Leonard, Elmore (Vol. 120)
Elmore Leonard 1925–
The following entry presents an overview of Leonard's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 28, 34, and 71.
The author of such best-selling novels as Stick (1983) and Get Shorty (1990) Leonard has been lauded as one of the finest contemporary crime writers in the United States. His gritty accounts of urban life feature the exploits of lower-class characters trying to make fast money and are often set in the locales of southern Florida and Detroit. Although he began writing during the 1950s, Leonard did not receive widespread attention until the 1980s. Since then he has enjoyed a broad and loyal readership. The film adaptations of his novels, including Mr. Majestyk (1974), Fifty-two Pickup (1974), Stick, and Get Shorty, have further enhanced his popularity. Biographer David Geherin noted: "Leonard's fiction represents a major achievement in crime writing…. In their artistry, originality, and impact, Leonard's novels deserve a permanent place beside those of [Dashiell] Hammett and [Raymond] Chandler on the shelf marked simply Outstanding American Fiction."
Leonard was born in New Orleans and grew up in Detroit. During the 1950s, while working as an advertising copywriter, he began writing western stories for pulp magazines and eventually published several western novels, of which Hombre (1961) is the best known. Also during this period he sold the film rights to his western short stories "3:10 to Yuma" and "The Tall T," thus beginning a long and lucrative relationship with the Hollywood film industry. By the early 1960s, however, public interest in westerns had waned, and Leonard turned to writing mystery and suspense novels, the first of which, The Big Bounce, was rejected eighty-four times before being published in 1969. Discouraged by this apparent lack of interest in his suspense fiction, Leonard returned to writing westerns but abandoned the genre again after the film rights to The Big Bounce sold for $50,000. He published several crime novels in the years that followed, including Fifty-two Pickup, Cat Chaser (1982), and Unknown Man, No. 89 (1977), but did not achieve major success until the publication of Stick in 1983. Favorable reviews by respected critics in the New York Times and the Washington Post fueled interest in Stick, and in 1985 the novel was made into a film directed by and starring Burt Reynolds. Although Leonard disavowed the film, citing Reynolds's refusal to remain faithful to the plot and tone of the original work, it solidified his status as a talented and bankable crime writer.
Critic Michael Kernan has observed that the typical Leonard novel is distinguished by "guns, a killing or two or three, fights and chases and sex. Tight, clean prose, ear-perfect whip-smart dialogue. And just beneath the surface, an acute sense of the ridiculous." Many of these elements can be seen in Glitz (1985). In this work, Miami cop Vincent Mora travels to Puerto Rico to recover from a bullet wound and meets Teddy Magyk, a murderer and rapist whom he once put in prison. Their cat-and-mouse chase leads them to Atlantic City, where they tangle with mobsters and drug dealers before their final confrontation. Leonard's other works incorporate variations of the elements praised in Stick, namely memorable characters, sharp dialogue, and suspenseful plot. Bandits (1987) follows the adventures of Jack Delaney, an ex-hotel thief who is persuaded by an ex-nun to steal five million dollars from a Contra leader in order to help the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. In Touch (1987), a former seminarian who heals the sick and exhibits stigmata tries to free himself from the influence of con men and unscrupulous religious leaders who want to exploit his powers; this novel was adapted for film in 1996. Killshot (1989) revolves around a working-class couple who, after witnessing a murder, must elude a hit-man and a psychopath. Get Shorty, which served as the basis for the highly successful 1995 film starring John Travolta and Danny Devito, centers on Chili Palmer, a small-time hoodlum who becomes involved with movie producers, actors, and the mafia. The protagonist of Maximum Bob (1991) is Bob Gibbs, a bigoted judge known for his tough prison sentences; throughout the course of the narrative, he becomes the target of several assassins. Rum Punch (1992) which was adapted for the 1997 film Jackie Brown directed by Quentin Tarantino, concerns a group of criminals attempting to smuggle money into the United States; the characters include Florida gunrunner Ordell Robbie, ex-con Louis Gara, and flight attendant Jackie Burke. In Pronto (1993), small-time criminal Harry Arno flees to the Italian Riviera to escape threats from both the FBI and the Miami syndicate; a U.S. Marshal, Raylan Givens, pursues Arno and tries to prevent his murder at the hands of the mob. Both Arno and Givens reappear in Leonard's next novel, Riding the Rap (1995), in which the former character is held hostage by seasoned gambler Warren "Chip" Ganz and his accomplice, Louis Lewis. In Out of Sight (1996), which was adapted for a film starring George Clooney, Leonard departs somewhat from his traditional plotlines and presents a narrative driven in large part by a love affair between the two main characters, bankrobber Jack Foley and U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco. In Cuba Libre (1998), which is set just before the Spanish American War, Leonard combines elements of his western and crime novels. The narrative includes such characters as cowboy Ben Tyler, who robs banks at which the people who owe him money hold accounts; Tyler moves on to exporting horses to Cuba with businessman Charlie Burke, and both men become acquainted with their buyer, the dangerous Roland Boudreaux. Be Cool (1999) marks the return of Get Shorty's Chili Palmer, who again seeks box office success, this time directing sometimes perilous events in his own life and the lives of others in order to establish the best plot for his screenplay.
