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August 23, 2013 2:16 pm
According to Ernest Hemingway, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that.” What Twain gave American writing was voice. Raymond Chandler, who gave the matter much thought, called it cadence. The supremely American voice of the crime writer Elmore Leonard is expressed by Chili Palmer, his character in Get Shorty: “I’m not gonna say any more than I have to, if that.”
Leonard, who has died aged 87, had a life-long love affair with gunplay (or more properly, the idea of it), derived from the 1930s Detroit of his childhood. A journalist interviewing him once noticed in his study a photograph of the young Elmore, “dressed in a cap and suit, foot on the step of a curvy-bumpered car, brandishing a gun”. It is a child’s re-enactment of the famous pose struck by Bonnie Parker, of Bonnie and Clyde fame.
He confirmed the allusion, adding: “There is something about that time which affected me. It was said that there were probably 20 bank robbers for every doctor in America then, and I was certainly aware of the desperados. I was aware of what was going on with Bonnie and Clyde, and Pretty Boy Floyd. It was in the papers all the time. They were all killed, but the important ones were killed in 1934.” In Leonard’s most recent phase, with novels such as The Hot Kid (2005) and Up in Honey’s Room (2007) , and the Justified series running at the moment on Netflix, he returned to the era that entranced him as a boy.
Elmore John Leonard was born on October 11 1925 into a Roman Catholic family in New Orleans. His father was employed by General Motors and his work soon brought them to the company’s home town. Leonard stayed in Detroit for most of his long life. When asked why, in old age, he had not left for more clement climes – say Florida (where in the 1980s he set novels such as Stick and LaBrava) or southern California (Get Shorty and Be Cool from the following decade) – he wisecracked: “Because I know all the streets now, and I’m too old to learn the streets anywhere else.” A more likely reason was his tribe of five children and numerous grandchildren along with just a liking for the grimy, rundown, once booming city.
The Leonard household of his youth was wholly uncriminal and mildly bookish (his mother was a Book of the Month Club subscriber). At school he was nicknamed Dutch, after a now long-forgotten professional baseball pitcher. He graduated from high school in 1943 and was recruited into the US Navy “Seabees” – construction battalions. He wanted to be a marine but his eyes were too weak.
In 1946, on the GI Bill programme, he studied English and philosophy at the University of Detroit Mercy. By graduation he was married to his first wife, Beverly. He worked for a while as a copywriter for an advertising company – which he hated. He was getting up at 5am to write fiction. He had composed a couple of “literary things” at university but could not get them past quibbling editors. There was, he correctly anticipated, less quibble downmarket and he began writing westerns on the Max Brand model.
Two of his early stories were optioned (at $5,000 apiece) for what became very superior movies in the new “psychological western” mode: The Tall T (bungled stagecoach robbery) and 3:10 to Yuma (honest guy has to take a criminal to justice, with the criminal’s gang likely to get to him before the train arrives). In both Leonard builds up a complex interfusion of hero and villain. It is handled even more successfully in the 1967 Hombre, the finest film adapted from his westerns.
The story for Hombre was published in 1961, when Leonard was moving into crime writing, mingling his existing style with the urban vernacular of George V Higgins, the Boston-based author of The Friends of Eddie Coyle . There was also a new street crudity of diction. Leonard’s mother was appalled: “Why don’t you write those westerns any more?” she asked. “They were so nice.”
His early crime novels were set in Detroit – the “city primeval” as he called it. The best is 52 Pick-Up (1974) – businessman has fling, is blackmailed by sadist crook and goes vigilante, ingeniously. Leonard’s later fiction roams far from Motown. Glitz (1985), the first of his novels to make the New York Times best-seller list, is set in Atlantic City and Puerto Rico; Maximum Bob (1991) in Palm Beach. Pagan Babies (2000) switches between Rwanda and Detroit. All, however, have Leonard’s hallmark crispness and – the later works particularly – a play of enigmatic comedy over the action, however brutal.
One work of Leonard’s is significantly different. Touch was written in 1977 but held back for 10 years lest, as his publishers feared, it contaminate the tough-guy Elmore Leonard brand. He had been a heavy drinker for many years and was out of control by the early 1970s. He bobbed in and out of Alcoholics Anonymous and finally took his last drink on January 24 1977. His first marriage collapsed at the same time.
Touch returns to the faith of the author’s childhood. A young Michigan man, it seems, can make the blind see and perform miracles. He works with alcoholics. Touch can be glossed as a public vote of thanks to the fellowship of AA. A recovering Leonard remarried twice, the third time after his second wife died of cancer. He did not, as he said, like being single.
Leonard’s fiction inspired film directors and stars to their best work. Directors such as Budd Boetticher, Barry Sonnenfeld, John Frankenheimer, Martin Ritt and Steven Soderbergh make up a distinguished roll call. Paul Newman and Richard Boone, playing against each other, have never given better performances than they did in Hombre. But the director with whom Leonard collaborated most fruitfully was Quentin Tarantino, in Jackie Brown, an adaptation of the 1992 Rum Punch. Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction can be seen as an extended and subtle homage to Leonard. No mass-market author merits homage more.
The writer is Lord Northcliffe professor emeritus of modern English literature at University College London
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