Sunday, August 25, 2013

Elmore Leonard: A Man of Few, Yet Perfect, Words

August 21, 2013

Elmore Leonard and Timothy Olyphant on the set of 'Justified'
When “Freaky Deaky” came out in 1988, Elmore Leonard’s writing credo hadn’t quite kicked in yet. Though he would later deliver 10 great rules for writing with streamlined tough-guy elegance, the dedication for “Freaky Deaky” thanked his wife for giving him “a certain look when I write too many words.”
But even in 1988, not yet at his most terse, Mr. Leonard was garnering praise so high it defied belief. “Who else gets reviews like these?!” asked the back cover of his next book, “Killshot” (1989). Who, indeed. Among the mash notes cited were “No one writes better”; “It’s impossible not to love Elmore Leonard”; “Leonard is a national literary treasure”; “The most interesting author of crime fiction that we have ever had”; and “When a new Leonard book comes out, it’s like Christmas morning.”
Amazingly, that praise was fair. And it couldn’t even inspire resentment among other writers. Stephen King grudgingly approached his first Leonard book, suspicious of such a critics’ darling. But he picked up “Glitz” (1985), got hooked, and came up with the best no-nonsense description of the Leonard effect: “This is the kind of book that if you get up to see if there are any chocolate chip cookies left, you take it with you so you won’t miss anything.”
Mr. Leonard, who died on Tuesday, will forever be admired for the sheer irresistibility of the stories he told. But his legacy is much larger. He was the most influential, widely imitated crime writer of his era, and his career was a long one: more than 60 years.
After he had worked in advertising long enough to learn to appreciate brevity and catchiness, he began writing pulp westerns. They weren’t that different from the crime books that would come later. The talk was tight and crisp, the action even more so, though Mr. Leonard also kept readers slightly off balance.
“You come to see me. How do you know I’m here?” the title character is asked in “Valdez Is Coming” (1970).
“You or somebody else,” Valdez replies. “It doesn’t matter.”
Mr. Leonard’s books did most of their work through dialogue, some of it hard-boiled, some delectably funny. Either way, the syntax was contagious, to the point where Mr. Leonard’s writing voice echoes every time another crime writer drops a subject or pronoun, links unrelated clauses with just a comma.
Martin Amis called attention to Mr. Leonard’s much-copied use of the present participle: “Warren Ganz, living up in Manalapan” was his way of saying “Warren Ganz lived up in Manalapan.” Just as distinctive were his capsule descriptions, like this one from “Djibouti,” about Somali pirates: “They on the sauce gettin millions for their ransom notes.”
“Djibouti” was published in 2010, when Mr. Leonard was 85. He showed no signs of slowing down. Even the title had that Leonard snap — just pronounce it — and belonged in a league with “Maximum Bob,” “Get Shorty,” “Pronto,” “Tishomingo Blues,” “LaBrava” and a slew of other unforgettables. His characters, as ever, were prone to wildly unrealistic assessments of their own talents. “Djibouti” paired a gutsy, good-looking filmmaker (modeled on Kathryn Bigelow) with a 72-year-old sailor who thinks she can barely resist him. “Xavier LeBo believed was he 10 years younger, they’d be letting good times roll all over this boat,” the book explained. Or said. It was one of Mr. Leonard’s firm beliefs that “said” was the only verb that should be used with quotations.
Some of the best working crime writers, like George Pelecanos, Carl Hiaasen and Lee Child, have found ways to claim and use Mr. Leonard’s brand of conversational economy. Mr. Pelecanos shares the Leonard ear for street talk; Mr. Hiaasen the wild plotting skills and keen eye for low life; Mr. Child the premium placed on not wasting words. But there are lesser imitators who fail to realize that sounding Leonard-like isn’t enough. His flair is hard to borrow, because so much of it depends on what he did not write, not what he did. As with a Japanese line drawing, the bare space is as meaningful as the marks that have been made. There was great elegance to his elision.
Many of his books became movie-bait, but for most of his career, the novels came first. A comedy of errors like “Get Shorty” so easily lent itself to screen treatment that an adaptation was inevitable. But no matter how well a Leonard character like that book’s Chili Palmer is played (John Travolta fully inhabited him), the film versions couldn’t match the leanness of the books. There are good movies adapted from Leonard novels (“Out of Sight,” “52 Pick-Up,” “3:10 to Yuma,” filmed twice), but they don’t beat their sources.
Mr. Leonard’s endless resilience is one more kind of inspiration he leaves behind. He kept writing, and writing sharply, at an age when many authors are conspicuously past their prime. His prime never ended. And he never ceased to write with the verve of a young and vital mind.
Nor did his sense of humor ever leave him. In “Road Dogs” (2009) he tossed in this exchange between a priest and a gay gangster:
“Up to this time you’ve been chaste?”
“You mean, Father, by dudes? If I like a guy he don’t have to chase me.”

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