Books were a very important part of my childhood. TV had not been invented so we learned from books and listening to the radio. And…
I was chatting with my neighbor a while back and he mentioned Elmore Leonard. After a few minutes, it occurred to me that a guy who writes a column titled “Books & Such” always has some homework to do.
With 48 novels and roughly a dozen short story collections, I capitalized upon Colorado’s network of library systems—called Prospector—to gather 17 of Leonard’s books.
As I often do when exploring a particular writer, I try to read the books in the order in which they were published. In the case of Elmore Leonard, I found myself traveling back about 70 years to read his first published story, which I found in The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard. This is from the opening paragraph of, “Trail of the Apache,” originally appearing in Argosy magazine in December of 1951.
“Under the thatched roof ramada that ran the length of the agency office, Travisin slouched in a canvas-backed chair, his boots propped against one of the support posts. His gaze took in the sun-beaten, gray adobe buildings, all one-story structures, that rimmed the vacant quadrangle. It was a glaring, depressing scene of sun on rock, without a single shade tree or graceful feature to redeem the squat ugliness. There was not a living soul in sight.”
Leonard was 26 years-old.
His first novel—The Bounty Hunters (1953)—begins like this: “Dave Flynn stretched his boots over the footrest and his body eased lower into the barber chair. It was hot beneath the striped cloth, but the long ride down from Fort Thomas had made him tired and he welcomed the comfort of the leather more than he minded the heat. In Contention it was hot wherever you went, even though it was nearly the end of October.”
In 2001, Leonard published “Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing” which appeared in the New York Times. Rule #1 is Never Open a Book with Weather. In the opening lines quoted above from “Trail of the Apache” and The Bounty Hunters, Leonard does indeed hint at the weather. However, it is clear that we are not so much reading a dramatic weather report but, rather, actually discovering each character’s respective reaction to his surroundings; a subtle shift that has become a hallmark of Leonard’s character development. In these cases, we don’t learn that it is hot and dry so much as we discover how the desert landscape has shaped the characters to whom we are being introduced.
Leonard followed up with The Law at Randado (1954) and Escape from Five Shadows (1956) establishing himself as a serious Western novelist.
These are the kind of tales I have long associated with Elmore Leonard, written at a time when Westerns were all the rage at the movies, on television, and within books and pulp fiction magazines. “I chose Westerns,” Leonard once said, “because I liked Western movies.”
Revisiting these old Western stories has been an absolute delight. While many of the plots exploit the tropes of Western movies and stories of the era, Leonard’s protagonists are often found expressing modern sensibilities regarding racial exploitation and oppression. Indeed, we often see in Leonard’s telling the sentiments that would gather momentum during the early days of the Civil Rights Era.
By the 1970s, with an established reputation as a great Western writer, Leonard had begun his crime fiction writing. My investigation of several of his many books has yet to disappoint.
This is from the opening line to Get Shorty (1990) which was adapted for the screen in 1995: “When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio’s on South Collins and had his leather jacket ripped off.” (I’ll leave it to you to assess Leonard’s commitment to Rule #1 in this one.)
If you’ve read Get Shorty or seen the movie, though, you know that the stolen leather jacket lights a slow-burning fuse. And, who wears a leather jacket in Miami Beach? The answer is a mobster/shylock who heads to LA while pondering how one goes about making a movie while living through actual scenes that will underscore the movie; all the while asking other characters if they think the very scenes they are living through will make a good movie… inevitably, another, wiser character steps in to ask if they know that Chili Palmer is messing with their heads.
I read Get Shorty in the morning and then watched Get Shorty in the afternoon. This quick double feature made it easy to compare the plot line and scene adaptations while it was remarkable to see how much of Elmore Leonard’s original dialogue made the cut; not surprising, though, as this may be Leonard’s greatest gift.
Leonard’s’ Writing Rule #8 is Avoid Detailed Descriptions of Characters and #9 is Don’t Go Into Great Detail Describing Places and Things. The result is a powerful sense of authenticity and also some great campy fun. By eschewing the personal ruminations of his characters – except for a few quick-draw thoughts in the middle of the crackling dialogue—Leonard allows us to get to know them as if we were in the same room as the banter goes back and forth.
The next day, I repeated the literary and cultural exercise with Get Shorty’s sequel, Be Cool. John Travolta returns as Chili Palmer in this movie-within-a-movie-from-a-book now cross-bred with the LA music industry. Be Cool, the movie, also features Steven Tyler and Aerosmith and a dance scene backed up by a live performance from the Black Eyed Peas.
In both his books and their screen adaptations, the violence of mid-century Westerns is amplified exponentially in Leonard’s crime fiction. However, many of the most disturbing scenes are somehow juxtaposed with sickly humor that takes the edge off. (In other words, Elmore Leonard is not for everyone.)
The pile of books I gathered from the library are only a sampling of Leonard’s work in which I have now met a growing cast of Leonard’s characters. With his love of Westerns, it is no coincidence that his more modern crime stories feature US Marshals who are presented with a Western vibe while the FBI and other Feds are often portrayed as stuffed-shirt egotists.
US Deputy Marshal Carlos Webster—The Hot Kid (2005) and Up In Honey’s Room (2007)—goes after the bad guys in 1930s Oklahoma. While Carlos carries a badge, not all those who do are good guys. It’s also clear that Carlos has become a US Marshal because, in part, when he was a kid, a bad guy stole his peach ice cream cone.
US Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens—beginning with Pronto (1993)—pursues a Miami Beach bookmaker on the run from the gangsters he may or may not have cheated. Again, the good guys and bad guys are not easily discernible, except, of course, through the usually morally upright assessments of Marshal Givens. This one ends up in Italy where the mobsters from Miami interact with the originals.
In his Jack Foley books—Out of Sight (1996) and Road Dogs (2009)—Leonard’s protagonist is an ex-con who falls for the cop chasing him down; although Foley’s status as an ex-con is on shaky ground after the bank robber crawls through a tunnel, under the fence, and into the trunk of a car where he spoons with US Deputy Marshal Karen Sisco.
Like many of his books, Out of Sight takes us to Leonard’s literary stomping grounds of Detroit, where he grew up. Several of his characters are either from Motown or have passed through and he deploys the city’s reputation with fearless, violent, and comedic clarity. For instance, a character in Get Shorty discovers that he has an African ancestor so he decides to change his name, and head to the Motor City to learn how to be Black.
Sixty years after publishing “Trail of the Apache” Leonard produced his final novel. Raylan (2011) is loosely based upon the television series Justified which was, in turn, based upon Leonard’s short story, Fire in the Hole (2001). The 2011 story is set in modern times as Marshal Raylan Givens metes out justice in rural Kentucky with an Old West flair; bringing Elmore Leonard just about back to where he started.
Elmore Leonard died in 2013 at the age of 87.
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