The novels of Elmore Leonard, the
American novelist who has just died aged 87, are an acquired taste, but an
awful lot of people have acquired it. I’m
one of them.
It’s fair to say, I think, that
he had a far more enthusiastic following in the United States than in Britain,
but that’s only natural because the colourful cavalcade of Elmore Leonard
characters – the Apache renegades, embittered lawmen, crooked bankers from his
western books and the petty criminals, gangsters’ molls, loan-sharks, grifters
and gamblers from his crime novels – are all figures that reflect a distinctly
American experience. The lowlifes in
particular, driven on by notions of an American Dream just as potent in
criminal as respectable circles, are often found working on deals that might
represent, in their particular world, The Big One. It usually doesn’t work out that way, of course,
but that makes the attempt no less interesting.
Leonard’s dialogue crackles. He had an ear for the argot of the underclass,
and conversations in Leonard books often develop a poetic rhythm that takes the
reader on a ride – but never just for a ride. His novels are all about dialogue. There are no long speeches, just exchanges of
street-wise give-and-take between people trying to size each other up. He wasn’t one for long descriptive passages,
either. If a book is set in Phoenix, Arizona, you
just have to imagine what Phoenix
is like. Adverbs and adjectives are
always in short supply. Leonard once gave
this advice to would-be writers: “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it”.
As for the questionable morality
of many of his characters, he once said: “The bad guys are the fun guys. The only people I have trouble with are the
so-called normal types. Their language
isn’t very colourful, and they don’t talk with any certain sound.”
Elmore Leonard’s people certainly
speak with a certain sound, and even if a dozen of his books hadn’t been made
into movies like 3:10 to Yuma, Hombre, Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, Out of Sight – to name a handful that
you’ve probably seen – he will long be remembered for it in literary circles.
If you’re not already a fan, try
him. The summer deck-lounger would be a
good place to start.