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