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Criminal Pleasures: ELMORE LEONARD

Did he get any good books for his last birthday? “Nah, I mostly get T-shirts.” Besides, Leonard moans, “I must get five crime books a week sent to me — people asking me for blurbs.” He rarely reads them. He’s too busy writing his own. “I don’t know why,” he adds, mournfully.

The truth is Leonard doesn’t read crime books much. “They’re all the same,” he says. He’d rather talk T-shirts. “I get some good ones from a journalist friend in New York every year for my birthday. Mike Lupica, he’s a sports columnist. He gets me ones with stuff on them like ‘The Dickens of Detroit’,” Leonard laughs. “Which means nothing!”

The way Leonard says nothing is emphatic, as if any display of ego would be fatal to his literary M.O. Last October he released Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, most of which revolve around one axiom: “If it sounds like writing, I cut it out.”

This is perhaps why Leonard gets uncomfortable when people call him the heir to Raymond Chandler. “I was never interested in Raymond Chandler. I like him, but I was never influenced by his writing. I didn’t care for all the similes and metaphors he used that I thought interrupted the story.”

Along with the sparseness of Ernest Hemingway — “all that white space on the page” — he cites Richard Bissell as a more important influence. “In his books, nobody was trying to be funny,” Leonard says, “but they were all funny because of the way they talked.”

It’s a distinction that balances Leonard’s work somewhere between menace and comedy, something Tarantino took cues from in developing his film dialogue. If Leonard has ever attracted much criticism, it’s for always putting a bunch of interesting people together, seeing how they talk and killing anyone who bores him. “I’m not known for my plotting,” he says. However, the gear shifts in a Leonard story accelerate as smoothly as the Chevrolets he once wrote advertising copy about when he was a struggling writer in the Fifties. “I was always better at writing about their trucks than their sedans,” he responds.

As with the nickname Dutch, “The Dickens of Detroit” line has hung about because of his ability to conjure up so many memorable low-life characters from that city. He has also written a few books based in Miami and Oklahoma. In the case of Get Shorty, Leonard moved the action to Los Angeles with Chili Palmer, the loan shark that John Travolta made famous.

Leonard has frequently discusses his mystification by Hollywood's propensity to buy up his books “and take everything out of them that was any good.” Things took a turn for the better with Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty (1995), Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (released in 1997 and based on Rum Punch) and Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998). Get Shorty capitalized on Leonard’s encounters with Hollywood, mixing criminals with filmmakers. It was during the Adelaide trip that Leonard said he had received a phone call from an unhappy Dustin Hoffman (with whom Leonard had unsatisfactory dealings). Hoffman had heard he was “in” Get Shorty, and that it was not a favorable caricature. Leonard reputedly shot him down with the riposte, “What, you think you’re the only short actor in Hollywood?”

The author is generally disdainful of Hollywood’s “need to have the star redeem himself.” Leonard’s characters tend to be self-interested and suffer from bad habits and bad luck. “I try to make them human,” he says. “Real, but with something appealing. I like the ones who have been into crime but are now honest, but you don’t know if they might revert. I like homicide cops, too — not that there are that many in my books. I just like their deadpan humor.”

With the release of the compendium The Complete Western Stories, there has been renewed interest in Leonard’s early day as a pulp author of cowboy tales in the Fifties. (“Thick enough to stop a bullet from a Sharps rifle at 10 meters" was how the UK’s Times Literary Supplement described The Complete Western Stories.) In 2007, a critically praised film version of his 1953 short story 3:10 to Yuma was released, starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. “It’s a good-looking picture,” Leonard says. “But of course I did not understand the [altered] ending.”

In the meantime, Killshot, one of Leonard’s best crime books, has been turned into a feature executive produced by Tarantino and directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love). It is due out any day now and stars — Leonard says with some satisfaction — Mickey Rourke.

Born in 1925, Leonard moved frequently around the American southwest before his family settled in Detroit, where he has pretty much remained ever since. As a teenager, he was interested in cars, sports and the gangster exploits (and demise) of figures like Bonnie and Clyde. Educated at a Jesuit high school, Leonard signed up with the Navy in World War II, but never saw serious action. Instead, he worked with a construction crew in the Admiralty Islands, “handing out beer” from the kitchen. He’d return to the University of Detroit and graduate in 1950 with a degree in English and Philosophy before moving into copy writing. It’s an eclectic resume.

He turned to writing cowboys stories because he liked Western movies, and because there was an obvious pulp magazine market. Talking with Leonard about his career can often veer into an accounting report on what he was paid per word, per story, since 1953. He has always been commercially driven, as well as fascinated by the nexus of books and movies. Unfortunately, just as Hombre (1961) was coming out — now regarded as one of the greatest Western novels ever written — the genre was drying up, as a glut of television shows flooded the market.

Leonard wouldn’t start writing crime until the late Sixties. But it’s possible to see his nascent style emerging in the cowboy tales of The Complete Western Stories. His sense of wronged Indians and Mexicans also points to the under-acknowledged but strongly anti-racist subtext in his work. Leonard admits he hasn’t read any of the stories in the 50 years since writing them. “I went through the galleys [for The Complete Western Stories] and I thought, ‘Jesus, these aren't as bad as I thought they’d be.'”

“I had studied Hemingway in order to learn how to write,” Leonard says. “But I had a stiff and righteous sound. I hadn’t loosened up. I still had to develop my own voice. The humor had to get into it.”


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