Elmore Leonard

If there is a single writer I owe above all others, it was Elmore Leonard. Some of his ten rules I had cadged beforehand from Hemingway — which is where he grabbed them too — like the distrust of adverbs or not lingering too long on descriptions. The one that has really stuck with me is not using anything other than the word “said” for dialogue. I will also use “asked,” which is similarly neutral. The teachers actually scold my sons for using “said” in their writing; they want melodrama like “cried” or “pleaded” or “demanded.” I don’t worry too much because a big part of writing is throwing away everything you learned in school and paring down your style into something distinct. They’ll do it like writers do.

Valdez Is Coming was his favorite Western, which is understandable; its twist ending could be seen, like Unforgiven was for Clint Eastwood, as a kind of love-letter criticism of the genre. I’m partial to Cuba Libre, his Western set on a Caribbean island. His crime novels? Probably Rum Punch but that’s a tough call since it’s difficult not to compare it with Jackie Brown. Get Shorty is good. Freaky Deaky is fun, about ex-60s radicals trying to dynamite their way to riches (I watched the 2012 film version with Christian Slater on Tuesday — small budget but definitely worthwhile).

Leonard was the last of the pulp writers, a World War II vet who went to Detroit to scrawl ad copy and wrote Westerns on the side. I’ve read most of his early books, though years later a lot of them bleed together. The plots are forgettable because they derive entirely from the characters — there’s very few MacGuffins. It’s usually: this person wants revenge on that person, or to scam or steal from that person, and then coincidentally this other person or persons becomes involved, and the whole thing becomes knotted. His plots are tangled but never confusing; and there’s only a handful of characters to keep track of. The women are always smarter than the men and the men — this is something I really like about Leonard — are often undone by their vanity and ego. There’s a graf in Riding the Rap (I think) where the character imagines how he should wear a do-rag or a hat or something and how bad-ass he would look if he did that. Because ladies, men are peacocks. Just one thing among so many others Leonard got right.

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