By Mike Nicol for The Sunday Times
On Tuesday August 20 the crime novelist Elmore Leonard died at the age of 87. It was a death that marked the end of an era: an era that started in 1969 with a much-rejected novel called The Big Bounce and saw Leonard go on to single-handedly reshape the crime novel over the next four decades.
When I first came across his work during the late 1990s while immersed in a saturation read of crime fiction, I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t heard of him before. He was clearly a major novelist. That he wrote crime and even cowboy stories (check out Valdez is Coming, it’s superb) seemed irrelevant.
Above everything Elmore Leonard was a stylist. His prose made a music I had never heard. It had clarity, was poetic in a sparse, sharp, sexy way, and simply sang. I read him just to listen to the sound of his words. It was addictive.
And then there were the characters and the stories. There was Chili Palmer from Get Shorty; Jackie Brown from Rum Punch; Karen Sisco from Out of Sight – a truly moving love story – and Joe La Brava from the novel that took his name. And that’s not even scratching the surface.
There was also the wisecracking dialogue. Leonard wrote dialogue like nobody had ever done before. Well, he said he had learned from George V Higgins and there may be something in that, but Leonard shifted dialogue into a snappy exchange that took my breath away.
As it did to more or less anyone writing crime fiction anywhere in the world. Could there have been a Quentin Tarantino without an Elmore Leonard?
Elmore Leonard was the man. Even his less successful novels – Djibouti and The Hunted come to mind – had more inventiveness in them than most crime thrillers. Indeed, he could write a crime novel that had only one plot (a major achievement these days) and he didn’t go in for the fashion of huge multi-story thrillers. It is no exaggeration to say I couldn’t have written crime fiction without his books and I have heard at least one other local crime writer – Roger Smith – acknowledge his debt to Leonard as well.
Leonard brought a humour to crime fiction that tapped into a vein which continued conversations that might have occurred between Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or between Rozencrantz and Guildenstern in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Humour was no stranger to the crime fictions of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett but Leonard took it to a new level by creating characters who could have doubled as stand-up comics. There were lessons here I was only too happy to learn.
The grandmaster’s 10 Rules of Writing have become an essential guide for any creative writing teacher. He dissed adjectives and adverbs; advocated dialogue; suggested using one exclamation mark per 100 000 words; said there was no reason to use the word “suddenly” or the phrase “all hell broke loose”; told writers to rewrite anything that sounded like writing.
This was rich coming from a man whose writing sounded like writing, but not everyone can be a stylist and get away with it.
That there will be no more Elmore Leonard novels is a reality that takes some getting used to.