Crim­i­nal plea­sures

The Dick­ens of Detroit, El­more Leonard crafts his char­ac­ters from shady ma­te­ri­als such as self- in­ter­est, bad habits and bad luck, writes Mark Mor­due

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

EL­MORE Leonard’s voice ar­rives like curl­ing smoke. It seems to drift down the phone line from Detroit, Michi­gan, and float around me for quite a while. ‘‘ I was in Aus­tralia a few years ago,’’ he says, then his story be­gins to un­wind. Some­thing about a writ­ers fes­ti­val in Ade­laide, land­ing in New Zealand first, ‘‘ a jour­ney around the coast’’ and what I think may have been con­fu­sion as to whether he and his wife were ever in Aus­tralia at all.

By the end of it I am won­der­ing if this vague gen­tle­man is the same Leonard whose gen­re­buck­ling crime nov­els paved the way for film­mak­ers such as Quentin Tarantino and shows such as The So­pra­nos .

Leonard doesn’t strike you as a lit­er­ary su­per­star. But that’s what he is: the liv­ing mas­ter of the crime writ­ing genre, as ev­ery­one from Tarantino to fel­low au­thors Martin Amis and Ge­orge Pele­canos have ac­knowl­edged.

Apart from their pop­u­lar­ity on the lend­ing lists of US prison li­braries ( and best­seller lists gen­er­ally), Leonard’s books were se­lected for the 2006 Hip- Hop Lit­er­acy cam­paign to en­cour­age read­ing in high schools and col­leges across the US: all of which in­di­cates he’s still pretty switched on to the street on for an old white guy.

I’m ex­pect­ing him to be hard- boiled. In­stead he just rolls along, ex­hibit­ing a gen­er­ous propen­sity for con­ver­sa­tion of al­most any kind, al­though with the dis­tinctly la­conic af­ter­taste of the trade­mark hu­mour of his writ­ing, which is equal parts un­der­dog and dead­pan bullseye.

As well as his screen­plays and short sto­ries, Leonard has pro­duced 43 nov­els in 54 years, rarely let­ting the qual­ity slip be­low en­ter­tain­ing. Among them he has turned in at least 10 crime genre clas­sics, no­tably Swag ( 1976), City Primeval ( 1980), Stick ( 1983) LaBrava ( 1983), Glitz ( 1985), Freaky Deaky ( 1988), Kill­shot ( 1989), Get Shorty ( 1990), Max­i­mum Bob ( 1991), Pa­gan Ba­bies ( 2000) and Tishomingo Blues ( 2002). Ac­tu­ally that’s 11, with other books jostling for in­clu­sion. His latest crime novel, Up in Honey’s Room, came out late last year to mixed re­views. Leonard isn’t feel­ing bat­tered. He’s half­way into writ­ing a new one. Eighty- two years old and still truck­ing? ‘‘ Lis­ten, I can’t be­lieve it,’’ he drawls. ‘‘ And still I think old peo­ple are older than me!’’

Did he get any good books for his last birth­day? ‘‘ Nah, I mostly get T- shirts.’’ Be­sides, Leonard moans, ‘‘ I must get five crime books a week sent to me, peo­ple ask­ing me for blurbs.’’ He rarely reads them. He’s too busy writ­ing his own. ‘‘ I don’t know why,’’ he adds mourn­fully.

The truth is Leonard doesn’t read crime books much. ‘‘ They’re all the same,’’ he says. He’d rather talk T- shirts. ‘‘ I get some good ones from a jour­nal­ist friend in New York ev­ery year for my birth­day. Mike Lupica, he’s a [ sports] colum­nist. He gets me ones with stuff on it like The Dick­ens of Detroit,’’ Leonard laughs. ‘‘ Which means noth­ing!’’

The way Leonard says noth­ing is em­phatic, as if any dis­play of ego would be fa­tal to his lit­er­ary MO. Last Oc­to­ber he re­leased El­more Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writ­ing , most of which re­volved around the ax­iom, ‘‘ If it sounds like writ­ing, I cut it out.’’

That’s why he gets un­com­fort­able when peo­ple call him the heir to Ray­mond Chan­dler. ‘‘ I was never in­ter­ested in Ray­mond Chan­dler. I like him, but I was never in­flu­enced by his writ­ing. I didn’t care for all the sim­i­les and metaphors he used that I thought in­ter­rupted the story.’’

