When the Chalk team picked their top novelists we nearly came to blows over who got Elmore Leonard but we allowed Jonathan Wolfman the honour as he had introduced us to the great man’s work way back in the eighties. Sadly, Elmore checked out this morning in his hometown Detroit aged 87 but here’s why we love him:
· Flexibility combined with dedication to his art. When the Western bit the dust in the 1960s, Elmore, who had penned gems of the genre such as Hombre and 3:10 to Yuma, turned his talents to crime and, despite lots of initial rejections, excelled producing classics which match Raymond Chandler for style and panache. Elmore hated the films of his books until Jackie Brown (Rum Punch) which worked so well because Tarrantino had the good sense to use Elmore’s dialogue verbatim. In his eighties, he became executive producer for Justified, the TV series based around characters from Riding the Rap and the short story Fire in the Hole – that’s one way to make sure television doesn’t mess up your work.
· Snappy, funny, slang-filled dialogue that screams ‘street’…or hick town or backwoods Kentucky or Spanish-speaking Miami. It’s dialogue that multi-tasks: setting the scene, illuminating character, elucidating plot and entertaining the hell out the reader.
· Dark, idiosyncratic humour whether it’s dealer Ordell Robey, memorably played by Samuel L. Jackson, kicking back watching his fav video – girls in bikinis marketing AK47s, or the illiterate Yardie jackboys whose educational shortcomings mean they fail to read the launching instructions on their stolen RPG and point it at themselves.
· Strong, unusual women: Leanne, ex-performing mermaid with clairvoyant powers, and wife of tough judge Maximum Bob, channelling her slave-girl spirit guide, Ava Crowder showing hubbie Beaumont her opposition to domestic violence through the barrels of a ‘sawed off’, sixty-something Simone in Rum Punch wigging up to do her Diana Ross impersonation for gentleman callers. Elmore’s women are never bland or stereotypical.
· Shifting Narrative viewpoint Although Elmore writes in the third person he manages to do it almost entirely from character viewpoints and in their voices whether it’s parole officer, Cathy Baker or her low-life client, Dale Crowe. Elmore can shift viewpoint seamlessly between characters in mid-paragraph (don’t try this at home) retaining their authentic, individual voices not only in their thoughts but in the narrative. This, coupled with use of the present continuous (long before MacDonald’s started ‘loving it’), creates an authentic facsimile of natural speech that is of course skilful artifice. Add pared down prose, pacey plots, time shifts and flashbacks, and you have one of the most stylish writers of crime (or anything else) in the twentieth century.
We will miss you Elmore Leonard but at least I have the box set of Justified to help me through the grief.
Check the downloadable booklist on our home page for Jonathan Wolfman on Elmore Leonard.
We will be analysing Elmore Leonard’s dialogue in our Stage & Screen workshop on Saturday 14 September.