Is Elmore Leonard our Charles Dickens? (Autograph)

About fifteen years ago I flew to Michigan to do a story on Elmore Leonard, the crime writer Time magazine had called the “Dickens of Detroit” and Newsweek labeled “the best American writer of crime fiction alive, possibly the best we’ve ever had.”  Leonard lived in an exclusive suburb called Bloomfield Village and some of his neighbors were professional basketball players and heart surgeons. I remember him smiling at the television as he listened to the ramblings of the loquacious boxing promoter Don King. It wasn’t what King was saying that made Leonard happy, but the way he said it. “Man, listen to the rhythm of those words,” he said as I joined him in his living room.

It was the sound that impressed Elmore Leonard. Just as it’s the sound that impresses critics who extol the virtues of his books. The sound of Elmore Leonard is the sound of the street, the sound of the hustler and the con man, the drinker and the drunkard, the cop and the killer. It’s the sound of people talking and dealing in Detroit, New Orleans, and South Florida. Listen as Leonard describes the lower end of Miami Beach: “the neighborhood taken over by junkies, muggers, cutthroats, queers…Cubans off the boat-lift, Haitians who had swum ashore when their boats broke to pieces, old-time New York Jews once the backbone, eyeing each other with nothing remotely in common, not even the English language. The vampires came out at night and the old people triple-locked their doors and waited for morning. Ass-end of Miami Beach down here.”

And what do these “vampires” talk about? “Shooting a woman and understanding a woman are two entirely different things,” says one of his bad guys in Killshot. “If I notched my gunbutt you’d get splinters running your hand on it, you dink,” says another in Gold Coast. And in City Primeval, his bad buy, Clement, gets his lawyer Carolyn to pay him: “’What you think I’m gonna do to you?…Huh? Tell me.’…Clement drew his right hand out of [her] caftan, bringing it down past his own hip, curled the hand into a fist and grunted, going up on his toes, as he drove the fist into Carolyn’s stomach.

“Once he got her into the shower, the caftan off her shoulders, pinning her arms, Clement gave Carolyn a working over with a few kidney punches and body hooks…and [then] he turned the shower on her. The job was trying to keep her on her feet, glassy-eyed and moaning…He gave Carolyn a towel and guided her back to the desk….Opening the checkbook, Clement said, ‘Let’s see now how much you want to give me.’”

If you’re not familiar with Leonard’s world you probably haven’t been reading much crime fiction in the last four decades. Or much Western fiction in the two decades before that. Elmore Leonard’s been around since the early Fifties, but it wasn’t until Newsweek put him on its cover in 1985 and he made a multi-million dollar book deal soon after when his books began to attract national attention and reach the best-seller lists.

“The New York Times has said that my books are about decent men in trouble,” Leonard says. “I suppose that’s as good a description as any. I don’t analyze my work other than to know that the good guy is not always good or he has weaknesses, and the bad guy can behave normally at times. The only premise I begin with is that my characters are human beings and I’m going to treat them honestly, despite their inclinations—not approving of those who commit criminal acts, but rather accepting the fact impersonally, without making moral judgments.”

Leonard is a champion of the blue collar worker. He describes men who are as handy with a thirty-pound impact wrench as with a hammer and saw. Like he writes of one of his heroes, the photographer and ex-Secret Service man Joe La Brava, in La Brava, Leonard has felt himself attracted to street life. “It was a strange feeling, he was at home, knew the people; saw more outcast faces and attitudes than he would ever be able to record, people who showed him their essence behind all kinds of poses.”

He writes knowingly of towing barges and building skyscrapers, of wiring explosives to cars and how many incisions are needed to embalm a body. His books detail his fascination with guns, comparing Belgian FN-FAL’s to AK-47s, or discussing how to convert an AR-15 Colt into an M-16. His good guys often walk the edge between ambivalence and temptation; and his bad guys are not without ambition: some want to con millions from their employers; others want to rob a bank in every state of the union except Alaska. And he brings you into his books right from the opening paragraph.

Here are seven opening lines which bring smiles to his legion of readers who expect nothing less than to leave their world behind to follow the trials and tribulations of Leonard’s creations:

“The war began the first Saturday in June 1931, when Mr. Baylor sent a boy up to Son Martin’s place to tell him they were coming to raid his still.”–The Moonshine War (1969)

“Stick said he wasn’t going if they had to pick up anything. Rainy said no, there wasn’t any product in the deal; all they had to do was drop a bag. Stick said, ‘And the guy’s giving you five grand?’

“’It makes him feel important,’ Rainy said, ‘it’s how it’s done. Listen, this’s the big time, man, I’m taking you uptown.’”–Stick (1983)

“The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.”–Glitz (1985)

“Every time they got a call from the leper hospital to pick up a body Jack Delaney would feel himself coming down with the flu or something.”–Bandits (1987)

“Chris Mankowsi’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.”–Freaky Deaky (1988)

“Ocala Police picked up Dale Crowe Junior for weaving, two o’clock in the morning, crossing the center line and having a busted taillight. Then while Dale was blowing a point-one-nine they put his name and date of birth into the national crime computer and learned he was a fugitive felon, wanted on a three-year-old charge of Unlawful Flight to Avoid Incarceration.”–Riding The Rap (1995)

“Foley had never seen a prison where you could walk right up to the fence without getting shot. He mentioned it to the guard they called Pup, making conversation: convict and guard standing in a strip of shade between the chapel and a gun tower, red-brick structures in a red-brick prison, both men looking toward the athletic field.”–Out of Sight (1996)

One might think that a man who writes about such things grew up in tough neighborhoods, had a father who was either a cop or a hood, fought his way through school, and probably spent some time behind bars where he picked up the lingo he uses with such a sure hand. But it wasn’t like that at all for Elmore Leonard, who was born in New Orleans on October 11, 1925.

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