Elmore Leonard: Out of sight, not out of mind

Elmore Leonard
Elmore Leonard

One of my favourite crime writers died this week. Elmore Leonard died on August 20 after suffering a stroke.  He was 87.

I am missing him as I browse through some of his books again. They are such a pleasure to read it’s a pity there won’t be more of them.

Get Shorty may be his best known book. It was made into a film starring John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo and Danny DeVito.

Out of sight

But my favourite is Out of Sight. That was also made into a film. I haven’t seen the film directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, but I love the book.

The plot runs wild from the get-go. Just read the blurb:

World-class gentleman felon Jack Foley is busting out of Florida’s Glades Prison when he runs head on into a shotgun-wielding Karen Cisco. Suddenly, he’s sharing a cramped car trunk with the sassy disarmed federal marshal and the chemistry is working overtime – and as soon as she escapes, he’s already missing her.

They meet up again, make love, but as Foley the bank robber tells Karen the law woman: “You’re not gonna give up the life you have and it’s way too late for me.”

Cops-and-robbers can only end in shootouts and arrests, but Out of Sight is also a love story and the ending is unbelievable. I have not read anything like this before.

“I am sorry, Jack, I can’t shoot you.”

“You just did, for Christ sake.”

In the sequel, Road Dogs, published in 2009, Foley is back in prison, where he makes friends with the rich Cuban, Cundo Rey. Cundo engineers their early release from prison and the book tells what happens next with Cundo’s wife, the psychic Dawn Navarro, plotting to kill him and get all his wealth. Like Foley, Cundo and Dawn had appeared in earlier Elmore Leonard novels – Cundo in La Brava and Dawn in Riding the Rap.

Encore, guys

Leonard tended to reuse some of his characters. Harry Arno, for example, appears in Riding the Rap and Pronto. The US marshal Raylan Givens features in Pronto, Riding the Rap, Fire in the Hole and Raylan. Chili Palmer, first seen in Get Shorty, shows up again in Be Cool.

Raylan was Leonard’s last published novel, released in 2011, after Djibouti in 2010 and Road Dogs, in 2009.

Leonard had an amazing career. His earliest novels were published way back in the 1950s when he was writing Westerns. And then he became the doyen of crime writers.

Hooked from the start

He knew how to set the scene, hook the readers from the first line. Here is the opening of Mr Paradiso:

Late afternoon Chloe and Kelly were having cocktails at the Rattlesnake Club, the two seated on the far side of the dining room by themselves: Chloe talking, Kelly listening, Chloe talking, Kelly listening, Chloe trying to get Kelly to help her entertain Anthony Paradiso, an eighty-four-year-old guy who was paying her five thousand a week to be his girlfriend.

With a beginning like that, of course, you want to read on.

Sadly, there will be no more new Elmore Leonard novels. He was absolutely one-of-a-kind. Just pick up any of his novels – Maximum Bob, Rum Punch, City Primeval, Be Cool – and enjoy.

Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing

Here, by the way, are his famous rules for writing:

1. Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not create a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long.

2. Avoid prologues.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.

5. Keep your exclamation marks under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. In Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants, what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.


Good old writers

Who says old geezers can't write? Some of them die with the sharpest minds. That's certainly true of the literary critic Frank Kermode, who has just died at the age of 90.

Reading about his death yesterday, I turned to his essays published in the London Review of Books. You can't tell his age from his essay on TS Eliot published in May this year. It is the work of an academic writing at the top of his form.

There are other old writers who have not lost their powers.

Let's begin with the journalists.

Continue reading “Good old writers”

Social inequality and sense of place in crime fiction

Ian Rankin fans will enjoy reading his conversation with the Indian communist leader Prakash Karat, who has read all his 17 Inspector Rebus novels and did his Master's in politics at the University of Edinburgh, in Rankin's hometown.

Rankin talks about his working-class parents, his being the first from his family to go to university — he read English at the University of Edinburgh — and his early struggles as a writer. Knots and Crosses, his first Rebus novel published in 1987, wasn't a hit with the critics and readers. Instead, piquantly, he became a crime suspect as the plot resembled a murder case, he says!

Success came only 10 years later with Black and Blue, his eighth Rebus book.

Now, says the Hindu, "Ian Rankin is the best-selling writer of crime fiction in the United Kingdom, accounting for 10 per cent of all its crime book sales."

The Indian newspaper published his conversation with Karat during his visit to India last month under the headline, "Crime fiction is about social inequality". You can read it here and here.

The headline is a direct quote from Rankin.

Discussing politics and crime fiction with the Indian communist leader, he says:

I think crime fiction is almost like a product of capitalism. It’s about social inequality. Why do people do bad things to each other? Much of the time, it’s economic. It’s to do with basic human nature — greed, a sense of injustice, other people having things that you want, a sense of grievance that something’s happened at work. That’s what I like about crime fiction specifically. It tells us that the civilised world is just a veneer, a very thin veneer.

Continue reading “Social inequality and sense of place in crime fiction”

John Sandford: Good fun like Elmore Leonard

Sandford I was surprised when a New York Times book reviewer writing about a history of thrillers said he had never read John Sandford. He is one of the best American crime writers in business.

Sandford writes about cops and robbers as entertainingly as Elmore Leonard, author of Get Shorty and the most critically acclaimed of the current American crime writers. I just finished reading Secret Prey, by Sandford, and City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit, by Leonard. Both are slick, street-smart, with a sharp ear for dialogue. Leonard is wackier and more hard-boiled. But Sandford, who won a Pulitzer as a journalist, runs a close second.

The happily married and faithful types may in fact prefer Sandford because his hero, Minneapolis deputy chief of police Lucas Davenport, can be as mushy as a well-worn sofa. He may fool around with other women, but he has one true love. In Secret Prey, separated from his lover, Dr Weather Karkinnen, he has an affair with a colleague. But the policewoman knows he will dump her the moment the doctor wants him back — and doesn’t mind at all. In fact, the two women get along quite well. Lucky dog. The hero gets all the breaks.

Sandford is more conventional than Leonard. Davenport looks good, dresses sharp, has made a ton of money as a software developer, and is a good handyman — a prize catch for any woman. Leonard’s heroes tend to be less perfect. Davenport can be cruel sometimes, when his eyes turn colder than ice, but generally he is a good guy. He is also tough and smart as a whip. His hunches are almost as good as Sherlock Holmes’ though he takes longer to nail the villains. He is a cop, not an amateur sleuth, doesn’t play the violin or smoke opium, but has plenty of sex and bosses over other cops instead of having only Dr Watson to keep him company. It all adds up to plenty of fun.

The last page of Secret Prey is pure slapstick. I had a good laugh.

Leonard can be funny too. But that’s not how he ends City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit. It arouses emotions as complex as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Sandford never does that with Davenport. He always shoots for a happy ending.