Elmore Leonard has long been regarded as the greatest of crime writers, walking all over even Raymond Chandler. But perhaps the time has come to drop the qualification of genre.
In his analysis through laughter of money, crime, spectacle and the play-acting of the powerful, he has created something entirely his own. In his 40-odd novels, his examinations of the way people manipulate language and stories have both recorded and created an aspect of human behaviour.
Leonard has had the classic career of a market-oriented novelist. Born in New Orleans in 1925 but growing up in Detroit, he began by writing novels and short stories in the then popular western genre.
During the day he worked as an advertising copywriter. When the magazine market for western stories dried up, he turned to crime fiction with The Big Bounce.
Master of the genre
His stature has grown steadily. With the imminent publication of his new novel Raylan (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), a revival of an old hero, his mastery of his own particular genre is complete.
Anyone can write a plot in which crooks kidnap each other to extract each other’s kidneys; it takes an Elmore Leonard to conceive of one in which the kidneys are sold back to their indignant original owner.
Raylan is unmistakably a late-period work; its texture is spare, even by Leonard’s standards, and it cuts to the chase laconically. The hero-marshal, Raylan, has cropped up before: Leonard likes to save himself time by repeating not just the type of character, but the same character under the same name. Raylan is a drily witty cop who, in another life, might have been a useful and charming armed robber. Like the western sharpshooters of Leonard’s first books, his speciality is shooting several villains more or less simultaneously without blinking an eye.
This novel, too, carries on with Leonard’s trademark energy, including some memorable members of the repulsive Crowe family, who have previously turned up as pathetic villains. One here has an unbelievable collection of Elvis memorabilia; the other lives in a house so dirty that he entertains himself by shooting the rats in the kitchen and discussing whether it’s worth cooking and eating them afterwards.
Intelligence and of articulacy
Like pretty well every Leonard novel, it is a delight. The beauty of Leonard’s novels can be achieved at the expense of any kind of moral judgment. It has often been said that it is hard to tell who the good guys and who the bad guys are in his novels.
Sometimes, as in Freaky Deaky, you only work out who you might have been rooting for when you see who is left alive at the end. In a world of unbridled criminality, the criminal who carries out his robbery or murder with style and wit is the object of our admiration. Above all, the allure of intelligence and of articulacy carries the day: we tend to like the man who speaks best and most wittily in Leonard, the one who says “motherfucker” with the best timing.
Leonard’s characters make choices that may or may not be moral, but are unconditioned by conventional standards of judgment. This may confuse other characters in Leonard as much as it does the reader.
Harry Zimm in Get Shorty, listening to an extended movie pitch based on the pitcher’s life, says: “You know why it doesn’t work? I mean even before I find out you don’t know how it ends. There’s nobody to sympathise with. Who’s the good guy? You don’t have one.” But every page of Get Shorty disproves Zimm’s inadequate maxim: there are no good guys and the drama works supremely.
Leonard’s novels are not, especially, thrillers; they are almost completely lacking in the puzzle element and the meretricious wielding of that most boring of novelistic features, mystery. In the end, they are closer to that most joyous of criminal genres, the “caper”.
Removing the mystery
You always know very soon who killed whom, who is in charge of the scam, what the criminal’s plan is. And so do the forces of the law, more often than not. Leonard has asked why mystery should be any more interesting in fiction and has concluded that it can be done away with altogether.
There is a high degree of irrationality in Leonard. One of the disorienting as well as exhilarating qualities in the books is the sense that neither narrative laws nor the laws of the world as we know it constrain the action. A pivotal book, Touch, which so disconcerted Leonard’s publishers that a decade elapsed between its writing and its publication in 1987, turns on a stigmatic with the gift of healing — memorably curing every broken bone in his enemy’s body after he has fallen four storeys.
Characters who stand outside the normal run of things are Leonard’s stock in trade — miracle workers, gangsters, Nietzschean superwomen, men who dive 24m from a platform into a puddle. He is interested, too, in people below the normal standards of humanity.
The dazzling cavalcade of Freaky Deaky centres, in the end, on the monstrous figure of the multimillionaire Woody, constantly sozzled and floating on his back naked in a swimming pool.
Mechanics of writing
Leonard’s work is a long way from the average crime novel because of its sequence of atrocity, mystery, maverick investigator and solution. He is fascinated, for instance, with the mechanics of writing and wants his readers to share that interest.
Characters investigate the textures of dialogue — “How come,” Raylan said, “you can’t answer a question without asking one?” (Riding the Rap). They discuss diction in intricate detail — Foley and Buddy reading a newspaper report in Out of Sight: “They think you may ‘flee the country’. “I’ve had to run like hell a few times,” Foley said, “but I don’t think I’ve done any fleeing. You ever flee?” “Yeah. I read one time I fled the scene of a robbery.”
Most strikingly, Leonard often places the action in a context in which we are going to have to contemplate the means of narrative.
The superb climax of Tishomingo Blues takes place in a civil-war battle-recreation event in which real shootings and staged shootings within a narrative — all within the context of the pretence of the novel, of course — chase each other.
Scripting a masterpiece
Most powerful is Get Shorty, accurately described by Martin Amis as “a masterpiece” and surely one of the greatest novels of the century — the American equivalent of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. A dry-cleaner fakes his own death and flees to Las Vegas, then LA, with the insurance payout. The protection man who has been fleecing him for years follows him, dropping in first on a Hollywood director who owes a fat wad to a casino. The protection man thinks it is a good story and, in the middle of the night, starts pitching it to the director.
The novel revolves around at least three film scripts and an enormous extended pitch and clearly loves its own consideration of the narrative structure. Scenes begin, repeatedly, “Now they were having a drink,” like someone retelling, or telling in advance, a film. Scenes occur in reality then occur again, mildly or fundamentally jigged, in the pitch and the pitchee’s response.
Leonard handles events that occur, are narrated and then retold in other novels. Get Shorty is the most intricate meshing of narrative and meta-narrative, concluding with a lovely Calvino-like consideration between Karen, Harry and Chili of how it should end: “Chili didn’t say anything, giving it some more thought. Fuckin endings, man, they weren’t as easy as they looked.”
Leonard’s novels are surprisingly chaste, too, given the weight they place on erotic fascination. In the absence of a detailed description of sex and violence, what fills the novels — joyously, incomparably — is talk.
Magic of dialogue
Leonard is rightly celebrated for his mastery of dialogue, but it is not exactly a realist rendering. Rather, like PG Wodehouse, or Dickens, or Waugh, he has half-heard and half-invented a totally convincing idiolect.
One source of Leonard’s eminence is a semi-jocular “10 Rules of Writing” that constitute good, solid advice on the side of simplicity — “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
The magic of his own dialogue, however, is that he never underestimates the potential pleasure of the elaborate, high formality and the abstruse in speech.
His characters are allowed to explain what they do in dizzying arcana, as in Pronto: : “A guy calls, he says: ‘I like the Vikings and six for five dimes.’
Another guy calls. ‘Harry, the Saints minus seven thirty times.’ He loses, what’s the juice, straight ten percent? If they forget the juice they won’t even get close to the gross.”
Most of all, he recognises the relish his characters have for single words, such as the splendid moment when the hangdog houseboy Lloyd comes into his heritage at the end of Mr Paradise and takes the guns to massacre the villains with the words: “I told you this ain’t your bidness.”
Quite simply, Elmore Leonard is just the great American novelist of the great American comedy.