Elmore Leonard Long Fiction Analysis
Elmore Leonard’s early short stories and novels were conventional in terms of plot and characterization; however, writing Westerns was good training. Knowing nothing about the West, Elmore learned to depend on research that he could embellish with his vivid imagination. This is essentially the method he has employed throughout his writing career, though since the early 1980’s, professional researcher Gregg Sutter, rather than the author himself, has collected the raw material, the esoteric facts from which Elmore works. Furthermore, when he switched to crime fiction, he brought some of his hair-trigger, saloon-wrecking cowboy villains into urban settings, with startling effects. Examples of these “redneck monsters” are Raymond Gidre in Unknown Man No. 89, Clement Mansell in City Primeval, Roland Crowe in Gold Coast, and Richard Nobles in LaBrava. Another type of displaced Western character is Armand Degas in Killshot, a half-blood American Indian turned Mafia hit man.
Placing cowboys and American Indians in modern cities such as Miami and Detroit is only one of the many types of contrast Leonard employs to produce effects. In his crime novels the most violent incidents occur in the most peaceful settings, such as family restaurants, supermarkets, and real estate offices, and the worst villainy is often directed against people whose lives had previously been conventional and uneventful. In Killshot, for example, a working-class couple suddenly has their front windows blown out with shotgun blasts; the story ends with a double murder in the cozy breakfast nook of their model kitchen.
In 1959, there were thirty Western series on prime-time television. The public eventually became saturated with saloon brawls and shoot-outs on Main Street, and by the mid-1960’s the number of prime-time televised Westerns had dropped to seven. It was not until this six-gun overkill forced Leonard to turn to crime fiction that he began to develop the distinctive approach to storytelling that brought him fame and fortune. That approach was influenced by his own involvement in filmmaking, which has one cardinal rule for writers: “Don’t tell us: Show us.”
Hollywood has long exerted a push-pull effect on fiction writers. The cinematic manner of telling stories through action and dialogue has had an incalculable influence on their conscious and unconscious minds, and the big money to be made from sales of motion-picture rights has provided an irresistible temptation to structure novels so that adaptation from print to film will present no problems. The traits that distinguish Leonard’s crime novels are those found in all good films: vivid characterization, believable dialogue, and interesting visual effects. The speeches Elmore places in the mouths of his unique and quirky characters—profane, ungrammatical, ironically humorous, and authentic to place and time—are a particular strength that, combined with plots springing organically from the personalities of the main players and a strong sense of justice, has earned Elmore the sobriquet “the Dickens of Detroit.”
The publication of his crime novel Fifty-two Pickup in 1974 was the turning point in Elmore’s career. He has stated, “I started to realize that the way to describe anywhere, anywhere, was to do it from someone’s point of viewand leave me out of it.” Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, 1974 was also the year Leonard separated from his first wife and began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. In describing his recovery from alcoholism, he has said, “The key is getting out of yourself.” Prior to Fifty-two Pickup, Leonard had written his fiction in a conventional manner—that is, mostly in the “voice” of an anonymous narrator who sets the scenes, describes his characters’ appearance and behavior, and quotes their verbal interchanges. This objective technique was perfected by Ernest Hemingway, whose Spanish Civil War novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) had a permanent effect on Leonard’s approach to fiction writing.
Leonard went beyond Hemingway, however, picking up a new mentor in John Steinbeck, particularly that author’s novel Sweet Thursday (1954), from which he learned to vanish as a narrator and to let his stories be told by the characters themselves. Leonard describes what the viewpoint characters see and hear as well as what they think and feel in language appropriate to each character, so that most of his narration and description reads like dialogue without the quotation marks. It would be inaccurate to call this technique stream of consciousness or interior monologue: It is a modification that Leonard describes as his unique “sound.” There are no long passages in italics, no stream-of-consciousness ramblings, nor are there “pebbles in the pond” or other old-fashioned flashback conventions. Since Leonard generally has the reader inside a character’s mind, it is easy to move back and forth in time, as he frequently does. The character simply remembers an earlier event, and the reader is instantly transported to the past.
Changing from past to present is simply another of Leonard’s ways of deliberately keeping the reader off balance. The one consistent feature of a Leonard novel is that nothing ever stays the same. The writing imitates modern American films, which create the effect of being in continuous motion with changing camera angles, jump cuts, intercuts, tracking shots, aerial shots, flashbacks, and all the other tricks of the trade. Leonard’s practice of constantly shifting viewpoints is analogous to modern filmmaking, in which several cameras simultaneously shoot scenes, and strips of film are spliced together to provide visual variety as well as to highlight whatever the director considers most important. Typically, Leonard changes points of view from chapter to chapter; however, he does it within chapters as well, and with effortlessness that makes lesser writers envious.
The average category-fiction writer will describe each character only once, when he or she first appears, and then rely largely on peculiarities of dialogue to differentiate characters from one another for the rest of the book. A standard practice of commercial-fiction writers is to give each character some “shtick”—a cane, a monocle, a pipe, a stammer, a foreign accent—to help the reader remember him or her; still, in many category novels the characters become a hopeless jumble in the reader’s mind. The reader’s interest in a novel depends on the credibility of the novel’s characters. Shootings, bombings, and other forms of violence are not effective unless the reader can believe they are happening to real people. In describing each character’s appearance and actions through the eyes of another character, Leonard not only eliminates the need for the “intrusive author” but also characterizes both individuals at once. From beginning to end, he never stops characterizing. He also achieves a strong sense that his characters—often driven, morally ambivalent men from the fringes of society and smart, independent women who are their equals—are actually interrelating, because each is seen in turn through the eyes of someone else. This is...
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