While he is often compared to crime writers Ross Macdonald, Chandler, and Hammett, Leonard acknowledges Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and John O'Hara as his literary influences. The lean prose style of these authors is evident in such works as Killshot, Touch, and Glitz. Leonard has been praised particularly for his ability to capture the nuances and rhythms of conversation. Time magazine called Leonard "Dickens from Detroit" because of his strong character portrayals and realistic dialogue. Minimizing narration and description, Leonard allows his characters' conversations to tell the story. Of Leonard's writing technique, Diane K. Shah observed: "There appears to be no narrator at all: as if a bunch of honest, hard-working guys and a parade of deadbeats had run into each other in Detroit or South Florida and begun talking; as if, by chance, this Elmore Leonard, lurking in the shadows, had turned on his tape recorder, getting it all."
The Bounty Hunters (novel) 1953
The Law at Randado (novel) 1954
Escape from 5 Shadows (novel) 1956
Last Stand at Saber River (novel) 1957; also published as Lawless River, 1959; and Stand in the Saber, 1960
Hombre (novel) 1961
The Big Bounce (novel) 1969; revised edition, 1989
The Moonshine War (novel) 1969
The Moonshine War (screenplay) 1970
Valdez Is Coming (novel) 1970
Forty Lashes Less One (novel) 1972
Joe Kidd (screenplay) 1972
Fifty-two Pickup (novel) 1974
Mr. Majestyk (novel) 1974
Mr. Majestyk (screenplay) 1974
Swag (novel) 1976; also published as Ryan's Rules, 1976
The Hunted (novel) 1977
Unknown Man, No. 89 (novel) 1977
The Switch (novel) 1978
Gunsights (novel) 1979
City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit (novel) 1980
High Noon, Part 2: The Return of Will Kane (screenplay) 1980
Gold Coast (novel) 1980; revised edition, 1985
Split Images (novel) 1981
Cat Chaser (novel) 1982
LaBrava (novel) 1983
Stick (novel) 1983
Glitz (novel) 1985
Stick [with Joseph C. Stinson] (screenplay) 1985
52 Pick-Up [with John Steppling] (screenplay) 1986
Bandits (novel) 1987
∗The Rosary Murders [with Fred Walton]...
(The entire section is 186 words.)
SOURCE: "Middle Class Hustlers," in New Republic, Vol. 192, No. 2, March 25, 1985, pp. 38-40.
[In the following review, Morley offers a mixed assessment of Glitz.]
You've heard about Elmore Leonard—probably sometime in the last ten days. After a long career of writing pulp Westerns and crime novels, he's hit it big with Glitz. The book, which follows Miami detective Vincent Mora to Atlantic City as he looks for the killer of a dumb, young Puerto Rican prostitute named Iris whom he once had a crush on, has made the Book of the Month Club and is said to be on its way to Hollywood. But the excitement isn't just hype. The critical measure of Leonard is also routinely high. His dialogue is edgy, hip, inarticulate; his plot twists are unnerving; his characters are as familiar and surprising as a new friend.
So why am I going to say bad things about him? Mainly to try and help preserve his reputation. The swell of critical praise for Leonard's last several books has grown into a mighty tsunami of raves for Glitz. Leonard is this year's model of the sudden literary celebrity lifted from obscurity, a regular William Kennedy or Martin Cruz Smith or John Kennedy Toole. I happen to think Leonard's writing is both more fun and more evocative of American life, of its hustle, glamour, ugliness, and yearning, than any of the above. But what's best about him is getting lost in, well, in...
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SOURCE: "Hard Guys and Heroes," in Commentary, Vol. 79, No. 5, May, 1985, pp. 64, 66-7.
[In the following excerpt, Kaplan provides a mixed review of Glitz, and compares and contrasts Leonard's novels with works by author Ross Thomas, whose novel is also reviewed.]
After eighteen novels written over the course of three decades, Elmore Leonard, who lives and writes in a suburb north of Detroit, has made it big with Glitz, a novel about a policeman, a psychopathic criminal, two beautiful women, and Atlantic City gangsters. His previous books were paperback originals, but this one is near the top of the hard-cover best-seller list, it is a book-club selection, and it is receiving favorable reviews just about everywhere, except where it is getting raves.
Less spectacular is the success of Ross Thomas, a resident of Malibu, California, whose twentieth novel (including five written under the pseudonym Oliver Bleeck), Briarpatch, also is winning its author many new readers. In recent years Thomas has begun to surface from what might be called the obscure glory of a devoted cult following, and each of his last few books has been a contender for best-sellerdom, attracting increasingly widespread, and favorable, reviews.