Along with the sparse­ness of Ernest Hem­ing­way — ‘‘ all that white space on the page’’ — he cites Richard Bis­sell as more im­por­tant. ‘‘ In his books no­body was try­ing to be funny,’’ Leonard says, ‘‘ but they were all funny be­cause of the way they talked.’’

It’s a dis­tinc­tion that bal­ances Leonard’s work on the line be­tween men­ace and com­edy, some­thing Tarantino took cues from in de­vel­op­ing his film di­a­logue. If Leonard has ever at­tracted much crit­i­cism, it’s for his ten­dency to put a bunch of in­ter­est­ing peo­ple to­gether, see how they talk, and kill any­one who bores him. ‘‘ I’m not known for my plot­ting,’’ he says, though the gear shifts in a Leonard story ac­cel­er­ate as smoothly as the Chevro­lets he once wrote ad­ver­tis­ing copy about when he was a strug­gling writer in the 1950s. ‘‘ I was al­ways bet­ter at writ­ing about their trucks than their sedans,’’ he re­sponds drolly.

Along with his nick­name Dutch, the la­bel the Dick­ens of Detroit has stuck be­cause of his abil­ity to con­jure up so many mem­o­rable lowlife char­ac­ters from that city. He has also writ­ten a few books based in Mi­ami and Oklahoma, and in the case of Get Shorty moved the ac­tion to Los An­ge­les with Chili Palmer, the loan shark char­ac­ter that John Tra­volta made fa­mous.

Leonard has fre­quently dis­cussed his mys­ti­fi­ca­tion at the way Hol­ly­wood would buy up his books ‘‘ and take ev­ery­thing out of them that was any good’’. Things took a turn for the bet­ter with Barry Son­nen­feld’s Get Shorty ( 1995), Tarantino’s Jackie Brown ( re­leased in 1997 and based on Rum Punch ) and Steven Soder­bergh’s Out of Sight ( 1998). Get Shorty cap­i­talised on Leonard’s en­coun­ters with Hol­ly­wood, mix­ing crim­i­nals with film­mak­ers. It was dur­ing the Ade­laide trip Leonard tried telling me about that he re­ceived a phone call from an un­happy Dustin Hoff­man ( with whom Leonard had un­sat­is­fac­tory deal­ings). Hoff­man had heard he was de­picted in Get Shorty and that it was not a favourable car­i­ca­ture. Leonard re­put­edly shot him down with the ri­poste, ‘‘ What! You think you’re the only short ac­tor in Hol­ly­wood?’’

The au­thor is dis­dain­ful of Hol­ly­wood’s ‘‘ need to have the star re­deem him­self’’. Leonard’s char­ac­ters tend to be made of shadier ma­te­ri­als such as self- in­ter­est, bad habits and bad luck. ‘‘ I try to make them hu­man,’’ he says. ‘‘ Real, but with some­thing ap­peal­ing. I like the ones who have been into crime but are now hon­est, but you don’t know if they might re­vert. I like homi­cide cops, too, not that there are that many in my books. I just like their dead­pan hu­mour.’’

Lately Leonard’s early ca­reer as the pulp au­thor of cow­boy tales dur­ing the ’ 50s has also been get­ting a work­out with the re­lease of a com­pen­dium called The Com­plete West­ern Sto­ries (‘‘ thick enough to stop a bul­let from a Sharps ri­fle at 10m,’’ Bri­tain’s The Times Lit­er­ary Sup­ple­ment reck­oned) and a crit­i­cally praised film ver­sion of his 1953 short story 3.10 to Yuma, which stars Rus­sell Crowe and Chris­tian Bale. ‘‘ It’s a good- look­ing pic­ture,’’ Leonard says. ‘‘ But of course I did not un­der­stand the ( changed) end­ing.’’

Mean­while, Kill­shot , one of Leonard’s best crime books, has been turned into a fea­ture di­rected by John Mad­den ( Shake­speare in Love ) and with Tarantino as ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer. It is due out any day and stars, Leonard says with sat­is­fac­tion, Mickey Rourke.

Born in 1925, Leonard moved

fre­quently around the US south­west be­fore his fam­ily set­tled in Detroit when he was 12. He turned to writ­ing cow­boy sto­ries be­cause he liked west­ern movies and there was an ob­vi­ous pulp mag­a­zine mar­ket. Talk­ing about his ca­reer can some­times veer into a re­port on what he has been paid per word per story since 1953. Un­for­tu­nately, just as Hom­bre ( 1961) — now re­garded as one of the great­est west­ern nov­els ever writ­ten — was com­ing out, the bot­tom was fall­ing out of the genre as a glut of television shows flooded the mar­ket.

