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A Hard-Boiled Music

by Otto Penzler

Elmore Leonard’s contribution to literature

A beautiful jazz riff, one that had played irresistibly and profoundly for more than six decades, went silent on the morning of Tuesday, August 20. The thing that is all wrong about that is Elmore Leonard — okay, he was 87 — was meant to live forever. He will, in a way, because we all will be reading and rereading his brilliant and original mystery and crime fiction for the rest of our lives — even if you’re just a kid now. But it is nearly impossible to think that he, the physical person, won’t be around anymore.

I met him at my bookshop in New York in 1981 when his novel Split Images came out. I had been reading him for a while and been blown away by his previous book, City Primeval, so I called his publisher to ask if he would be touring and could we have him for a reading. It turned out that he had never done a bookshop event outside of his hometown, and the publicist was surprised to get a request.

Just before he showed up, I looked at the dust-jacket photo and saw this hard-eyed guy wearing a cap and squinting back at me. I wondered what I’d done, confident that if it didn’t go well, he would beat the living daylights out of me. He looked just like the fellow on the dust jacket when he appeared at the top of the spiral staircase that was the centerpiece of the store and asked, “You Otto?” Once I admitted it, he stuck one hand out while his other reached around my shoulder for a hug, and he said, “You got me to New York. Thanks.” It was, as Rick Blaine said to Louis, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

That friendship began out of respect and affection for the books, for the original sound of Leonard’s voice on the page. I didn’t know exactly why it resonated so strongly for me, merely that it didn’t sound like anyone else, and I liked it. As time went on, I recognized that the words on the page sounded like a set at the Blue Note. I’d always known that poetry could sound like music; I had never made the leap to understand that prose could, too. Just as jazz was the great American contribution to the fullness of musical history, hard-boiled fiction was the quintessential American invention that enriched the world’s literature. And no one more prolifically embodied the form than Elmore Leonard, and no one did it at such a consistently distinguished level.

Most readers of American fiction (in the U.S.A. and around the world) know the books, which so regularly won awards and hit the bestseller lists. Glitz, Stick, Get Shorty, La Brava, Out of Sight, Rum Punch, among so many others, are reliably mentioned among readers’ favorites, and the people who made the movies from so many of the books were frequently smart enough to pick up his dialogue. Hombre (from back in the day when he wrote westerns) was the first one to get cinematic treatment, but there were other good ones, like Jackie Brown and Get Shorty, though too many that should have had their screenwriters and directors hauled straight to jail without trial, like The Big Bounce (made twice and described by Leonard as the two worst movies of all time) and Stick, for which he never forgave Burt Reynolds.

It was his habit to have a vague idea of what he wanted to write and then hunt for names for his characters (the Detroit phonebook got plenty of use). Once they were named, he felt that they were real and he could get on with it. He gave them the words — the dialogue that readers came to love and admire for its authenticity — and they provided him with the story, since he rarely knew where the plot was going to take him. Oops. I meant to say where the characters were going to take him, because by the time he had gotten to the halfway mark, his guys, as he called them, had taken over, frequently surprising him.

He liked to talk about his books while they were in progress and once was dismayed about an unexpected turn of events. He was telling a story when he said he didn’t know what he was going to do. He was up to page 130 and some minor character had just shot the guy who was supposed to be the hero — or at least the most important figure in the book, as it was not Leonard’s style to make his characters genuine heroes. Few of his villains were evil, just people who wanted an easy buck, and it was often difficult to distinguish the good guys from the bad ones.

I suggested rewriting the scene in which his protagonist went and got himself killed. He looked at me incredulously. “No, you don’t understand,” he said. “It already happened. He’s dead. You can’t bring him back.”

One time I praised him for the extraordinary authenticity of a conversation between black and Hispanic low-level drug dealers. Partial sentences, slang, vulgarity, rapid cadence, an undercurrent of violence. It sounded exactly right, I told him. He said, “How do you know?” Well, I allowed, I guess I don’t know because I don’t hang out with guys like that. “Neither do I,” he said. “I make it up.”

He did make it up, and he made it up the way no one else ever had. Of all his works, including the novels and the superb short stories, it may be that his greatest contribution to American letters (and he would not have liked a phrase quite so pompous) was his book on writing. Okay, it wasn’t really a book; it was a list of his ten rules of writing, not enough to fill a page, but his publisher did get the bright idea to make it into a book, with some illustrations, printed on paper nearly as thick as another well-known list of ten rules, though they were called commandments in another time. As an editor and publisher now for nearly 40 years, I can only wish that every MFA program in the United States will come to its senses and make this little handbook required reading for all its students. Not to be read once, but to be read every day for as long as the dream of writing has hold of the heart and brain of the student.

While every one of his rules has value (“Never open a book with weather,” “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue”), the two that are the keys to his own work are “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip” and the general summing up: When writing starts to read like writing, get rid of it.

The mystery and crime community lost one of the greatest of the great when “Dutch” (the nickname came from a popular baseball pitcher of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s) Leonard put down his pen (he wrote all his books in longhand) for the last time. If you don’t miss him, you didn’t know him, or you didn’t read him. I feel bad for you.

– Mr. Penzler is the proprietor of New York’s Mysterious Bookshop and the publisher of the Mysterious Press and MysteriousPress.com.

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