Although both Leonard and Thomas deserve the recognition, if not necessarily the uncritical adulation, they are receiving, neither new novel...
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SOURCE: "Canned Politics and Lovely Rascals," in Christian Science Monitor, January 28, 1987, p. 19.
[In the following mixed review of Bandits, D'Evelyn asserts that the novel does not live up to Leonard's abilities as a "master craftsman" of crime novels.]
Elmore Leonard is everywhere. After 24 novels, salty-bearded, high-domed, he squints out at us affably from behind his big specs—a blue-collar, wiry version of Mr. Magoo. He's a media star.
Since his early days as a writer of Westerns (his oldest fans continue to prefer them to his crime novels), Leonard's reputation has grown steadily. It took years to crest with Glitz (1984). With his newest book, Bandits, the wave has broken, and Leonard has definitely arrived.
Leonard is a master craftsman. He specializes in local color (Detroit, Florida's Gold Coast, Atlantic City, New Orleans), patterns of sloppy but undeniably American speech, a Hemingwayesque use of negative space (what he leaves out the reader spontaneously fills in), and brutal, very macho fun and games.
Up till now, the beat of Leonard's crime novels has been true to the heart of the crime story, its generic hero. As an outsider with a heart of gold, or at least a sense of simple human justice, the crime or suspense hero makes the mystery novel a version of romance.
In Bandits, the...
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SOURCE: "Elmore Leonard: Splitting Images," in Western Humanities Review, Vol. XLI, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 78-86.
[In the following essay, Most examines Leonard's use of language and conventions of narrative and plot to illuminate the moral views of his readers.]
Towards the beginning of Elmore Leonard's Split Images, a rather odd thing happens. A multi-millionaire named Robbie Daniels has shot and killed a Haitian refugee who has broken into his house in Palm Beach. This, unfortunately, seems not to be odd at all, at least not in Leonard's world. What is odd is what happens next. Gary Hammond, the young squad-car officer who questions Daniels, asks him whether the woman accompanying him had entered the house together with him, and the millionaire replies, "Yeah, but when I realized someone had broken in, the way the place was tossed, I told Miss Nolan, stay in the foyer and don't move." "The squad-car officer paused," continues the narrator. "One of Mr. Daniels's words surprised him, bothered him a little." We wonder: which word? why? Leonard does not tell us, and we must read on, hoping that this tiny perplexity will at some point be resolved.
This perplexity is in fact the only mystery at the beginning of this novel—which is surprising, considering that the first sentence announces a murder has been committed and that a conventional murder mystery would be devoted to...
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SOURCE: "Indictments," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXIV, No. 13, August 13, 1987, pp. 50-1.
[In the following excerpt, Edwards provides a largely positive assessment of Bandits.]
Even those who don't care for crime fiction may like what Elmore Leonard makes of it, especially his way of representing common or low American voices. Consider this splendid speech in Bandits, by an old but still lively Louisiana bank robber banished by his relatives to a shabby nursing home:
"My boy wanted me to stay with them, I mean live there," Cullen said. "It was Mary Jo was the problem. She'd been thinking about having a nervous breakdown ever since [her daughter] Joellen run off to Muscle Shoals to become a recording artist…. See, Mary Jo, all she knows how to do is keep house. She don't watch TV, she either waxes furniture or makes cookies or sews on buttons. I said to Tommy Junior, 'What's she do, tear 'em off so she can sew 'em back on?' I got a picture in my mind of that woman biting thread. First day I'm there, I look around, I don't see any ashtrays. There's one, but it's got buttons in it. I go to use it, Mary Jo says, 'That is not an ashtray. We don't have ashtrays in this house.' I ask her, well, how about a coffee can lid I could use? She says if I'm gonna smoke I have to do it in the backyard. Not in the front. She was afraid the neighbors might see me and...
(The entire section is 1786 words.)
SOURCE: "Weirdos on the Barricades," in New York Times, May 8, 1988, section 7, p. 7.
[The following is McFadden's commendatory review of Freaky Deaky.]
How dearly Elmore Leonard loves a scam, a con, a slippery scheme. How fond he is of the schemer, especially the schemer who thinks big. What a master criminal Mr. Leonard would make if he got tired of writing thrillers and changed professions. The plot of Freaky Deaky races along, constantly changing course and doubling back on itself, like a cunning fox in front of the hounds.
The setting is contemporary Detroit. The cast of characters includes a recycled Black Panther turned man Friday to a millionaire, a pair of student revolutionaries left over from the 1960's, assorted narcotics dealers and kneecappers, and Chris Mankowski. A straight-arrow cop no one will ever nickname Lucky, he's already in trouble with the novel's opening sentence: "Chris Mankowski's last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb."
After six years on the bomb squad, nagged into it by his girl-friend, Chris has requested a transfer. Now "a guy by the name of Booker, a twenty-five-year-old super-dude twice-convicted felon," is sitting in a green leather wing chair with several sticks of dynamite planted in the cushion. Along with Chris, who's always puzzling over its shifting boundaries,...
