Elmore Leonard Essay - Critical Essays

Elmore Leonard American Literature Analysis

The oddity of Leonard’s finally being “discovered” by critics and a wide reading public with Glitz, his twenty-third novel, has attracted puzzled comments from most reviewers and from Leonard himself and probably has no simple explanation. The novel immediately before Glitz, LaBrava, had sold only twenty thousand copies by the time that Glitz had sold two hundred thousand and spent sixteen weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, yet there seems to be no clear difference in the style, tone, or quality of the two books.

While careful students of Leonard’s work have noted a greater degree of fine detail and texture in his work since the 1980’s, the broad similarities between his later books and the best work of the 1970’s, beginning with Fifty-two Pickup, are far more striking than any minor differences. As the critic Peter Prescott put it, “the margin of difference between Leonard’s better and lesser works would admit, with difficulty, a butterfly’s wing.” Leonard attributes his change of style at the time of Fifty-two Pickup to his reading of George V. Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972), from which he learned valuable lessons about the use of point of view and dialogue, the handling of which were to become his stylistic trademark.

Part of the explanation for his sudden success with Glitz was the publisher’s decision to promote the novel more aggressively by spending more money and, perhaps oddly, by saying as little as possible about it in the advertising. Earlier advertising campaigns had made the mistake of comparing Leonard to earlier crime writers who had elevated the genre to the level of serious literature, including Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald. Readers who expected similar work must have been frequently disappointed, because, apart from the high quality of his work, Leonard has almost nothing in common with these predecessors. In particular, he scrupulously avoided using the sort of colorful metaphors and similes that are typically thought to characterize good writing; as Leonard himself says, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

The great difference between Leonard’s style and that of his forebears may be the best explanation for his long wait for success: Readers needed a long time to get used to his unique approach to crime fiction and to accept it on its own terms. Earlier writers of “hard-boiled” detective fiction had almost universally relied on first-person narratives, related from the point of view of a continuing character who is the protagonist for all the novels in a series. While Hammett, the originator of the hard-boiled genre, switched characters from book to book and sometimes relied on an objective, “camera-eye” point of view, Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Macdonald’s Lew Archer always told their own stories through a series of books, establishing a formula followed by innumerable later writers. Leonard, on the other hand, seldom uses a character in more than one or two books.

The reader’s expectations about crime novels are further compounded by Leonard’s characteristic practice of relying on multiple points of view, perhaps his most distinctive and original stylistic contribution to the field. Rather than having the protagonist tell the reader the story as a consistent first-person narrative, Leonard typically shifts point of view from one character to another. In many of the novels, the reader is not sure until well into the book who the main character will eventually be, because so many characters’ viewpoints are rendered. In Maximum Bob, Leonard goes so far as to include a scene written from the point of view of an alligator. Leonard never speaks in his own voice in his later books, delegating all the narrating to one or another of his usually numerous cast of characters. One critic has remarked that “Leonard is a skilled ventriloquist whose own lips never move.”

The technique of rapidly shifting points of view seems at first to have more in common with the difficult experimental literature of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf than with traditional popular fiction, and such an approach could certainly become confusing in the hands of another writer. Leonard, however, always manages to get the reader just the information needed to follow the story. He accomplishes this, in part, through a heavy reliance on dialogue, always couched in each character’s individualized mannerisms of speech and presented in short, dramatic scenes. Usually, he ends each scene with a punch line or unexpected twist for closure. He eschews entirely the typical novelist’s use of blocks of narrative exposition.

Another interesting effect of the use of multiple points of view is that the reader is privy to the thoughts of virtually every character, hero and villain alike, and therefore quickly knows much more about the story than any one of the characters in the book ever could. The result is that Leonard’s novels are not, in fact, mysteries in the traditional sense: the reader knows exactly who has committed every crime, and in fact usually witnesses them from the criminals’ viewpoints. Leonard’s practice of giving the criminal’s point of view equal time creates yet another problem for some readers, who can be disturbed by his ability to render the thoughts and feelings of the most depraved characters accurately and even sympathetically. That this intimate association with evil characters never becomes oppressive for the reader results from Leonard’s gift of making a sort of deadpan satire come through the realistic dialogue; few of his characters intend to be funny, but the reader finds humor in unexpected places.

City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit

First published: 1980

Type of work: Novel

Homicide detective Raymond Cruz relies on both conventional and unorthodox methods to bring psychotic killer Clement Mansell to justice.

City Primeval is widely regarded as the first book of Leonard’s strongest period. As the allusion to the classic 1952 Western film High Noon in the subtitle suggests, the novel marks a conscious adaptation of the characters and themes of Leonard’s earlier Westerns to the modern urban settings of his later crime novels. The book’s protagonist, Detroit homicide detective Raymond Cruz, is a Texan of Mexican descent who thus has the background appropriate to a Western hero. Leonard describes Cruz’s relationship with Clement Mansell, the book’s villain, in terms of classic Westerns: “No—more like High Noon. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. You have to go back a hundred years and out west to find an analogy. But there it is.” References to Westerns are scattered throughout the book, which opens with a dinner conversation between Cruz and a reporter who accuses him of trying to emulate Wyatt Earp, Clint Eastwood, and John Wayne. It closes, appropriately, with an old-fashioned showdown between Cruz and Mansell.

This frontier imagery is integrated into a thoroughly realistic context that reveals Leonard’s recent in-depth study of the daily operations of the Detroit police department. Particularly well-handled are a series of interrogation scenes in which the detectives use subtle techniques of misdirection to gain information from uncooperative suspects, who never realize how much they have given away. As in most of Leonard’s novels, the difference between the good and bad characters is not strictly a matter of following or breaking the law; the players on both sides operate very near the border between right and wrong, with their ends differing much more than the means used to achieve them.

Mansell has, in fact, found the legal system to be in some ways his best ally; he has been freed from earlier murder charges on legal technicalities. Cruz, on the other hand, is forced to work outside the law, tampering with evidence and eventually forcing a confrontation in which he kills Mansell under circumstances that are ethically, and perhaps legally, suspect. As Mansell says to Cruz in the final scene, “Me and you are on different sides, but we’re alike in a lot of ways,” an observation that typifies the similarity, and even sympathy, that usually exists between antagonist and protagonist in Leonard’s work. Mansell’s point of view is relied on just as much as that of Cruz or of Sandy...

(The entire section is 3472 words.)