Like many others, I was saddened to hear of Elmore Leonard’s passing. I was certain the man would live to be 100. He seemed too damned tough to die beforehand. I would’ve thought Leonard might give the Grim Reaper a finger and a choice wisecrack – or would that have been one of his characters?
Hard to tell. That’s the greatest thing about Elmore Leonard: His tough, leathery face, growling voice and no-time-to-waste way of relishing the world felt so much in character with many of his books. If ever a man possessed the face of his work …
Leonard was crime fiction’s greatest friend. Even if you’ve never read one of his 47 novels (count yourself among the seriously deprived if you haven’t), you’ve seen his storycrafting through such movies as Get Shorty, 3:10 to Yuma (adapted into the screenplay by Derek Haas, who was featured in this blog recently), Jackie Brown, Be Cool, and Out of Sight. Another movie based on his work, Life of Crime, comes out later this year starring Jennifer Aniston and Timothy Robbins. For TV lovers, Leonard’s work fed the hit FX Series Justified.
Which leads to another hallmark of Leonard’s writing – dialogue. Few ever matched him. His mastery of conversational dialogue, tone, slang, colloquialisms, and crime terminology (derived from hanging with law enforcement agencies and criminals) created dialogue that brought us back for more. It was sharp, direct, deeply in character, loaded with sardonic, often black humor, and filled with wisecracks.
I met and talked with Leonard, twice. The first time was at the 2002 Wrangling With Writing Conference in Tucson, where he was the keynote speaker and I was presenting workshops. I’d been a huge fan since the 1980s, so it was quite a treat to talk with him about writing, life, and why smart-ass writing gets people to laugh so much. His answer? “It’s partly because they’re reading the things they’d love to say to someone, but can’t or won’t, for whatever reason.” Topped with an Elmore Leonard exclamation point: his classic clenched face.
During his keynote, Leonard talked about his sharp, smart, story-moving dialogue. He shared about the time he read to inmates at a penitentiary – an audience that loves his work, because they feel he understands their world. When you read the pinpoint accuracy of his descriptions, it is hard to believe he never spent time behind bars. “I was reading a scene about hard drug dealers, and part of the audience – the cocaine addicts – said, ‘Yeah! He’s writing about us! Then some guys in the joint on heroin convictions said, ‘No, he’s talking about us!’ It got so heated they started fighting, the cocaine and heroin cons, and I had to be escorted out of there,” he said.
It sounds outrageous, but here’s the point: His dialogue hits home.
I’ve seen people who hate crime novels lose themselves in an Elmore Leonard book, turning pages as fast as their minds can feed his words into the movie playing in their minds. Why? Movie producers and directors know – the snappy dialogue, the sparse prose. That’s why more than 25 of his novels and short stories have been adapted into films. Martin Amis put it best in a 1995 New York Times Book Review piece: “His gifts of eye and ear, of timing and phrasing, that even the most indolent or snobbish masters of the mainstream must vigorously covet.”
To date, I’ve read more than 25 Leonard novels. I can’t get enough. And I’m not a big crime fiction guy. I make it a point to read two of his books per year for fun, and a third as a writing tutorial. Within his work is the key to holding fiction and narrative nonfiction readers captive – slim narrative descriptions, with the dialogue doing the walking and talking. So many writers think effective prose is about how fluently they present a subject or character – what the late, great novelist John Gardner derisively labeled “orbicular language” – when, in fact, the best writing conveys the sharpest message in the fewest possible words.
We’ve lost a master. However, Elmore Leonard’s books and movies will be with us forever. Time to buy his newest release, Raylan. But first, back to my re-read of Swag. Fitting.