Elmore Leonard, who died on Monday, at the age of eighty-seven, was hailed as one of the best crime writers in the land. High praise, but not quite high enough, and some way off the mark. He was one of the best writers, and he happened to write about crime. Even that is not entirely accurate. It’s true that his novels (more than forty of them, with another left unfinished at his death) enjoyed the company of criminals and of those who tried to stop them in their tracks. This was seldom hard, since, as Leonard delighted in showing us, crime—more than anything, even politics—allows men of all ages to disport themselves across the full range of human ineptitude. Boy, do they screw up.
But here’s the thing: as people stagger and weave from one error to the next, much of what they do, and most of what they talk about, has nothing to do with crime. Just listen to Melanie and Frank, in “The Switch.” He is in construction, a golf-adoring oaf with an undeclared million stashed in a bank in the Bahamas; she is his tootsie down there, or so he likes to believe. They come back late from the casino. She lies on the couch, leafs through W magazine, and chants the names:
“Never heard of her.”
“You mean Lauren Bacall?” Frank said.
“Same one,” Melanie said. “Yves St Laurent.”
“He’s the guy that makes clothes, women’s clothes.”
“Sounds like a stripper.”
“Wrong. Giancarlo Giannini.”
“Wrong. Jeanne Moreau.”
“She’s an actress. Jerome Robbins.”
“I’m giving you just the easy ones. Okay, Pat Buckley.”
“He’s the one, he was gonna punch that fag, what’s his name, on TV.”
“Pat’s his wife…. Loulou de la Falaise.”
“For Christ sake,” Frank said.
As usual, in Leonardland—and this aspect of his work has been undersung—the women, by instinct and by virtue of the lousy hand that society tends to deal them, outthink the men. Simply from the way that Melanie quizzes Frank on those celebrities, realizing that her sugar pop, bless him, knows less than zero, we can predict her plan: wrap him round her pinky at her earliest convenience and relieve him of more sugar than he will ever guess.
“The Switch” was published in 1978. Leonard (or Dutch, as his friends called him) had been writing about cowboys since the start of the nineteen-fifties, but he moved on to modern gunslingers with “The Big Bounce,” in 1969, and by the late seventies he was in full spate. The fullness required no enrichment of the style, let alone beautification; incapable of primping, Leonard chose to plane and pare until he ended up with folks like Melanie and Frank. As for their conversation, swatted back and forth like Ping-Pong, the phrasing as dry as a scoreline: if you wanted that brand of comic beat, with all the frills torn off, where did you go before Leonard came along? Early Evelyn Waugh.
Once you hear the Dutch accent you can’t get it out of your head, and for innumerable readers it became a siren song. I fell prey to it in the mid-eighties. Leonard had a breakout, with “Glitz” (1985), and it led many of us to raid the back catalogue with glee. Some of the books weren’t easy to get hold of, and the hunt only sharpened our zeal. A friend and I ravened through whatever we could lay hands on; there is a strange, barely sane satisfaction in happening upon an author—or a painter or a band—and making it your mission to consume everything that he, she, or they ever produced. You rarely succeed, yet the urge for completeness is a kind of love, doomed to be outgrown but not forgotten. I have often pursued the dead in that fashion, but Leonard may be the only living writer who spurred me to such a cause.
One problem was that a single page of him made other writers, especially the loftier and more lauded variety, seem about as legible as wallpaper paste. I recall being given a copy of “The Sea, the Sea,” the Iris Murdoch novel that won the Booker Prize in 1978. It came heartily recommended, so I wasted no time in laying it side by side with “The Switch,” which had been published in the same year. A random sample, from Dame Iris:
Oh, he was slippery, slippery, touchy, proud. I must hold him, I must be tactful, careful, gentle, firm, I must understand how. Everything, everything, I felt, now depended on Titus, he was the centre of the world, he was the key. I was filled with painful and joyful emotions and the absolute need to conceal them. I could so easily, here, alarm, offend, disgust.
Huh? It’s like being swallowed alive by a giant thesaurus. How are we supposed to work out, with any precision, what these fellows actually mean, through veils of verbal blubber such as that? Meanwhile, over in Detroit:
“You notice in the drive?” Ordell said to Louis. “He’s got an AMC Hornet, man, pure black, no shit on the outside at all, your plain unmarked car. But inside—tell him, Richard.”
Richard said, “Well, I got a rollbar. I got heavy-duty Gabriel Striders. I got a shotgun mount in front.”
“He’s got one of those flashers,” Ordell said. “Kojak reaches out, puts up on his roof?”
“Super Fireball with a magnetic bottom. Let’s see,” Richard said, “I got a Federal PA one-seventy electronic siren, you can work it wail, yelp, or hi-lo. Well, in the trunk I keep a Schermuly gas grenade gun, some other equipment. Night-chuk riot baton. An M-17 gas mask.” He thought a moment. “I got a Legster leg holster. You ever see one?”
