"I take orders from the Octoboss."

R.I.P. Elmore Leonard


Well, Elmore Leonard passed away yesterday. Not too far from 90 and he was still writing books. Not bad. Others have paid tribute to his unique talents, and around here if I tried to do that I think it would be preaching to the converted. Or preaching to the preachers. But I want to say a few words about a couple aspects of his work that mean the most to me personally.

I would say that Leonard was a big inspiration to my writing. I don’t fool myself that I have the same talents as him. I’m trying to write novels now and it’s astounding to me that he didn’t know how his stories were going to end. He just had the characters and then he saw what happened to them when he wrote it. I could never do that! But he always made it seem natural.

When you think about it, though, of course it all came out of the characters. The Elmore Leonard character is so identifiable. My favorite is the dangerously stupid Elmore Leonard character, a criminal who is not a big shot (though he may think he is) and is a laughable goofball at times (though he may not be aware of that) but he’s a genuine threat. That he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing, that he’s not the mastermind he thinks he is, makes him all the more dangerous because he’s liable to do something stupid and get somebody killed.

Some Leonard villains are irredeemable. He was great at writing depraved sickos. But even his worst guys weren’t hard to spend time with. They were interesting, often funny, always human, sometimes you even rooted for them. His good guys were multi-layered too, they could be thoroughly heroic and still do stupid shit. Let’s face it, badass Karen Sisco was not that smart to start dating the bank robber she was supposed to be catching. In Elmore Leonard most people have good qualities and bad. It makes for really captivating stories, but I figure it also says something good about Leonard as a person. He saw that people were people, and that people were interesting.

And man, he had that tone. How do you write something that’s gritty and streetwise but still funny and likable? He didn’t always do it the same, but that was the one he was the master of, the Serious But Funny. And that’s my sweet spot. That’s what I love most in crime stories, action movies, horror movies… it’s even what I strive for in film criticism.

And there’s his style. So good with conversation, obviously. But so streamlined in his prose. More descriptive than Richard Stark, but not wasting a bunch of time fuckin around.

I read his 10 Rules of Writing alot. Always been meaning to buy that little hardcover book of those. You’re not gonna believe this, but one of those rules honestly changed my approach to writing reviews.

Leonard wrote:

“10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.”

I always wrote longer reviews than most people, and I used to get alot of shit for it and I didn’t care that much. But, you know, I didn’t want them to be boring, I didn’t want people to be skimming them. And until I read that I never really thought about writing in that way, like the way it looks on the page. I realized that it’s true for me at least. I’m kind of a slow reader, and I get intimidated by “thick paragraphs,” big chunks of text, but I glide right through dialogue and short paragraphs. The negative space on the page helps give me momentum.

And when I realized that I started shortening my paragraphs, or cheating by chopping them up into multiple paragraphs. I know in some respects I’m not following the rule as stated, but it made me think of writing in a different way. Sometimes I lapse, but I usually catch myself.

Anyway, it was easy to take Leonard for granted, because he was so with it and productive that he didn’t seem like a guy in his late 80s. How many guys in their late 80s get excited about a TV show and go write a book of ideas for them to use in the next season? Good ones? So I’m gonna miss the guy. But I’m glad he left behind so many books, some good movies and TV shows, some good feelings, some laughs. And that tone.

Thank you all for indulging me. What is your favorite Leonard book? To be honest most of the ones I’ve read are the ones that were already or later turned into movies. I could stand to branch out a little.

* * *

Wow, I just looked and learned that I’ve never officially reviewed either of my favorite Leonard-based movies, OUT OF SIGHT or JACKIE BROWN. Add that to the list of future projects. But here are all the other Leonard adaptations I’ve written about.


This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 20th, 2013 at 1:04 pm and is filed under Blog Post (short for weblog). You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

28 Responses to “R.I.P. Elmore Leonard”

  1. Ace Mac Ashbrook

    August 20th, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    Sad times. I discovered his work through this site and have enjoyed all his books I’ve read. I look forward to eventually reading all his work.

  2. Definitely a major shame. I’ve enjoyed a lot of the film and tv I’ve seen based on his work, and I just recently decided to get into his books. RIP.

  3. I’ve been rereading my namesake all day. Great book. Fast, tough, and funny, no fat on it at all.

    Then I put it down and got to work on my own writing. Time to pay forward all those great words he let me borrow.

