his influence forever, even though we won’t get anything more from the man himself. He was an American icon and legend, and I’ll miss him terribly.

Dim the lights.

Lower the flag.

Fire the 21-gun salute.

Elmore Leonard is dead.

But he’s not gone.

READ MORE:A Tribute to Dutch: Loren D. Estleman Recalls Elmore Leonard” (Detroit Free Press); “Elmore Leonard: Dutch Farewell,” by John Harvey (Mellotone7 Blog); “Elmore Leonard: Always Cool,” by Oline Cogdill (Mystery Scene); “Elmore Leonard: Michael Connelly Hails the Book World’s King of Cool” (Los Angeles Times); “Mysteries: Remembering Elmore Leonard,” by Tom Nolan (The Wall Street Journal--subscription required); “Good Medicine: A Tribute to Elmore Leonard,” by David Abrams (Book Riot); “Carole Baron Remembers Elmore Leonard” (Omnivoracious); “Postscript: Elmore Leonard (1925-2013),” by Joan Acocella (The New Yorker); “Learning How to Write by Breaking Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules,” by Kelly Robinson (Book Dirt); “Elmore Leonard,” by Gary Phillips (SF Site); “Author Elmore Leonard Created a U.S. Marshal Who Will Live On,” by Alan Stamm (Tickle the Wire): “Appreciation: Elmore Leonard’s Unique Voice Lives on in Justified,” by Robert Lloyd (Los Angeles Times); 50 Years of Elmore Leonard Westerns on Film,” by Jedediah Ayres (Hard-boiled Wonderland).

3 comments:

lil Gluckstern said...

I've been relishing the tributes to Elmore Leonard. In a strange sort synchronicity, I picked up a book by Charles Willeford-Miami Blues-which had a foreword written by Mr. Leonard. He mourned Willeford's death, and he lauded the work of Mr. Willeford, and described it much as people described his own books. I felt doubly sad, and I am glad to have Leonard's books available as well as those of Willeford.

KATE PILARCIK said...

For serving such a lingering savour into how the Elmore Leonard lives on in readers, writers, readers, I say "THANKS RAP SHEET" and then, softly repeat a Mr Leonard line I so dig:

"Fate was working its ass off when it got us all together.”

softly,
~ Absolutely*Kate

matthewasprey said...

Anthony May's huge interview series with Elmore, published in Contrappasso Magazine in 2012, is available in full (PDF format) here:

http://contrappassomag.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/contrappassomagaizneelmoreleonardanthonymayinterviews1.pdf