Elmore Leonard began his literary career as an author of Westerns and switched to crime fiction when interest in cowboys and Indians began to decline in the late 1960’s. It is extremely rare for an author of “genre” or “category” novels to receive such widespread and unanimous critical acclaim. Staid periodicals which normally exile reviews of crime novels to the back pages, if they deign to recognize them at all, wax enthusiastic whenever a new book by Leonard appears. He is one of those rare writers—others include Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Georges Simenon—who are able to transcend the limitations of the genre. Since the death of John D. Macdonald, Elmore Leonard has emerged as the undisputed king of American crime fiction.
Leonard has been praised for his unpredictable plots, his sense of pacing, his remarkable ear for the American vernacular, his sociological acuity, and his ability to invent believable characters. All of his many virtues as a writer can be accommodated under one main heading: What distinguishes him from run-of-the-mill category fiction writers is his talent for and scrupulous attention to the craft of characterization. Like Charles Dickens, he loves humanity in all its infinite variations: the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. He exhibits his villains with the affection of a herpetologist showing off his snake collection. Leonard may not be as great a writer as Dickens, but he shares the Victorian novelist’s understanding that characterization is what fiction writing is all about. If the reader believes in the characters, he will believe in the plot and will care what happens to the people. If he cares what happens to the people, he will become emotionally involved; he will enter a mental state indistinguishable from a hypnotic trance in which he will be hypersusceptible to all the author’s suggestions. The whole novel will become a vivid experience, and the reader will actually feel like a different person after having lived through it.
One of the ways Leonard makes his characters seem real is through the traditional artistic device of contrast. He “orchestrates” his characters, to use a term employed by Lajos Egri in his indispensable book, The Art of Dramatic Writing (1946). Leonard’s characters are unique individuals; they also present striking and sometimes amusing contrasts in juxtaposition. In Killshot, Leonard pairs two killers who are equally lethal but different in all other respects. Armand Degas is an Ojibway Indian who, like many other Native Americans, has lost his way. He cannot fit into the white man’s technological world but is no longer acceptable to his own people because of his wicked reputation. He works as a free-lance hit man for the Mafia.
In the opening chapter, which has the same impact as the abrupt beginning of Graham Greene’s classic A Gun for Sale (1936), Degas dispassionately kills a superannuated Mafia don and the old man’s teenage girlfriend with one “killshot” apiece. This lonely, humorless Indian who does not waste bullets or words gets involved with Richie Nix, a younger man who has already served several prison terms and is obviously headed straight back there at full speed. Richie, who grew up as an unwanted child in foster homes, is a showoff, a braggart, a nonstop talker; he is also a stupid, bungling amateur and a sociopath who kills people for the fun of it.
It is a truism of fiction writing that plot should proceed from character. Many category fiction writers give this rule only lip service and force their characters to follow a predetermined story line that has been laid down like railroad tracks, with sometimes incongruous or even ludicrous effects (the blind girl with a bad heart who is just recovering from a nervous breakdown picks up a candle and tiptoes down into the basement to investigate the source of...
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