Be honest, now: Which is better, Dame or Dutch? That is to say, leaving aside both snobbery and its inverse (for no fictional setting, genteel or rough, is intrinsically superior to any other), who is more alert to the life of an English sentence—its rises, failings, falls, and emergency stops? You know the answer. It certainly saved me from spending too much time on Booker Prize novels, whether winners or nominees, then as now. Decades on, I still laugh at the Kojak line, and it’s easy to imagine how a clumsier or less adventurous writer might have handled the same idea: “It’s the kind that Kojak has on TV. He reaches out and puts it up on the roof.” See? Dead on arrival. But technique is not all; more mysterious is what radiates out from such technical command, amid the speeches, and lends dramatic energy to the owners of the mouths. The Murdoch paragraph has a lot to say, but it leaves us utterly clueless as to what either Titus or the narrator is like; they earn no place in our mind’s eye. Whereas Ordell is right there in a couple of deft strokes, egging Richard on, and Richard himself, well, even the words “he thought a moment” put us instantly in the presence of a major blockhead—a wannabe cop, who, it transpires, collects Nazi memorabilia. Character is language in action.
Sometimes, a word is too much. Leonard can make do with a single letter, or a blank where a letter is meant to be. “What in the hell’s a Albanian?,” a guy named Clement asks in Chapter 4 of “City Primeval” (1980). Typesetters may have pounced upon what they took to be a typo, but Leonard never misheard. In that respect, as in others, he was less like Hemingway—of whom he was a fan, and to whom he was often compared—than like Dickens, another city kid with his nose and ear to the ground. Try “The Pickwick Papers”:
“What should you say to a drop o’ beer, gen’l’m’n?” suggested the mottled-faced man.
“And a little bit o’ cold beef,” said the second coachman.
“Or a oyster,” added the third, who was a hoarse gentleman, supported by very round legs.
One proof of literary genius, we might say, is a democratic generosity toward your mother tongue—the conviction that every part or particle of speech, be it e’er so humble, can be put to fruitful use. If that means trimming the indefinite article, leaving us with a Albanian and a oyster, so be it. Nothing need go to waste. Richard again, aiming at the formal locutions of a police report, and missing by yards: “I cruised the street and the street back of the residence, the residence being dark, not any light on, but which didn’t mean anything.” So much dumb-ass delusion in so little space, and the linguistic shortfall squares with an overriding sense, throughout the novels, that our grip on the world—and this goes for all of us, not just the chancers and the thugs—is never as secure or as enduring as we would like. Marriages crack like plates; one side of the tracks has no concept of life on the other side, though it may harbor a risky desire to find out; and words will not stay still. That is why the movies inspired by Leonard’s fiction (a slew of disasters plus the odd success, like “Get Shorty,” “Out of Sight,” and “Jackie Brown,” which was based on “Rum Punch”) struggle to match his equilibrium. The souls that he surveyed, even when they were played by George Clooney and John Travolta, were unquiet and fairly uncool. Leonard’s gaze was cool, but, in all honesty, it belonged in a book.
My friend and I, years ago, came to the sombre conclusion that the best of Leonard lay in what was then the recent past: in the roster of short-syllabled titles that ran from “52 Pick-Up” and “Swag” to “Stick” and “LaBrava”—1974 to 1983. I still cling to that conviction with the confused nostalgia that attends our early crushes; we long to spread the news so that others can share the joy, and yet when they do we nurture a resentful suspicion that their joy, being secondhand, is not the real thing, and that they can never share the flame of our own ardor. Yes, “Freaky Deaky” (1988), “Maximum Bob” (1991), and “Riding the Rap” (1991) are wonderful to behold, and Leonard’s own favorite was “Tishomingo Blues” (2002), but you should try walking around at age twenty with a paperback of “Stick” jammed in your jacket pocket. And did the later books, conjured up when Leonard was rich and famous, not swell a touch, as if in response to warm applause? My copy of “Maximum Bob” extends to three hundred pages; my copy of “Mr. Majestyk” (1974), maybe the best novel ever written about a melon grower, is exactly half as long. Leonard was the lord of restraint, so I can’t help feeling that he suits the shorter form. You get more impact from a sawn-off book.
I met Elmore Leonard once, and spent an hour with him. He was courteous and soft-spoken, and I cherish the first edition of “Freaky Deaky” that he inscribed for me. Of himself, as expected, he gave little away, and the effort to fix him now, in my memory, is an almost impossible task. When I discovered in the diaries of Sir Alec Guinness that the great actor was a fan of Leonard, and that he took “Out of Sight” on vacation one year, the link made perfect sense. Each man was skilled in self-effacement and immune to glamour, reserving all his bravado and wits for the professional arena; you can picture Leonard, like George Smiley, eavesdropping tacitly from the fringes of a room. He is gone now, but he left us a fine consolation: if you’ve never read him, or if you’d never heard of him until yesterday, or if you merely need a fitting way to mourn, pick up “52 Pick-Up,” “LaBrava,” “Swag,” or “Glitz,” and tune into the voices of America—calling loud and clear, and largely ungrammatical, from Atlantic City, Miami, Hollywood, and his home turf of Detroit. Elmore Leonard got them right, and did them proud. As Clement would say, he was a author.