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] (screenplay) 1987
Touch (novel) 1987
Desperado (screenplay) 1988
Freaky Deaky (novel) 1988
Cat Chaser [with Joe Borrelli] (screenplay) 1989
Killshot (novel) 1989
Get Shorty (novel) 1990
Maximum Bob (novel) 1991
Rum Punch (novel) 1992
Pronto (novel) 1993
Riding the Rap (novel) 1995
Out of Sight (novel) 1996
Cuba Libre (novel) 1998
Be Cool (novel) 1999
∗Based on the novel by William X. Kienzle.
Jefferson Morley (review date 25 March 1985)
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...
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Roger Kaplan (review date May 1985)
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...
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Thomas D'Evelyn (review date 28 January 1987)
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...
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Glenn Most (essay date Spring 1987)
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...
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Thomas R. Edwards (review date 13 August 1987)
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...
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Cyra McFadden (review date 8 May 1988)
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...
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Robert Sandels (essay date Winter 1989)
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...
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Marc Baldwin (essay date Spring-Summer 1990)
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...
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Linda Stewart (review date 29 July 1990)
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,...
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Charles Champlin (review date 29 July 1990)
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...
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Nora Ephron (review of 29 July 1990)
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...
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Barry Gifford (review date 28 July 1991)
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...
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Joseph Hynes (essay date Winter 1991)
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...
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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 23 July 1992)
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...
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Ann Arensberg (review date 16 August 1992)
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...
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Teresa Carpenter (review date 17 October 1993)
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?...
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Dick Lochte (review date 24 October 1993)
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...
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Martin Amis (review date 14 May 1995)
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...
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Robert Worth (review date 18 August 1995)
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...
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Frank J. Prial (essay date 15 February 1996)
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...
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Ed McBain (review date 25 August 1996)
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...
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Ralph Lombreglia (review date 8 September 1996)
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...
(The entire section is 812 words.)
Alec Wilkinson (essay date 30 September 1996)
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....
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Annie Gottlieb (review date 21 October 1996)
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...
(The entire section is 2156 words.)
William Fiennes (review date 27 April 1997)
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...
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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...
(The entire section is 123 words.)