(The entire section is 887 words.)
SOURCE: "Common Criminals and Ordinary Heroes," in Armchair Detective, Vol. 22, No. 1, Winter, 1989, pp. 14-20.
[In the following essay, Sandels surveys Leonard's crime novels and reveals how the author departs from and provides commentary on traditional crime story formulas; Sandels also delineates standard themes and elements of plot and character found in these works.]
Elmore Leonard's crime novels have much of the flavor of his earlier Westerns. In City Primeval (1980), subtitled High Noon in Detroit, a police detective, Raymond Cruz, and a killer, Clement Mansell, face each other in a classic Western shoot-out. The shoot-out which ends Glitz (1985) is almost identical to the one which ends Leonard's 1979 Western novel Gunsights. The tone of his Westerns of the 1960s and 1970s conformed to the social criticisms of the day. Blacks, Indians, and Mexicans instead of WASPs were often the protagonists, and they looked deceptively harmless on the outside. On the inside, they were tough and resourceful, as their enemies soon found out. Leonard shattered other aspects of the traditional Western formula by allowing his heroes to shoot at men carrying white flags of truce and to kill the horse because it was easier to hit than the rider. In Gunsights, the wife of the hero interrupts the walk-down between her husband and a nasty antagonist by hauling out a rifle and shooting...
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SOURCE: "The Convention of Crime and the Reading of Signs in Elmore Leonard's Glitz," in Clues, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring-Summer, 1990, pp. 85-93.
[In the following essay, Baldwin illustrates Leonard's use of symbols and unique approach to conventions of crime fiction and societal norms in Glitz.]
In the beginning of Glitz, one of Elmore Leonard's finest crime novels, Vincent Mora, a Miami Beach cop, is shot by a mugger he subsequently kills. In the end, Vincent is shot by Teddy Magyck, a psychopathic rapist and murderer whom Vincent had arrested and sent to prison seven years before. Teddy, having sworn revenge, stalks Vincent throughout the book, only to fail thanks to Vincent's girl friend, Linda Moon. Linda shoots Teddy before he can finish Vincent off. Vincent lives, Teddy dies.
Within this frame Leonard represents an underworld in search of itself, a Great Wrong Place (as W. H. Auden said of Raymond Chandler's novels) where the difference between the good, the bad, and the marginal is how they read and react to the signs of society and language. The roles people play are as unstable as the characters themselves. Leonard explores the subjectivity with which people assign value to the conventional trappings of society, such as power, money, and appearances. The significance of these conventions shifts along with the alternating narrative perspectives which Leonard...
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SOURCE: "Hollywood's Left Twisting in the Plot," in Chicago Tribune, July 29, 1990, section 14, p. 6.
[In the following review, Stewart praises Get Shorty.]
If writing well is the best revenge, Elmore Leonard just merrily evened a lot of scores. Get Shorty gets Hollywood right where it lives and the joke is so funny, so infinitely tricky, so perfectly synchronized on so many levels that it's apt to make you spin.
Leonard, who has written more than 15 screenplays (8 of them produced) and has had most of his 28 novels "under option," has an eminently reasonable cause to want revenge. Hollywood doesn't simply shoot Leonard's novels, it slowly, very painfully tortures them to death.
Of course, the only authentic Hollywood novel is a comedy of manners—atrocious manners, where people are likely to eat their own hearts out with the wrong fork, or backstab each other with the wrong knife. It's this sensibility that Leonard brings to town, encased in a framework that's pure Pirandello and still pure Leonard.
But before you spend not inconsiderable money on a book, you, like Hollywood, want to know what it's about. The answer is "Don't ask."
Leonard makes it entirely impossible to answer that question. The novel has a plot, but it's not about the plot, it's all about the ways people plot. How they plot out a screenplay; how they plot...
(The entire section is 779 words.)
SOURCE: "Leonard Cocks a Snook at Hollywood," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 29, 1990, p. 9.
[In the following review, Champlin offers a favorable assessment of Get Shorty.]
Long before he earned his present eminence for his swift and sharp-tongued contemporary mysteries, Elmore Leonard knew Hollywood and Hollywood knew him, initially as a writer of Westerns. Among the movies based on his novels were The Moonshine War and Mr. Majestyk (both of which he also scripted), the Martin Ritt/Paul Newman Hombre, Valdez Is Coming and 3:10 to Yuma.
Leonard's impressions of Hollywood from the early '60s forward were evidently indelible and amused, and he has drawn upon them for his new novel, Get Shorty, a book that Raymond Chandler and Nathanael West might have written if they had decided to join forces (an engrossing idea if there ever was one).
Goodness does not abound in Get Shorty; it seldom does in Leonard's work. Hardly anyone, including his protagonist Chili Palmer, is without sin. Chili is a loan shark, previously operating out of Miami. He is a collector whose main weapon is a steely glare that melts the most obstinate defaulters.
