Elmore Leonard’s uncanny ability for genre fiction

Remembering the author, who died Tuesday at age 87

Paul Sancya/AP

Elmore Leonard, one of America’s most famous and most-adapted writers of genre fiction, has died at the age of 87. Leonard was perhaps best known as a king of quirky crime fiction, with such books as The Big Bounce, Get Shorty, Maximum Bob, and Out of Sight. His writing style was instantly identifiable to generations of readers: the combination of spare, lean, Hemingway-esque writing with a more fanciful, even poetic, flavour in the description and dialogue. His characters would talk tersely but in unique speech patterns, or exchange dialogue about things you wouldn’t expect them to talk about — a well-known example being the movie-obsessed loan shark Chili Palmer, the hero of Leonard’s Get Shorty. In a famous New York Times article on his rules for writing, he summed up his approach by saying “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” His novels had the unique quality of having very stylized writing and characters that somehow seemed to be natural and realistic, because of his ability to make the wildest concepts seem like they were really happening in front of us.

This combination of naturalism and stylization is, of course, perfect for the movies and television, which is why Leonard has been such a boon to Hollywood. Starting with the successful adaptation of his western novel 3:10 to Yuma (which was successfully remade again in recent years), Leonard has interested many film directors and producers looking for a crime or western story that has something more than the usual plot mechanisms of genre writing. The 1996 film version of Get Shorty, starring John Travolta as Chili, was a major hit and introduced a wider audience to Leonard’s ability to mix humour and violence; its success was followed by a number of other Leonard adaptations by major directors, including Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (making Leonard the only novelist whose work Tarantino has directly adapted) and Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight. In the years before his death, Leonard was a producer on Justified, a popular TV adaptation of his stories about U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens; its combination the two genres with which he was most closely associated – the western and the crime story – made it a fitting monument to his work.

Still, Leonard’s work lives on most fully on the printed (or computerized) page, where his bare-bones descriptions (another one of his rules was “avoid detailed descriptions of characters”) mixes perfectly with his ability to create dialogue that sounds exotic and real at the same time. Lines like “I might be undertaking a situation here” suggest not a writer making up clever dialogue, but a whole other way of thinking and speaking that we’re getting a chance to observe for ourselves. Though simply calling him a master of dialogue does a disservice to all the other things he did well, there’s no doubt that was a big part of what made Leonard a great writer, and it’s one of the things he enjoyed the most about writing. In 2004 he told NPR that his first mission is “to first of all establish the characters, as many as possible in the first 100 pages and audition them. Let’s see if they can talk. If they can’t talk, they’re liable to slip from view or get shot early on. If I have several bad guys, and I only want to end up with one of them, then I have to decide which one I want in the end. Normally, it’s the one who’s the most interesting talker.”

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