By reading Emmet.
My home decorating style is a tad unusual. My living room is stacked with crime and “noir” paperbacks, much like a poor man’s Alamo. It is a form, I suppose of very expensive insulation.
I had bookcases for a while but they came and went. The books were sent back to the floor. The books are such an integral part of Cobb Manor that no one even asks anymore, or comments.
I blame Elmore Leonard.
The king of the crime novel died this week at age 87. I never met the man but I shall mourn his loss, for my own very selfish reasons. There will be no more Leonard novels.
The memory works only sparingly now and for the life of me, I cannot remember which Leonard novel I read first. But the books were totally different. The hero was no hero. He killed people, maybe several people and often died. He made robbery, murder and the double cross all justifiable actions. Mostly you rooted for the “hero” to simply survive, possibly with the bag of money, possibly with the ravishing redhead from 3A. In a Leonard novel, the redhead might end up with the money bag and that was all right, too.
Most of his characters were just hard-working bad guys like Richie Nix, whose ambition in “Killshot” is to rob a bank in every state of the union; or Teddy Magyk, the psychopathic stalker in “Glitz”; or Chili Palmer, the Miami loan shark who goes to Hollywood to collect on a debt in “Get Shorty” and sticks around to make a movie.
““The bad guys are the fun guys,” Mr. Leonard acknowledged in a 1983 interview. “The only people I have trouble with are the so-called normal types. Their language isn’t very colorful, and they don’t talk with any certain sound.” As one critic noted, the good guys are mainly observers or new in town.
Even after reading the first few Leonard novels, you realized this was something special. Just “listening” to this cast of characters talk made you reread the page out of sheer enjoyment. Naturally you made the mistake of buying other authors, trying to find the same talent, the same plot, and the same characters. That is why my living room floor is littered with pale comparisons.
There was no real comparison.
Let’s listen to Otto Penzler, author, editor and proprietor of “The Mysterious Bookshop” in New York, who was a close friend. Penzler has more crime novels than I do. “He was the most original and most influential American writer of the last 30 years,” Penzler said. “He changed so much about crime fiction; he elevated the entire genre. There was a cadence to his writing, frequently compared to jazz.”
Naturally Leonard’s colorful cast of characters ended up on the screen. Most failed to capture the Leonard style. The movies included “Get Shorty,” “Out of sight,” and “Jackie Brown.” I was absolutely delighted that years after watching “Hombre,” with Paul Newman, that I discovered that it was based on a Leonard western novel. “Hombre” was named by the Western Writers of America as one of the 25 best westerns ever written.
In November, the National Book Foundation honored Leonard with its medallion, an award saluting lifetime achievement. Just in time.
Like his characters, Leonard was a smartass, my favorite category of human being. Once someone asked the author why his wife was up on the roof of his suburban home. ‘Because she can’t write books, he said.’” That never changed. When he travelled with son peter to various book festivals, they arrived very early at the airport to get a good seat. When they got to the ticket counter the smartass author would say to his son in a stage whisper, “Are we at the airport?” They always hustled our boy right onto the plane.
The writing success and bright light of Hollywood never got Leonard to move from Detroit. “I like it,” he said in 2012 of Detroit. “Great music … lot of poverty. I wouldn’t move anywhere else. Now, it’s too late. I’d never be able to drive in San Francisco or Los Angeles.”
Like his characters, Leonard liked to party. On a trip to New York three years ago, the writer urged friend Penzler to accompany him out “for a nightcap” after dinner. It would be an early night, he promised, because he had to appear on a morning show early the next day. “Well, we sat through one set at a blues bar, and when I asked if he wanted to leave, he said ‘No, let’s stick around for another set,’” Penzler said. “We didn’t leave until 1 in the morning. He was 84!”
My kind of guy, even though I often head for bed at 9 p.m.
The New York Times reported that “Mr. Leonard did not merely validate the popular crime thriller; he stripped the form of its worn-out affectations, reinventing it for a new generation and elevating it to a higher literary shelf. As the American chapter of PEN noted, when honoring Mr. Leonard with its Lifetime Achievement award in 2009, his books “are not only classics of the crime genre, but some of the best writing of the last half-century.”
Amused and possibly a bit exasperated by frequent requests to expound on his writing techniques, Mr. Leonard drew up “Ten Rules of Writing,” published in The New York Times in 2001. “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip,” and my very favorite “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”
Atlantic City is its own sinister character in “Glitz,” preying on the tour buses that lumber into the city like blind cattle. “Two thousand a day came into the city, dropped the suckers off for six hours to lose their paychecks, their Social Security in the slots and haul them back up to Elizabeth, Newark, Jersey City, Philly, Allentown. Bring some more loads back tomorrow — like the Jews in the boxcars, only they kept these folks alive with bright lights and loud music and jackpot payoffs that sounded like fire alarms.”
His first crime novel, “The Big Bounce,” set in Michigan, was published in 1969 and kicked off a series of hard-boiled crime narratives — “Fifty-Two Pickup,” “Swag,” “Unknown Man No. 89”and “City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit.”
“Glitz,” published in 1985, was Mr. Leonard’s 25th novel and the breakthrough that flew to the top of the best-seller fiction lists and put him on the cover of Newsweek. But he felt the movie “Get Shorty” really made his a household name. “After writing almost anonymously” for decades, Mr. Leonard wryly noted in 1996, “I am what you call an overnight success.”
Now that he is gone, I shall conduct a living room floor inventory of the Leonard pile. If there are any novels missing, I shall order them forthwith.
There will be no more.