- - Monday, August 31, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ELMORE LEONARD: FOUR NOVELS OF THE 1980S

By Elmore Leonard

Edited by Gregg Sutter

Library of America, $37.50, 1,024 pages

Library of America is performing a stellar service to the legions of readers who admire the crime-thriller writer Elmore Leonard (and include me in those ranks). At hand is the second volume of a planned trilogy that brings back four of the master’s best novels. And they vividly display Leonard’s talent for sparkling stories — ranging from an elaborate scam involving an aging movie star to the search for an assassin in glitzy Atlantic City. Leonard, who died in 2013, created a legacy that surpasses even such masters as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.



Ah, and Leonard (aka “Dutch”) remains the master of the tells-it-all sentence. A character relates driving through a section of town that was so rough that when he put his arm out the window to signal a turn, “some low-life took the can of beer out of my hand.”

Leonard began writing when he lived in Detroit, and his first novels delved into the underworld of that gritty, tortured city. My first exposure to Leonard convinced me that he must be an ex-convict, given his mastery of thug-speak (“Jack City” for the Michigan state prison) and a seeming insider-knowledge of how to rob a liquor store and roar away on a motorcycle.

Wrong. In “real life” Leonard toiled as a copywriter for an advertising agency, and — very importantly — he had the work ethic essential to anyone serious about becoming a writer. He would arise at 5 a.m. and write for two hours before making breakfast for his two kids. As he once put it, “I had a rule that I had to write a page before I put the water on for the coffee.” At work, he kept a legal pad in his middle desk drawer on which he would write in longhand when alone. His first works were Westerns, when that genre was still popular with magazine and book publishers. When he wished to describe a desert or canyon he turned to a magazine, Arizona Highways, for guidance.

Then he shifted to crime, in a city where the cops were tough and the criminals even tougher. Many of his stories resolved around “blind pig” speakeasies where the liquor was of dubious origin. (And indeed Leonard had a years-long battle with booze before joining Alcoholics Anonymous, an addiction reflected in several of his books). Once he exhausted Detroit — where the scope of chicanery is somewhat limited — Leonard shifted to Florida, where folks are skilled in devising innovative ways to kill and/or swindle one another.

Leonard’s forte is brisk dialogue. John Steinbeck was an early idol, and he credits a line in Steinbeck’s 1954 novel “Sweet Thursday” with teaching him an important lesson of his craft: “I like a lot of talk in a book, and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like.” As Leonard relates, “From that time on I concentrated on telling my stories in dialogue so that I wouldn’t have to describe the characters.”

A character visits a friend’s apartment and asks, in disgust, “Don’t you ever clean this place up?” The friend replies, “We hose it out once a week, like at the zoo, get rid of the stink.” Which really tells you all that is needed to know about the place. Or, describing the drinking habits of a tippling actress in “Labrava,” one of the anthologized novels, “You throw a drink at a cop car, that’s not exactly having it under control. But today she’s fine.”

An interesting addenda to the anthology is a chronological account of Leonard’s career, as compiled by his longtime researcher Gregg Sutter, whose biography of his friend Dutch is to be published shortly. Although some of his Western novels enjoyed good sales, they did not bring in enough money to support his family. So he followed in the footsteps of many writers and took on anything-for-a-buck assignments, in his case writing scripts for documentary industrial movies.

Fortunately, Leonard and Hollywood eventually discovered one another. Leonard hooked up with the legendary Los Angeles agent H.N. Swanson, who made a movie deal for “Three-Ten to Yuma.” Many other movies followed, and Leonard was able to abandon the scut work and write full-time.

He first achieved national attention in 1985 when his novel “Glitz” (included in the current anthology) made The New York Times best-seller list. Newsweek put him on the cover as the nation’s “greatest living crime writer,” and Time called him “the Dickens of Detroit.”

Fortunately, more is to come from Dutch Leonard, even though he has been dead for two years. A British publisher bought rights to 15 unpublished short stories that were written when Leonard was still a Detroit advertising copywriter. HarperCollins will publish an American edition this fall.

As for the other 40-plus novels, fans must continue to prowl the dusty shelves of thrift shops. But finding an Elmore Leonard is worth the work.

Washington writer Joseph Goulden reads thrillers by the pound.

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