  4. I finished SWAG recently and enjoyed it very much.

  5. That is one of my very favorites. I really love the last line: Stick said, “Frank, why don’t you shut the fuck up?”

  6. As you say, we were privileged to have him for as long as we did.

  7. Wow. This bums me out. I read my first Leonard novel when I was 10 years old. When a scene took place in Tel-Twelve Mall, which was just a few miles from my house, I became an instant fan. Since then I have tried to read as many of Dutch’s books as possible and I’ve enjoyed every one. Growing up in suburban Detroit during the 80s, it felt like he was the only public persona acknowledging our struggling city, much less telling great stories which usually either took place in Detroit or at least had some connection to Detroit. But, most importantly, he was a master at telling lean, fast paced stories with characterization that has rarely been equaled, even by so-called highbrow literary authors. As Vern says, I am thankful he gave e world 87 prolific years. To Dutch! We miss you already.

  8. I was at the Goodwill today and they had about 13 or 14 Leonard books there, most of them hardbacks. Then I came home and saw this. Makes me wish I picked a couple up. The last few Leonards I read were just OK, so I stopped reading him (the last one I read was Glitz, about ten years ago, and that one really didn’t do it for me). Now that I know we won’t have any more Leonard novels, I think I’ll rectify that. Thanks to Justified, I really want to pick up Raylan. I’ve been on a Charles Willeford kick of late.

  9. Elmore Leonard is one of those writers who both lowbrow and highbrow types seem to agree on. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read of his (a shamefully small selection unfortunately), not to mention motherfuckin’ JUSTIFIED.

    Here’s his NY times article about the 10 rules of writing, unless Vern’s spam filter pulls my post aside and gives it the TSA treatment:


  10. That last line in Swag pretty much sums it up. My favourite part in the book is early when Frank and Stick is holding up one of the stores and one of their rules is always be polite, but Frank is giving one of the customers shit about her food coupons being a day overdue, when he should have just played along so they could have got rid of her as soon as possible, because in the backroom an armed robbery was in progress. Dumb shit.

  11. To sad to talk about it. Elmore was my favorite author, too. I actually just started “Three-Ten to Yuma and other stories”, the other day.

  12. Busy reading Comfort to the Enemy and John Williams’ Back to the Badlands (where he interviews Leonard and guys like Kinky Friedman, Carl Hiaasen, etc).

    We’re so lucky to have had this guy for so long, and that he left so much behind for us to appreciate. If ever there was a writer who wasn’t afraid to write…

  13. I read the entirety of MR. MAJESTYK and then watched the movie yesterday. It had been a long time since I’d revisited them, but both hold up and neither detracts from the other. There are so many quirky little moments hidden away in what is essentially another vehicle for Bronson hero worship. Nothing ever plays out like you’d expect, yet it all seems to flow naturally from one event to the next. You get to know the motivations of every single character with any speaking parts in an extremely limited amount of time. It’s really a masterwork of efficiency.

    It’s enough to make a wannabe novelist insane with jealousy.

  14. I re-read all his crime novels and short stories (and a few of the westerns but I’m not so much into those) last year. You could pick any one from the mid-70s to the mid-90s, they are all top-notch. Well, apart from the faith healer one, Touch. Skip that.

    Personal favourites would be Swag, City Primeval, Stick, Freaky-Deaky (really smart novel – he must have had the ending planned out though), Killshot and Maximum Bob. Killshot is a really good example of how the novels are character based, as pretty much nothing happens plot-wise. It is brilliant though, simply because the characters are so well fleshed out. Of the later novels I’d recommend Pagan Babies, Tishomingo Blues, and Dead Dogs (sequel to LaBrava and Out of sight, kinda). Actually, just read them all. I read them in order last year and it was a real pleasure.

  15. Gonna move on to Tishomingo Blues next. Sounds like a good one.

    I usually read something pulpy after finishing one of the more “literary” books that I also enjoy (I’m a big Julian Barnes fan), but I just can’t stop reading Leonard’s stuff these days. Might break away and try to find some good none-Leonard westerns, though. Any Louis L’Amour fans out there? I need some recommendations.

  16. That sequel to LA BRAVA and OUT OF SIGHT is called ROAD DOGS, actually. Not one of Leonard’s best but a lot of fun for fans because of its supergroup of returning characters.

  17. Knox: I like Louis L’Amour a lot. He writes superb action scenes and does minimalist tough guy dialogue as well as anybody. I haven’t read a ton of his work, but I enjoyed THE QUICK & THE DEAD (not the inspiration for the Sam Raimi movie), THE BROKEN GUN (works in some contemporary stuff that shows he could have been a pulp crime novelist if he wanted), and TO TAME A LAND (fairly standard revenge/rescue tale). None of them are anything special plot-wise but the atmosphere and the action are top-notch.

