- - Tuesday, March 20, 2012

By Elmore Leonard
William Morrow, $26.99, 263 pages

How wonderful it would be to discover Elmore Leonard for the first time. I mean discover him now, in 2012, when there’s a massive backlog of previous novels, 45 in all, just waiting for you to crack one open. Like a can of your favorite beer, you know each one will be a separate unit of enjoyment that won’t disappoint. To paraphrase what Emerson said to the young Whitman, we seasoned Elmoristas salute you at the beginning of a great reading experience.

Beginning in the 1950s, “Dutch” Leonard wrote short stories and Westerns, but fairly early on, he switched to crime novels - thrillers, mysteries, suspense, call ‘em as you see ‘em - and hasn’t slowed down since. Come October, he’ll be 87. Along the way, he’s also written the screenplays for several of his 13 novels that have become movies. Among the stars who have portrayed a Leonard protagonist are Charles Bronson, Burt Reynolds, John Travolta, Mickey Rourke, Tom Selleck and, oddly enough, Alan Alda.

He’s also written one nonfiction book, “Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.” Among those rules are: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue,” “Never use the words ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke loose’ ” and “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” According to Mr. Leonard, the most important rule is one that sums up all 10: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

This time out, Mr. Leonard brings back federal Marshal Raylan Givens, a tough cop with a seemingly gentle side who has appeared in two previous books (“Pronto” and “Riding the Rap”) and for two seasons as the star (played by Timothy Olyphant) of “Justified” on the FX network. Mr. Leonard’s locales are often as interesting as his characters, and this time it’s Harlan County, Ky., a beautiful part of the country that’s well-known for hard times.

Of course, coal was the staple crop for decades, but these days, it’s marijuana, and when Marshal Givens arrives in Harlan in search of a fugitive with pot connections, he finds that the real illegal moneymaker is body parts, human body parts. (Mr. Leonard is never behind the curve of grisly news stories; last year’s “Djibouti” was about pirates off the coast of Somalia.)

In one of the book’s many interesting sidelights, he and various other law enforcement types do some clever deducing, which is fun for the reader, who already knows, thanks to Mr. Leonard, the identity of the bad guys. In another sidelight, he uses villainesses rather than villains, with three very well-drawn women. two of whom are especially less than noble.

Raylan comes with a very big rep, being fast on the draw and not shy about using a weapon, which actually does put fear in the hearts of some of his antagonists. But one of them very nearly turns the tables on him, and Marshal Givens finds himself on the verge of becoming an organ donor while still very much alive. As usual, Mr. Leonard tells us a lot about his characters by describing their likes and dislikes. For example, one of the bad guys has:

“Fifty-seven photographs of Elvis in the front room, posters in the hall and kitchen. There were Elvis bobble-heads; a bong looking like Elvis; a jar of dirt from the garden at Graceland; a photo of a cloud formation that looked like Elvis that Dickie paid a hundred dollars for; and a pair of towels Elvis used to wipe his face while performing, now doilies on the backrests of Dickie’s La-Z-Boys.”

One of the many reasons why the prolific Mr. Leonard continues to please his millions of readers is that he continues to be unpredictable. His plot twists are real twisty, and he eliminates some prime suspects before the book reaches its midpoint, only to come up with equally plausible, equally nasty new ones. And he doesn’t make his bad guys all bad. Some of them struggle with their consciences before performing their evil misdeeds. One of them even redeems himself, but you don’t see it coming.

As much as anything else, one reads Mr. Leonard for the clipped dialogue that never sounds off-key and for the economy of his now-famous prose. Here he is obeying Rule 9, “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things”: “Raylan stood a distance from the car, the pasture behind him, about sixty feet from the two getting out of the pickup, approaching now, Bob Valdez with his .44 slung low; the other one, another Mexican in a straw hat, carrying a twelve-gauge under his arm like he was out there to shoot birds, relaxed, a step behind Bob. He looked tired. Or he was stoned.”

Stephen King recently called Elmore Leonard “America’s great writer,” but added that in his opinion, “he was better ten years ago.” I, and many, many others, disagree.

• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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