There are deadlier operatives than Chili, plus other lowlifes and a couple of film stars with large but unsupportable opinions of themselves. Yet with all potential for...
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SOURCE: "The Shylock Is the Good Guy," in New York Times, July 29, 1990, section 7, p. 1.
[Ephron is a novelist and screenwriter whose works include When Harry Met Sally and Heartburn. In the following review, she commends Get Shorty.]
I am an Elmore Leonard fan. I tell you this primarily so you will understand that I would never, ever, under any circumstances read a review of a new Elmore Leonard book. I am not even sure what I'm doing writing one, except that it gave me the opportunity to read the new Elmore Leonard before anyone else.
Anyway, this one's about Hollywood, about the movie business, it's about how everyone out there wants to write a movie, and if you're an Elmore Leonard fan what you probably want to know is, is it as good as LaBrava. No, it's not, but what is? So then you want to know, is it better than the last one, which I forget the name of. And the answer is yes, it's better. But I should make clear where I'm coming from: even the not-great Elmore Leonards are redeemed by great, punchy, pitch-perfect Elmore Leonard dialogue and great Elmore Leonard sentences, long looping twisting strings of words that turn around and back up and go the other way, managing somehow (but how?) to avoid all the accouterments of punctuation like colons, semicolons and parentheses.
Get Shorty begins in Miami, with the theft of a leather...
(The entire section is 1086 words.)
SOURCE: "The Alligator Rings Twice," in New York Times, July 28, 1991.
[In the following review, Gifford applauds Maximum Bob, and calls Leonard "the greatest living writer of crime fiction."]
Elmore (Dutch) Leonard confirms with this, [Maximum Bob,] his 29th novel, his right to a prominent place in the American noir writers' hall of fame, along with Charles Willeford, Dan J. Marlowe, Jim Thompson, the Elliott Chaze of Black Wings Has My Angel and John D. MacDonald. The other Dutch Leonard, Emil, who was a pretty fair right-handed pitcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Washington Senators, Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs, and from whom Elmore appropriated his nickname, won 20 games in a season only once. This Dutch has accomplished the feat in his own ball park a solid baker's dozen times or more, which is a monster of a career, better than Emil's. (Emil, in the end, won only 10 games more than he lost.)
Nobody I've ever read sets up pace, mood and sound better than Elmore Leonard. Listen:
Music was coming out of hidden speakers and the go-go whore was moving to it on the terrazzo floor, looking around bug-eyed like she'd died and gone to whore heaven. "Mumbo on down the hall," Elvin said. He followed her cute butt sliding side to side in a little skirt that barely covered it, no backs to her high heels clicking on the...
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SOURCE: "'High Noon in Detroit': Elmore Leonard's Career," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 25, No. 3, Winter, 1991, pp. 181-87.
[In the following essay, Hynes surveys Leonard's career, noting various qualities unique to the author's works.]
Elmore Leonard is perhaps as popular as a writer can hope to be. After twenty-eight novels his inventiveness seems as inexhaustible as that of Dickens, to whom he has been favorably compared. Nevertheless, despite his turning out a book every year or two, and despite the predictably favorable reviews he earns and the high esteem in which he is held by his peers, Leonard tends to be critically regarded as a lesser achiever, one whose works fall into journalistic compartments labeled "Westerns" or "Criminal Proceedings" or "Annals of Crime" rather than simply "Fiction." Moreover, this is the case even though Leonard has never been interested in mystery stories, "whodunnits," or detective fiction.
Leonard has not been known to complain about his ranking or about the calibre of his reception. Indeed, he seems to be so busy turning out his books that he would have little time for taking on the critics. Furthermore, his public comments suggest that he's having a wonderful time doing what he's doing, the implication being that status within the universal authorial pantheon is hardly one of his concerns.
My purpose is certainly not to...
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SOURCE: "Books of the Times; How to Make a Fast Buck without Really Dying," in New York Times, July 23, 1992.
[In the following excerpt, Lehmann-Haupt offers a favorable review of Rum Punch.]
Once again, as in Elmore Leonard's previous novel Maximum Bob, the pivotal character in Rum Punch, Mr. Leonard's 30th work of fiction, is a woman. This suggests that the author of such crime thrillers as Stick, LaBrava and Glitz is intent on continuing down his path away from stories starring macho men compelled to seduce every woman who falls in their way.
And this time the experiment works, because unlike Kathy Diaz Baker in Maximum Bob, Jackie Burke in Rum Punch is surrounded by a strong supporting cast involved in an intricately compelling plot.
Jackie is an aging, attractive flight attendant who has been reduced to working for a Caribbean airline and doesn't relish a future of offering passengers complimentary rum punch. To build her retirement fund, she has taken up smuggling large quantities of cash into Miami for an illegal arms dealer named Ordell Robbie. Unfortunately, someone has tattled to the Federal authorities trying to build a case against Robbie, and she is arrested. She has the unpleasant choice of either serving time in prison or snitching on a violent man who does not suffer stool pigeons gladly.
