Elmore Leonard Leonard, Elmore (Vol. 28) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Elmore Leonard 1925–

(Also writes under pseudonym of Emmett Long) American novelist, short story writer, and scriptwriter.

Leonard is a crime writer whose works are usually set in Detroit. His crime novels are praised for their believable plots, authentic characterizations, and clear, effective prose style. Some critics compare Leonard's books with those of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, and Leonard himself cites Ernest Hemingway and James M. Cain as influences on his narrative style.

Leonard's early work includes several western novels and short stories published in pulp magazines during the 1950s. He also wrote the scripts for the films Joe Kidd (1973) and Mr. Majestyk (1974). Leonard's novels Fifty-two Pickup (1974), Swag (1976), and Unknown Man No. 89 (1977) received favorable critical response for their refreshing originality and for the creation of some of the most despicable villains in crime fiction. City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit (1980), perhaps his most violent novel, is based on Leonard's own interviews and experiences as he accompanied a Detroit police homicide squad on its patrols. Stick (1983) contains humorous elements in its depiction of an ex-convict's attempt to go straight amid the drug trafficking business in southern Florida.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

Newgate Callendar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When Elmore Leonard's "Fifty-Two Pickup" appeared in 1974, it had some critics talking in terms of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. "Swag" in 1974 indicated that Leonard's first book was no mere accident. A new and important writer of mystery fiction had arrived. Now comes "Unknown Man No. 89," and it maintains the high standard Leonard has set for himself.

But it really is wrong to talk of this writer in terms of Chandler and Macdonald. He has little in common with those two. They are "clean" writers; there is no profanity to speak of in Chandler, and Macdonald has never been an exponent of the verísmo school of speech. Leonard is.

The real influence on Leonard is George V. Higgins, whose "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" came out about five years ago and marked a breakthrough into the kind of language previously encountered only in paperback books with green covers. (p. 13)

Higgins was the first to take full advantage of the new permissiveness. Like Higgins's, Leonard's characters, all middle-class or criminal types, speak in a way that cannot be reproduced in a family newspaper. Leonard often cannot resist a set-piece—a lowbrow aria with a crazy kind of scatological poetry of its own—in the Higgins manner.

But that is where the similarity ends. Where Higgins wrote only about criminals, Leonard writes about basically decent, ordinary men who get into trouble and have to work their way out of it. In "Swag," the...

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The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Elmore Leonard's The Hunted … Ed Rosen, head of a million-dollar mortgage company, is blackmailed by the Justice Department into testifying against two mobsters on indictment for murder; but both beat the rap, and Rosen leaves hurriedly for Israel…. [His] identity is accidentally revealed, and three hitmen arrive on the plane that is also bringing his lawyer with $200,000 severance pay from the company. On his side Rosen has a pretty Israeli girl and Davis, a Marine guard at the United States Embassy, with two Purple Hearts and a Silver Star from Vietnam, and only twenty-seven days to do in the corps. His professional instincts as an infantry-man are aroused by the situation; he takes command, and after a few inconclusive skirmishes the book comes to a climax with a siege and pitched battle in the desert near Eilat. Brilliantly written, and extremely funny at times, with some good oddball characters (such as Willard Mims, the gung-ho Marine who keeps a cache of souvenir Claymore mines in his foot-locker), The Hunted is exciting enough to warrant, for once, the adjective "unputdownable".

A review of "The Hunted," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3972, May 19, 1978, p. 545.

Connie Fletcher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Leonard's style [in City Primeval] is clear, crisp, and mean. He writes about a tough-guy cop, Raymond Cruz, who lights out after crooks and con artists in one of the world's toughest cities, Detroit. Cruz tracks down high-level corruption as he investigates the murder of a very abusive, very angry, very important citizen—Judge Alvin B. Guy. Guy was about to squawk, murder stopped his breath, and Cruz finds out what the judge was about to reveal. Strong stuff.

Connie Fletcher, in a review of "City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit," in Booklist (reprinted by permission of the American Library Association; copyright © 1980 by the American Library Association), Vol. 77, No. 7, December 1, 1980, p. 506.

Robin Winks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Elmore Leonard has written his toughest book in City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit…. It's too bad Leonard felt he needed a subtitle, for the theme is obvious enough: how one vicious killer and one committed cop come to see themselves locked in a classic shootout in the OK Corral of modern America, the city in which the lone hero climbed down from his mustang to climb into his Mustang and do battle once again for the cowardly, blind populace. This is rough stuff: the language, the attitudes, and the people are all unpleasant, products of the city that has grown up over the primeval forest. Theme, plot, writing are obvious, yet compelling.

Robin Winks, in a review of "City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 183, No. 24, December 13, 1980, p. 40.

