Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Elmore Leonard , RIP

The reports are coming in as I write this: novelist Elmore Leonard passed away early this morning. He was 87.

I'm sure journalists will write that he was a "crime writer" as opposed to "mystery writer" because his novels were stocked in the mystery aisle of most bookstores and libraries. He wrote seriocomic novels focusing on criminals, often in unlikely romances , which may have been the secret to his popularity. His characters start off gritty, then faintly funny before turning sweet.

The books were often adapted into movies, particularly in the 90's in an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Quentin Tarentino's Pulp Fiction (the three best-known adaptations are Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Jackie Brown,  which adapted the novel Rum Punch) and inspired several TV Series (Maximum Bob, Karen Cisco and Justified, of which its lead character, Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens, appeared in three novels and one short story/"novella" - the most Leonard wrote about any particular character). He didn't focus on archtypical characters - his characters were posers, bluffers, film buffs, punks - his world was too decadent for anyone to be steadfast and true, though his Raylan comes very close, which probably explains why Justified is the most successful TV series based on his books...just don't assume I'm a fan - I found Raylan to be cardboard. He was a supporting character in his debut, Pronto, and the real star of that book (in my humble opinion) was aging gangster/Ezra Pond fan Harry Arno, who was played by Peter Falk when it was adapted into a film.

Leonard's writing style was a softer approach to classic, cliched hard-boiled detective fiction. The crooks are the sympathetic characters, while the federal agents, undercover cops, bounty hunters and other law enforcement officials ...in Leonard's world, they're the wild cards, the double and triple-crossers. Raylan Givens appears comical in the novels because everyone around him is making deals on the side and have no clue how deal how to deal with a righteous cowboy with a trigger-finger. Most of Leonard's books were usually set around Florida and were meticulously researched to capture the local color. From an outsider's perspective, this was  the opposite of so-called "yuppie porn" - it was "lowlife porn": stories about people living it up while living low and thinking small. Reading between the lines, life was all about understanding game theory.

There are a lot of writers whose writing style was similar to Leonard: Carl Hiassen, Pete Hautman, Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block, Ed McBain. They all make up a generation of writers that deconstructed the hard-boiled/ film noir/police procedural and rebuilt them into sitcoms. They saw how funny it all was.

Elmore Leonard. RIP.

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