20 Aug

Elmore Leonard

Just heard that Elmore Leonard died. He was one of my favorite writers and his dialogue influenced me when I went to work on Hill Street. The terseness, the irony, the way he caught a character in one sentence or gesture. Not to mention the humor. I discovered him when I was a journalist in England doing a story on the making of Rollerball(The first good Rollerball). I had to interview Jimmy Caan, but he was busy so I had some time to kill. I went to the book store and found this novel which I think was Unknown Man Number 87. (Though now that I think backon it the English title may have been Ryan’s Rules) There were many crime novels to choose from but the name Elmore Leonard was so interesting I picked the book up and read the first page. It was about a guy, Jack Ryan, I think, who bought a car at a police auction. He tells his sister “I got a pretty good deal except for the bullet holes in the door.”She laughs and says, “What do you mean except for the bullet holes. You bought that car because of the bullet holes.” It was so hilarious and summed up Ryan (and his sister) in one brilliant exchange. I went back to the Savoy, and read the whole book in two and a half hours. To say it was good would be a huge understaement. I felt like I had discovered our generation’s Hammet or Cain, except,frankly, he was better than either of them. When I got back to New York I looked everywhere for Elmore Leonard books but couldn’t find any. Then a few months later I saw an add in the Sunday New York Times Literary Section. From his publisher (I forget who that was). But it said, (obviously I’m paraphrasing) “We are publishing the most amazing crime writer. We think he’s awesome, the critics agree but so far we’re not selling many books.” Basically it offered to give you your money back if you didn’t like his new book, which I think was La Brava. I bought it at once. It was totally wonderful. Soon I became a giant bore at parties as I tried to turn every conversation into an Elmore Leonard Fest. But pretty soon I didn’t have to anymore as his books finally got discovered by great masses of people. I think the ad helped. In any case in my mind he is one of the great masters of the English language. He breaks all the rules. Writes in sentence fragments to gain immediacy, doesn’t really plot his books like thrillers and yet they are totally thrilling. He’s closer to a jazz improviser than a novelist. There’s a plot (melody) but he riffs off of it, creating amazing scenes that would never be found in a traditional crime novel. I imagine most people on here have read him but if you haven’t get started at once. Pure pleasure. Plus, he wrote one of the greatest Westerns of all time Hombre based on the life of the Indian lawman John Russell and made into an equally great western film with Paul Newman, Frederick March, Diane Cilento and others. Directed by Marty (Hud) Ritt. Absolute killer. And now there’s his show Justified which is the best written show on tv. I don’t know how much Leonard actually contributed to it but the writers have the feel for his language, plotting, and humor. He was the master and on the occasion of his death I’m going to try and read all of his books again. Goodbye “Dutch”. There’s barely a week that goes by when I don’t remember a phrase or scene from one of your books.