Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Elmore Leonard (1925 - 2013)

Back in 2001 Elmore Leonard wrote an article for the New York Times in which he listed his ten rules  for writing. Reading it is one of those light bulb moments or possibly the now ubiquitous facepalm moments, they are, as Basil Fawlty would have said, straight from the school of the bleeding obvious, so simple and yet so easily overlooked by many writers who forget the most important rule of storytelling - show, don't tell. 

Elmore Leonard was referred to by other writers as 'the boss', he dominated a genre of writing simply by being the best at his chosen craft. In his ten rules article he says that physical descriptions should be avoided and yet I would suggest that if you took ten readers of one of his books and asked them to describe the physical characteristics of the leading characters and the majority of the answers would be identical.

For me the impending arrival of the latest Elmore Leonard paperback was a literary event, waiting to read the latest addition to his oeuvre was as exciting as waiting for the next album release by The Clash or The Smiths.

Elmore Leonard wrote Westerns from the late fifties until the early seventies before switching to crime novels, the genre with which he is most associated for anybody under the age of fifty. The great thing about his crime novels for me was the dialogue and the believability of the characters, Leonard wrote dialogue in the way that people actually speak, he also managed to convey the vulnerability of characters without resulting to pathos and he also managed to write convincingly about women. Leonard's women were always strong characters who stood their ground and more often than not showed the male characters as weak willed.

My own personal favourite Leonard novel is Maximum Bob which is set in southern Florida. The title character is Judge Bob Gibbs, who has been given the sobriquet as a result of his stringent sentencing policy. Despite being the eponymous hero of the story Bob is absent for much of the novel as the plot follows probation officer Kathy Baker and her various clients. Several of Bakers clients have reasons to hate the judge, and are contemplating revenge. Kathy develops a relationship with a policeman while at the same time trying to rebuff Bob’s interest in her. Bob is strictly un-PC, he has wife, Leanne, whose leanings are towards new age and whose spiritual values he is sick of.

Some critics claimed that the characters were straight off the Elmore Leonard production line, without much depth but that's surely the attraction of his writing, you don’t pick up his books for profound insights into the human condition but for a cleverly-told story.

What struck me about the ending of the book, and in fact made me smile for ages afterwards as I closed it and put it  to one side is that Judge Bob Gibbs learns nothing about human nature at all and is still as sexist on the final page as he was when we first met him.

Leonard famously hated all the filmed versions of his books, I suspect though he accepted the rights cheques on principal. Many years ago I was at a talk given by the writer Liza Cody, whose Anna Lee series was purchased by ITV made into five films starring Imogen Stubbs, Cody so hated the way the five programmes had been made that she stopped writing the character as she was unable to buy back the rights. Leonard's books contain just about every human emotion you can think of from laugh out loud moments through slapstick to cartoon violence, as I said last week with Karen Black whilst he will be greatly missed his work will live on.


Span Ows said...

Those rules are excellent and - begging to differ - not obvious at all.

Don't recall reading any but I did/do like the film Hombre (one of the earliest) and Valdez is coming (haven't read either book).

"[should have] paid the hundred dollars"

Paul said...

No need to beg!

I think the westerns (films) were very well done and Tarantino owes his career to Leonard.

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