Ken Tucker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Elmore Leonard strikes me as being the finest thriller writer alive primarily because he does his best to efface style, and has done this so successfully that few readers know about him at all. Since 1953, Leonard has written a remarkable series of novels, Westerns as well as thrillers, the latest of which is Split Images…. There are no wisecrack-eloquent detectives or over-wrought similes in Leonard's writing. His characters are often lower-middle-class people who fall into crime because it's an easier way to make money than that tedious nine-to-five. Leonard's favorite plot is the revenge story—someone exploited by criminals commits a bigger better crime that ruins his or her victimizers….

[In] Split Images, Walter Kouza, a 21-year veteran of the Detroit police force, leaves his job to become a chauffeur for Robbie Daniels, a demented millionaire whose hobby is planning the assassination of a larcenous Latin American fat cat. Kouza knows he's asking for trouble, but figures that being well-paid and enjoying a few upper-class comforts is worth enduring a little of his employer's madness. What he doesn't realize is that Daniels is more than a right-wing eccentric—he's a peevish killer who uses his gun collection to plug anyone who annoys him. Pretty soon, another cop—honest plodder Bryan Hurd, the hero of the tale—is on the trail of both of them.

Split Images is filled with references to recent public shootings: upon first seeing his old colleague Hurd, Walter Kouza jabbers, "You believe it? Secret Service're standing there, the guy squeezes off six rounds, empties the piece, then, then they're all over him … what's his name, Hinckle? Then this other thing, Jesus Christ, the motive, thing with the broad? What's her name, Jodie Foster? 'Gain her respect and love'—I never even heard of her…." As Split Images unwinds, Leonard fills the air with violence; fact and fiction merge. After Daniels murders a parking-lot attendant, a policeman inspecting the body notes that "the one in the head very much like that press secretary, what's his name?"

More is at stake here than trendy timeliness. Leonard's references capture the way monstrous crimes enter our...

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Jonathan Yardley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Leonard's bandwagon had left the station by the time I heard its music, and I've had to do some running to catch up. But better late than never: Leonard is the real thing. He doesn't write "literature," and I'd be astonished if he claimed to; there's nothing in his fiction to suggest that he packs even an ounce of pretentiousness. But like John D. MacDonald, whom he resembles but does not appear to imitate, he raises the hardboiled suspense novel beyond the limits of genre and into social commentary; he paints an acute, funny and sometimes very bitter picture of a world that is all too real and recognizable, yet a world that rarely makes an appearance in the kind of fiction that is routinely given serious...

(The entire section is 597 words.)

George Stade

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Elmore Leonard] is never more entertaining than when one of his villains is stealing a scene. They are inspired hams, these bad actors, so empty inside that they only become themselves when they are playing a part, milking it for all it's worth. There is therefore something desperate about their zest, which nevertheless releases our own. (Think of Laurence Olivier playing Richard III; think of Marlon Brando playing the bounty hunter in "The Missouri Breaks"; think of Orson Welles playing anything.) They are treacherous and tricky, smart enough to outsmart themselves, driven, audacious and outrageous, capable of anything, paranoid-cunning and casually vicious—and rousing fun. Mr. Leonard's villains upstage his...

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Raymond Obstfeld

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I read an article about [Elmore Leonard] in Writer's Digest a few months ago and went out and bought his City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit…. It's practically a textbook in hardboiled cop style, without the self-consciousness that usually goes with such a style. I loved it enough to buy Cat Chaser, which I thought was even better. So when Split Images arrived in one of those cancerous tan envelopes, I was looking forward to reading it that night.

I wasn't disappointed. Mr. Leonard doesn't strain himself with character details, but somehow the characters are three-dimensional and compelling. The plot isn't complex—cop hunts down playboy killer while courting dynamic...

(The entire section is 223 words.)

Neal Johnston

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The tone of Elmore Leonard's latest mystery ["LaBrava"] is dry and mordant, the action well paced and the voices of the riffraff convincing. I do not know if Mr. Leonard has captured the real Miami Beach in the pastel seediness of the place he describes, but his depiction is entirely convincing and should entice readers to be manipulated and led through an intricate maze.

Joseph LaBrava is the conventional omnicompetent, angst-ridden former agent. After too many months protecting Bess Truman from her piano parlor, he has left the Secret Service to take photographs of aged Jewish ladies sitting on the porches and Latin hustlers sauntering through the shadows of the Floridian Grand Concourse. (Is...

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Alan Cheuse

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I was an Elmore Leonard virgin, perhaps the last one on my block. Then I picked up a copy of his new novel, "LaBrava," and gave myself over to several hours of the most sustained pleasure I'd had from a crime novel since the last good Ross Macdonald, or James Crumley's "Last Good Kiss." Where had I been all these years? "LaBrava" is Leonard's 18th novel, and for a book to work within the genre at a level as high as this means that there have to be a half-dozen or more earlier ones just as precisely made and as satisfying to read….

We can say the same both for LaBrava's creator and the book about his cunning but romantic hero. There's the setting, first of all: the sleazy, decadent beach-front...

(The entire section is 405 words.)