On the cabinet next to my desk is a quotation from Elmore Leonard’s The Hot Kid. Leonard’s hero, a U.S. marshal, is talking about a guy named Nestor Lott, a revenue agent gone bad. The marshal says, “Nestor – Nestor was spooky. He was so serious about being stupid.”
This quotation has been of great comfort in writing about politics. It didn’t help Tuesday when word came that Elmore Leonard had died. He’d had a stroke at his home in suburban Detroit on July 29. He was 87.
Consolation emails immediately arrived from three beneficiaries of my frequent lectures on Leonard’s contributions to American letters. This column is adapted from those lectures.
Leonard was working on his 46th novel when he suffered his stroke. There were screenplays and short stories. He set novels in Detroit and Miami and New Orleans, Cuba, Italy, Rwanda and Djibouti. He wrote about alcoholics (he was one) and lepers and low-rent backwoods peckerwoods, all of it crime fiction, even the one about a guy who bled from the wounds of Christ.
In the early days, he wrote westerns because westerns are what sold and kids have to eat. This was the 1950s, and his day job was writing advertising copy for General Motors. He wrote an ad for Chevy pickups that he knew the bosses would reject, though it would have sold a lot of trucks: One cowboy says to another, “You don’t wear that sonofabitch out, you just get tired of looking at it and buy a new one.”
He was developing his style, lean and laconic. The New York Times obituary called his characters “louche,” which I think he would have turned into a scene.
“The (bleep) is ‘louche’?” he said.
“Dictionary says ‘appealingly disreputable.’ ”
Leonard’s novels are episodic set pieces. His ear for dialogue, the way people really talk, is unmatched. The action arises out of conversations, among dumb and violent criminals and bemused heroes and grasping side characters. Here’s his friend, Neely Tucker, writing about him in 2008 in The Washington Post:
“Walker Percy, writing in the New York Times more than 20 years ago, noted that in Leonard’s books, violence was so offhand that ‘people get shot in dependent clauses.’ And that he drops the word ‘if’ at the beginning of sentences and uses hardly any conjunctions: ‘I had a tire iron we could find out in ten minutes.’ Note the missing ‘if’ and comma. Percy said it was worthy of a graduate thesis.”
Elmore Leonard named a character in Cuba Libre after Neely Tucker. Neely Tucker (the writer, not the character) knew him well enough to call him by his nickname, “Dutch.” Am I jealous? Yes, I am.
I “discovered” Leonard in 1982 when I was given a copy of Cat Chaser to review. By 1986, in reviewing Bandits, I had become a full-bore (accent on “bore”) Leonard evangelist. I wrote:
“If a guy had bought a thousand bucks worth of Elmore Leonard stock five years ago, back before Burt Reynolds made a movie out of Stick’and Roy Scheider made a movie out of 52-Pickup and before La Brav’ and Cat Chaser and City Primeval were optioned to the movies and Glitz sold 200,000 in hardcover and Newsweek put Elmore Leonard on the cover and even George Will discovered him, that guy would be a millionaire today instead of a guy sitting around trying to tell people he knew Elmore Leonard was good before the movies and Newsweek and George Will did.”
The typical Leonard hero is a bemused and understated guy who watches closely, puts plots in motion and lets the results play out for themselves. His female leads tend to be smarter than the men they deal with. His villains tend to be equal parts vicious and stupid.
In Freaky Deaky, the hero, a bomb-squad cop, explains to the police psychiatrist how a bad guy died. “We believe the deceased attempted to outrun a substance that explodes at the rate of fifteen thousand feet per second and didn’t make it.”
Many of his books were made into movies, some of them ( Hombre, Out of Sight) very good, others ( The Big Bounce) very awful. He had great fun lampooning his experiences in Hollywood.
In Get Shorty, one of his bad guys, a wanna-be movie producer, explains how to write a movie script: “You have an idea, you write down what you wanna say. Then you get somebody to add in the commas and (stuff) where they belong, if you aren’t positive yourself. Maybe fix up the spelling where you have some tricky words … although I’ve seen scripts where I know words weren’t spelled right and there was hardly any commas in it at all. So I don’t think it’s too important.”
I would go on, but in 2001, the New York Times published Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing. No. 10 was, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
Kevin Horrigan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.