(The entire section is 379 words.)
SOURCE: "Elmore Leonard for Beginners," in New York Times, Vol. 97, August 16, 1992, p. 13.
[In the following review, Arensberg provides a highly commendatory assessment of Rum Punch.]
I didn't know it was possible to be as good as Elmore Leonard. As a devout—or, more truthfully, addicted—reader of British whodunits, I had sampled hard-boiled crime novels when my source of supply had temporarily dried up and I needed something to steady my nerves, see me through a plane ride or a sleepless night. Since I've only now dipped into Elmore Leonard, I must admit, as a mystery buff, to having been half literate.
When I stepped over the border from Christie-Sayers country into Leonard territory, as it is depicted in Rum Punch, I was disoriented at first. The subtropical scenery, mostly exteriors, was colorful. The lighting was bright, so different from the muted backgrounds, mostly interiors, of English writers, or from the chiaroscuro of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, whose characters also inhabit a hot climate. The glare of the south Florida sun had a demoralizing effect, shining down on the lawful and the lawless alike, obliterating the class differences that are basic to the harmonious, structured society of the British detective story.
The formal detective novel, called the "thriller of manners" by the critic George Grella, is an elitist enterprise,...
(The entire section is 842 words.)
SOURCE: "Crime/Mystery; On the Lam in Rapallo," in New York Times, Vol. 98, October 17, 1993, p. 39.
[In the following review, Carpenter offers a mixed assessment of Pronto.]
Somewhere along the line, it became fashionable to discuss Elmore Leonard in terms formerly reserved for the likes of Flaubert, an excess of flattery that must certainly cause the man embarrassment. Mr. Leonard writes crime fiction. It is not so important that his books make insightful observations on contemporary culture—which they often do—or whether they contain sharply drawn portraits of characters on the fringe of society—which they invariably do. The bottom line is are they fun?
Pronto, the author's 31st novel, is fun—relatively speaking. It doesn't have the bite of Get Shorty or the full-tilt looniness of Maximum Bob. But there is a payoff in Opus 31, and that is the glee with which Mr. Leonard sends up the mob.
Pronto tracks the misadventures of Harry Arno, a small-time operator who runs a sports book for the Miami syndicate. Federal investigators try to pressure him to rat on his boss, Jimmy Cap, by planting a rumor that he is skimming. As, of course, he is. Squeezed by both sides, Harry takes his nest egg and flees to Rapallo, a harbor town on the Italian Riviera. Why Rapallo? Harry, it turns out, was stationed there during World War II. It was the...
(The entire section is 751 words.)
SOURCE: "When Honor and Justice Were Things To Be Cherished," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 24, 1993, p. 8.
[The following is Lochte's laudatory review of Pronto.]
Elmore Leonard begins his 31st novel [Pronto] with a Miami bookmaker, Harry Arno, about to tell his girlfriend Joyce his biggest secret. But she already knows it: When he was stationed in Rapallo, Italy, during WWII, he shot a deserter. The joke, and the setup for the novel, is that Harry doesn't realize that he has talked about his "secret" often—whenever he's had too much to drink. And when the FBI, out of perversity, puts him on the spot with Mafia boss "Jimmy Cap" Capotorto, forcing Harry to hop it to his special Italian hideaway, everybody knows where he is.
Maybe not everybody. But Raylan Givens, the U.S. marshal responsible for keeping track of Harry, knows. And so does Tommy Bitonti, a.k.a. Tommy Bucks or the Zip, a hit man of the old Sicilian school who believes that the new Mafiosi, Jimmy Cap included, are a bunch of wusses. The stage is thus set, admirably, for another of the author's stylish, darkly funny confrontations between a laid back but quirky professional, Givens, and a street-smart but equally quirky sociopath, the Zip. The fact that Harry, the man they're determined to help and harm, respectively, is a selfish, insensitive, essentially worthless lout does nothing to alter the...
(The entire section is 741 words.)
SOURCE: "Junk Souls," in New York Times, Vol. 100, May 14, 1995, p. 7.
[In the following favorable review of Riding the Rap, Amis applauds Leonard's characteristic style of narrative and dialogue.]
Let us attempt to narrow it down. Elmore Leonard is a literary genius who writes re-readable thrillers. He belongs, then, not to the mainstream but to the genres (before he wrote thrillers, he wrote westerns). Whereas genre fiction, on the whole, heavily relies on plot, mainstream fiction, famously, has only about a dozen plots to recombinate (boy meets girl, good beats bad and so on). But Mr. Leonard has only one plot. All his thrillers are Pardoner's Tales, in which Death roams the land—usually Miami and Detroit—disguised as money.