    I’ve been taking baby steps into the western genre for the past few years. I’m far from an expert, but I’ll also recommend Luke Short and Max Brand as purveyors of the kind of lean, tough western I suspect you’re looking for. Brand is a little older and cornier than the others, but I kinda like that about him.

  18. Long time reader, first time commenting. Elmore Leonard was the best. Just finished Road Dogs which brings back old characters including some from out of sight. I loved it. I think it’s pretty recent, so a really good one to go out on. I read that he was working on a raylan story when he died. Man, woulda loved to get one more.

  19. Long time reader, first time commenting. Elmore Leonard was the best. Just finished Road Dogs which brings back old characters including some from out of sight. I loved it. I think it’s pretty recent, so a really good one to go out on. I read that he was working on a raylan story when he died. Man, woulda loved to get one more.

  20. Sorry bout the double post. Also wanted to mention frank muller. Don’t know if anyone is nerdy enough to listen to books on tape like me, but frank muller (who also has passed away in a motorcycle accident i think) is maybe the best reader I’ve ever heard, and when he reads Elmore, and does that dialogue (especially swag-love swag) it’s something special. No kidding.

  21. I´ve been on a roll recently ploughing through the Jack Reacher-books. But now I will have to put them on hold for awhile and start catching up on the ol´master. I just ordered FREAKY DEAKY,MAXIMUM BOB and STICK. The last one I picked mainly because of I want to see what happens to Stickley from SWAG.

  22. A great read. An article Leonard wrote in the seventies when he followed a homicide squad around in Detroit.


    “Listen, if you stay out of the dope pads, get a job — you know, like maybe at a car wash … ”

    “Car wash?” He looked up from the typed statement. “Man, you don’t even make three an hour at a car wash.”

    “That’s true,” Davies said. “You don’t get shot in the head either.”

  23. Thanks for those recommendations, Majestyk. Last good western I read was Blood Meridian. Don’t think I’ll get anything as good as that again, but it’ll be fun to read something a little less harrowing. L’Amour seems like a good choice.

  24. On a recent trans-Atlantic trip I read Riding the Rap and Maximum Bob. Years ago I read Rum Punch in anticipation of Jackie Brown – this was the only Leonard I had read until recently. I had not read anything quite like it; very REAL characters and situations. I would say Leonard got me to explore Hammett (the fuckin’ master, holy shit) and Chandler (his short fiction is highly recommended).

    I enjoyed them both, but I found that reading them so close together that the characters and situations tended to blur. Wait. Scratch that – I think most of the characters are pretty distinct – Bob, Kathy Baker (great character), Elvin – he goes entirely with what you say above, Vern. I do think that Gary is a blueprint for Raylan but still memorable. The characters, situation, action – the way he writes, all of these are so easily imagined by the reader. The man had skill.

    I’ve re-watched much of Jackie Brown recently and it’s much better than I remember. Tarantino gets it right. I think on the whole Justified gets it right, even though it might stray from What Elmore Would Do.

    By the way, has anyone seen the short-lived TV “Maximum Bob” with Beau Bridges, or the late-90s Raylan (in terrible, JR Ewing hat) with James LeGros?

  25. Knox, I really liked Comstock Lode by Louis L’Amour. Last of the Breed was good, but not really a western, since it took place in communist Russia, but it was a trip.

  26. I read RUM PUNCH not too long ago and was taken aback by just how much warmth there was on the page for all the low-lifes and hustlers that populated that world. JACKIE BROWN was always Tarantino’s most human movie, and it’s easy to see the root of that in the book. Even the total scumbag characters are wonderful to spend some time with, listening as they shoot the shit and sink that little bit lower.

  27. So, this year we’ve lost Gandolfini, Farina and now the man himself, Leonard. To paraphrase Vern, Death certainly is a motherfucker this year. I can only assume the reaper watched Get Shorty recently. If I was Hackman or Shorty himself, I’d be barricading myself in my Hollywood mansion.

    I was lucky enough to meet Elmore Leonard when he came to London a few years back to introduce a print of the original 3:10 To Yuma. At the time he mentioned it was about to be remade by Tom Cruise. My only regret being that I blinked just as we got a photo together so I look like I had been drugged. He looked cool enough though.

    Leonard’s westerns do tend to get overshadowed by his crime novels, but only because his crime novels are so fucking good. Also, his prohibition book the Hot Kid. I remember that being pretty damn special when I read it years ago, also the main character is Raylan’s granddad (I think I remember that. I will google it and come back and tell you I fucked up and misremembered).

  28. Tom Clancy died.

    Shit, man. First Iain Banks, then Leonard, now Clancy. A lot of big name writers leaving us this year.

    I was never into Clancy, but I know he had his fans.

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