Leonard wouldn’t start on crime un­til the late ’ 60s. But it’s pos­si­ble to see his nascent style emerg­ing in the cow­boy tales of The Com­plete West­ern Sto­ries . His sense of wronged Na­tive Amer­i­cans and Mex­i­cans also points to a lit­tle com­mented on but strongly anti- racist sub­text in all his work. Leonard ad­mits he hadn’t read of any of the sto­ries in the 50 years since he’d writ­ten most of them. ‘‘ I went through the gal­leys ( for The Com­plete West­ern Sto­ries ) and I thought, ‘ Je­sus, th­ese are not as bad as I thought they would be!’

‘‘ I had stud­ied Hem­ing­way in or­der to learn how to write,’’ he says. ‘‘ But I had a stiff and righ­teous sound, I hadn’t loos­ened up. I still had to de­velop my own voice. The hu­mour had to get into it.’’

Es­sen­tially, that’s the tra­jec­tory The Com­plete West­ern Sto­ries maps in Leonard’s mas­ter­ing of char­ac­ter and di­a­logue, foun­da­tions that would set the tonal ground for mod­ern crime writ­ing. For all Leonard’s mod­esty, his west­erns would sim­i­larly pave the way for film direc­tors Ser­gio Leone and Sam Peck­in­pah in the ’ 60s, whose wild mix of vi­o­lence, hu­mour and moral am­bi­gu­ity was set free by Leonard’s ear­lier if some­what more muted vi­sion in print.

Al­though we’re sup­posed to be talk­ing about his col­lec­tion of cow­boy sto­ries, it’s a mea­sure of Leonard’s fo­cus on the next thing he is do­ing that he keeps rhap­so­dis­ing about his new man­u­script ( pro­vi­sion­ally ti­tled Road Dogs ) and for­gets to pro­mote Up in Honey’s Room at all.

‘‘ I’m bring­ing back Jack Fo­ley from Out of Sight in the next one,’’ he tells me. ‘‘ Ge­orge Clooney liked his char­ac­ter in that book and did a good job of play­ing him in the movie, so I’m hop­ing he will like him in this one too. I’m also bring­ing back Dawn Navarro from Rid­ing the Rap , she’s a psy­chic. And Cundo Rey from LaBrava ! He danced go- go, stole a car, got shot. I had to get it ( LaBrava ) off the shelf to see if he was still alive. He was shot three times in the chest and belly but no one said he was dead so I’ve re­vived him. They’re all there in the books, hell I might as well use them. And I like them.’’

When­ever writ­ing is the fo­cus of our con­ver­sa­tion some­thing in Leonard’s voice ac­cel­er­ates and be­comes boy­ish. In his more gen­er­ally be­mused and un­der­stated man­ner, mean­while, you sense the sur­vivor. Leonard’s first mar­riage ended in the mid-’ 70s, about the time he joined Al­co­holics Anony­mous and started hit­ting his stride as a great writer. His sec­ond wife, Joan Shep­ard, was a big in­flu­ence on this re­nais­sance, sug­gest­ing book ti­tles, en­cour­ag­ing him to strengthen fe­male char­ac­ters and mak­ing edit­ing sug­ges­tions. Her death from can­cer in 1993 must have been a blow but Leonard hap­pily re­mar­ried within a year to Chris­tine Kent, a mas­ter gar­dener and French teacher 23 years his ju­nior.

He still writes his sto­ries long­hand, but will use a type­writer to see how they look be­fore some­one ( of­ten one of his daugh­ters) gets them on to a com­puter. He wor­ries none­the­less that he is slow­ing down. When he was try­ing to sup­port a fam­ily of five chil­dren in the ’ 50s, Leonard would be up at 5am to work on his west­ern sto­ries be­fore head­ing to the ad­ver­tis­ing agency. Later, as a full- time writer he de­vel­oped a 10am to 6pm habit, Mon­day to Satur­day.

‘‘ I can’t stick to that any more,’’ he says. ‘‘ Some­times I don’t sit down un­til noon. It gets harder, too, to please my­self and keep rewrit­ing. Some­times I get a bit stiff. It’s im­por­tant to keep the veins of hu­mour flow­ing . . . I don’t want to re­peat my­self. But I do want to main­tain a sound in my voice.’’ The Com­plete West­ern Sto­ries by El­more Leonard ( Wei­den­feld & Ni­col­son, $ 32.95).

Il­lus­tra­tion: Michael Perkins

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