Nevertheless, Mr. Leonard possesses gifts—of ear and eye, of timing and phrasing—that even the most indolent and snobbish masters of the mainstream must vigorously covet. And the question is: How does he allow these gifts play, in his efficient, unpretentious and (delightfully) similar yarns about semiliterate hustlers, mobsters, go-go dancers, cocktail waitresses, loan sharks, bounty hunters, blackmailers and crime syndicate executioners? My answer may sound reductive, but here goes: The essence of Elmore is to be found in his use of the present participle.
What this means, in effect, is that he has discovered a way of slowing...
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SOURCE: "Plumbing the Shallows," in Commonweal, August 18, 1995, pp. 24-5.
[The following is Worth's positive review of Riding the Rap.]
Elmore Leonard has been writing great crime fiction for years with the same cozy formulas, the same cast of South Florida rednecks and drug-runners and gamblers and cops and abused ex-wives. So it has been a little strange to see his profile rise abruptly in the past year, with highbrow critical praise, a big Hollywood film, even an appearance in the New Yorker. One has to wonder sometimes whether all this attention is going to his head, making him too self-conscious. It has happened before: Dashiell Hammett never wrote a good line after Hollywood discovered him. But these fears are groundless. Riding the Rap is as good as anything Leonard has ever written.
As much as any contemporary fiction writer, Elmore Leonard has discovered a style of his own. His books consist mostly of dialogue, and even the descriptions sound like someone talking: clipped, fragmentary, familiar. It is the voice of someone looking in the rearview mirror, describing what he sees on a two-way radio. Definite articles drop out, as do adjectives and pronouns; everything occurs in a rolling, improvised present tense. Verbs give way to the participle: "Bobby watching the fortuneteller standing next to Harry in the recliner, the fortuneteller looking this way now,...
(The entire section is 1008 words.)
SOURCE: "It's No Crime To Talk Softly," in New York Times Biographical Service, February 15, 1996, pp. 298-300.
[In the following essay, Prial surveys Leonard's life and career, and includes commentary by the author on his works and personal experiences.]
There's a tendency in this country to confuse appearance with reality. It's like that when you meet Elmore Leonard.
He writes these tough-guy books like Get Shorty, Riding the Rap, LaBrava and Stick. They are loaded with taut dialogue, violence and marvelous characters, inept low-lifes out to score big.
But Mr. Leonard himself? A pussycat. With his innocent-looking eyes and scraggly beard, he comes down somewhere between an El Greco saint and a saintly George Carlin. An Elmore Leonard character he's not. He doesn't lurk in Miami bars or prowl Detroit's meaner streets. He doesn't consort with confidence men, retired strippers or people who deal in controlled substances.
Someone suggests a stroll through a tough Detroit neighborhood, a Leonard milieu. He looks out from his elegant two-story house at his tennis court and pool and pushes home the point again that he writes about those places, for Pete's sake, he doesn't hang out in them. And all those hoods, hookers and hustlers in his books? He makes them up. He is not even a gun nut.
(The entire section is 1697 words.)
SOURCE: "A Love Story (With True Grit)," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 25, 1996, p. 3.
[In the following review, McBain provides a primarily favorable assessment of Out of Sight.]
The irony of it is surely not wasted on Elmore Leonard, himself a master of irony.
After years of indifferent Hollywood movies based on his novels, after decades of having his own screenplays abused, misused or merely trashed, Leonard writes a payback novel sending up Tinseltown's denizens and guess what happens? It becomes a hit movie! So now the jacket of his new book blatantly advertises "a novel by the author of Get Shorty." This after more than 30 other novels, almost all of which were far superior to Get Shorty. It is to laugh.
Having at last been "discovered" by the moon pitchers, Leonard perversely survives the temptation to go Hollywood by delivering a new novel that is eminently filmable. Out of Sight, however, is a rarity in the Leonard canon: It is a genuine love story. True, there have been boy-girl plots in many of his previous books, but these were always subservient to the convoluted bad guy-good guy machinations of the main story. Here, the love story is the novel's engine, and—wouldn't you know it?—its principals are a bad guy and a good guy.
The bad guy is 47-year-old Jack Foley, who's robbed more banks than he can...
(The entire section is 855 words.)
SOURCE: "Mr. Wrong," in New York Times, September 8, 1996.
[In the following review, Lombreglia faults Out of Sight as unrealistic.]
The oldest unsolved mystery on the books, human love, is the case to crack in Out of Sight, Elmore Leonard's new novel, in which the cop is a lady with a gift for meeting Mr. Wrong and the robber is a guy who just might have been, in a different life, Mr. Right. It begins auspiciously with a prison break, a group of convicts tunneling out of the medium-security Florida pen where Jack Foley, a career bank robber, is doing time after his third major fall.
On first glance, Foley seems to be the classic crime-fiction hard guy, "a celebrity hard-timer" who gives talks in prison on how to stay alive. "If you saw it coming, hit first with something heavy. Foley's choice, a foot or so of lead pipe, never a shank, a shank was crude, sneaky, it put you in the same class as the thugs and hogs. No, what you wanted to do was lay the pipe across the guy's jaw, and if you had time break his hands with it." Yet you notice the personal ethics—situation ethics, to be sure, but more than you'll get later from a couple of truly bad guys in this book.
In fact, Foley wouldn't be in jail at all except that he messed up while robbing a bank to compensate his former wife for their rotten marriage. Now he emerges from a mucky hole into freedom to...
(The entire section is 812 words.)
SOURCE: "Elmore's Legs," in New Yorker, Vol. LXXII, No. 29, September 30, 1996, pp. 43-7.
[In the following essay, Wilkinson presents Leonard's researcher, Greg Sutter, and traces Sutter's various experiences while gathering background material for Leonard's works.]
Elmore Leonard, the writer of sleek and authentic novels about criminals, such as Stick and Get Shorty, has never much enjoyed doing research. His earliest books were written in the fifties and involve cowboys and bandits. Leonard has spent most of his life in Detroit. To describe a mountain or a canyon or a butte, he consulted one issue or another of the magazine Arizona Highways. After the market for westerns disappeared, in the sixties, he relied on a newspaper reporter he knew who covered crime. "I don't like to research," he says. "I like to write." Nevertheless, for the last fifteen years, what verisimilitude in his novels is not the result of his imagination is the result of legwork. Not his legs.
Leonard's legman is named Gregg Sutter. He lives mostly in Hollywood, Florida, a popular destination for tourists from Quebec. Sutter came to Florida four years ago from Michigan, to do research for Leonard, and he likes it well enough, although sometimes he feels rootless there, he says, and he still has Michigan plates on his car. He lives along the beach, where two-story, flat-roofed motels alternate...
(The entire section is 3201 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Out of Sight, in Nation, Vol. 263, No. 12, October 21, 1996, p. 33.
[In the following review, Gottlieb responds negatively to Out of Sight.]
To put spoken language into writing is a mere trick. And I found it—nobody else. Making spoken words go in literature isn't stenography: you have to change the sentences and rhythms somehow, to distort them—to use an artifice, so that when you read a book, it's as though someone is actually speaking to you. The same thing happens as with a stick plunged into water. If you want it to look straight you have to break it slightly—or bend it…. When you put one end in, a normally straight stick looks bent—and the same with language. On the page, the liveliest dialogue taken down word for word seems flat, complicated, heavy…. To reproduce the effect of spontaneous spoken life on the page, you have to bend language in every way—in its rhythm and cadence, in its words.
That isn't Elmore Leonard boasting. It's Louis-Ferdinand Celine, the literary genius (better remembered, alas, as a political moron) who smashed the formal architecture of French grammar to liberate the lowlife vox populi of Paris on the page. But Leonard himself might be forgiven for wondering, "When did I say that?" For there could be no better description of his own "trick," the sleight of style that lifts his...
(The entire section is 2156 words.)
SOURCE: "She Keeps a Pistol, Leg Irons, Handcuffs and a Shotgun. Now THAT'S Girl Power," in Observer, April 27, 1997, p. 16.
[In the following review, Fiennes offers a mixed assessment of Out of Sight.]
Forty-eight-year-old Jack Foley is in prison for robbing more banks 'than anyone in the computer', has an ex-wife in Miami working as an assistant to a magician called Emil the Amazing, and remains supernaturally attractive to beautiful young women of far greater prospects than he. Foley is, in other words, an Elmore Leonard hero: another low-grade Florida criminal, hard-boiled but soft-centred, with the familiar Leonard pathology of 'wanting to be a good guy' and the familiar Leonard cool of a con who breaks out of prison just in time to watch the Super Bowl. Out of Sight is Leonard's thirty-third novel, and it's business as usual.
Foley is picked up outside the prison walls by his old partner, Buddy, and an aspiring hotshot called Glenn 'Studs' Michaels. But he had not reckoned on the arrival of US Marshal Karen Sisco, the latest in Leonard's long line of sassy professional women (often known as 'broads') who invariably wind up in bed with his protagonist. Even her father—a private investigator, naturally—describes Karen as 'the tough babe'. She smokes. She wears medium heels and black Chanel suits. And in the trunk of her car, she keeps a pistol, a ballistic vest, several...
(The entire section is 957 words.)
Callendar, Newgate. "Criminals At Large." New York Times Book Review (4 April 1976): 34.
Favorable review of 52 Pick-up, which Callendar calls "one of the best of the year."
Carver, Robert. "Old Sparky." New Statesman & Society 4, No. 172 (11 October 1991): 25.
Applauds Maximum Bob, characterizing it as "a brilliant, funny, hugely enjoyable black comedy."
Stuewe, Paul. "Of Some Import." Quill & Quire 56, No. 8 (August 1990): 25.
Primarily favorable review of Get Shorty.
(The entire section is 123 words.)