Friday Five: Elmore Leonard

By Peter SM RSS Fri, August 23, 2013

Criminally talented and prolific novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard passed away earlier this week at the age of 87 from complications suffered after a stroke in July.

To say that the man had a way with words would be a gross understatement. He was a master of razor sharp dialogue and real-yet-bigger-than-life characters who were strong-willed yet always flawed in some way. You know, regular people. He never overwrote; the opening line of every story set the tone from the minute you opened the book and put eyeball to the page, always getting right to the action instead of getting bogged down in flowery prose or overwrought descriptions with unimportant details. British novelist Martin Amis said about Leonard's writing style, "Your prose makes Raymond Chandler look clumsy."

"Dutch", as he often preferred to be called, started his career by writing westerns. It was a huge market with great demand for short stories and dime store pulp novels, so he could learn and grow as a writer and still be able to make some scratch along the way. The stories are mostly set in the 1880s of Arizona and Texas, with a heavy Spanish influence, standoffs and shootouts between Apache Indians and the U.S. cavalry, and the dusty and dangerous life of The Wild West. Not bad for a boy from Detroit.

He found greater success and excess in crime fiction and suspense thrillers starting in the late 1960s through the 1970s. With novels such as The Big Bounce, Mr. Majestyk, 52 Pick-Up, Unknown Man No. 89, and The Switch, Leonard created an otherworld based in and around Detroit, overun with wisecracking mobsters, fast cars, scheming conmen, independent women, hopeful hoodlums, and conflicted killers. All cool, all confident, all characters with actual character.

He may have been tagged with the moniker of a "genre writer", but he transcended and obliterated that tag with every pen stroke. Yes, he wrote every draft by hand on yellow legal notepads.

It didn't take long for Hollywood to come knocking on Dutch's door. More than half of the 45 novels he wrote have been adapted for both the big and small screen. Sometimes they would even call on him to write the screenplay himself.

But enough eulogizing, Elmore Leonard's words speak for themselves. I'd wager "Dutch" would've wanted it that way anyway, and I'm sure that I've probably already broken enough of his "Rules for Writing" in this blog post.

Here's a Friday Five of books and movies by Elmore Leonard available from our collections.

Novels by Elmore Leonard

The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard (2004)

This is where it really all starts for Elmore Leonard, where he cut his teeth as an author and really learned to write, develop dialogue, and create characters. Thirty stories spanning over five decades are included in this collection, including his first published work, "Trail of the Apache", which is a sympathetic and non-stereotypical depiction of Native Americans for that time in history, and "3:10 to Yuma", a story about a determined sheriff who has to get a ruthless outlaw on an outbound train to prison. The story has been adapted for film twice in 1957 and 2007 respectively. Read this great tribute to Elmore Leonard by a military vet and how this book helped him get through his tour of duty in Baghdad.
Swag Swag (1976)

Small-time criminal Ernest Stickley Jr. hooks up with Detroit used car salesman Frank Ryan whose get-rich-quick schemes, which entail robbing everything from banks to supermarkets to gas stations, also involve guns. Lots of guns. As long as they follow "Ryan's Rules" (a.k.a. "10 Golden Rules for Successful Armed Robbery"), what could possibly go wrong? The Detroit city dialect jumps right off of the page in this humorous, anti-hero crime caper.
Stick Stick (1983)

A sort of non-official sequel to Swag, Stick is back and is just trying to get his life on track after spending time in prison for armed robbery. He moves down to Florida and quickly gets mixed up in a drug deal gone bad and a revenge scam that only he would be crazy enough to try and carry out. The book is filled with Leonard's trademark colorful characters and a plot that will keep you turning pages and rooting for the protagonist. Stick was also adapted for film in 1985, starring Burt Reynolds and Candice Bergen.
Be Cool Be Cool (1999)

One of Leonard's most memorable characters, mobster Chili Palmer, is back in this sequel to Get Shorty. This time around, Chili is trying his hand in the music business by helping to resurrect a friend's record company, which also might make a good plot to Chili's next movie project. Chili runs afoul of the L.A.P.D., a singing chanteuse, Russian gangsters, gun toting hip hop moguls, and lots of other crazy characters that linger in La La Land. Leonard's dry wit and not-so-subtle social commentary on the entertainment industry make this a quick and funny read.
Raylan Raylan (2012)

Dutch's most recently published work in 2012, written after he was inspired by the television show Justified's adaptation of his character Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens from his previous novels Pronto, Riding the Rap, and Fire In the Hole.
How's that for art--imitating art--imitating art?! Suspenseful storytelling and quick draw action permeate this novel, bridging the gap between Leonard's westerns of the past and crime noir thrillers that made him famous.

Movie adaptations of Elmore Leonard's work

Hombre Hombre (1961)

A man raised by Apache Indians (Paul Newman) is shunned by passengers on a stagecoach. During the journey however, they are robbed by outlaws and John 'Hombre' Russell becomes their only hope for survival. The social commentary in the film confronts racism head on, but also the idea of the "good guys" not really being all that virtuous and the anti-hero Hombre as the reluctant savior. Newman plays the whole movie with a stoic look on his face and the few terse lines of dialogue he does say reinforce the gravity of the situations in the film.  This was the first of Leonard's books to be adapted for the silver screen and easily one of the best adaptations of his work, as well as a high water mark for the western genre.
Get Shorty Get Shorty (1995)

The film that truly made Elmore Leonard a household name. Get Shorty is about a loan shark from Florida named Chili Palmer who travels to Hollywood to track down (and beat down) a deadbeat client (who is actually believed to be dead after faking his own death). Once there, Chili meets up with a b-movie producer, a scream queen, some henchman, and finally the self-absorbed, spoiled actor 'Shorty.' He decides to stick around and try to get into the movie business; it can't be any worse than his current profession. Dark humor, fast dialogue, thrilling action, a great adaptation, and inspired casting (John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Dany DeVito), make Get Shorty one of the best send ups and satires about Hollywood ever made in Hollywood.
Jackie Brown Jackie Brown (1997)

Quentin Tarantino had already written an Elmore Leonard-esqe movie in 1993 with True Romance, but it would be a few more years until he could actually work with his favorite author directly. Jackie Brown was adapted from Leonard's 1992 novel Rum Punch (which he said was the best adaptation of his work to date, and one of the best screenplays he had ever read!), and has a cast of characters including a sexy stewardess (Pam Grier) who gets caught smuggling gun money for ruthless killer (Samuel L. Jackson), a lonely bail bondsman (Robert Forster), a shifty ex-con (Robert DeNiro), an earnest federal agent (Michael Keaton), and a stoned-out beach bunny (Bridget Fonda). The tagline for the movie sums up the rest: "They're six players on the trail of a half million dollars in cash! The only questions are... who's getting played... and who's gonna make the big score!" A slow burn hesit movie and genre filmmaking at its best.
Out of Sight Out of Sight  (1998)

Career bank robber Jack Foley (George Clooney) busts out of jail and accidentally kidnaps a U.S. Marshal, Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez), in the process and an unusual romantic connection develops between them. When Jack heads to Detroit to pull off one last big heist, Sisco is put on the case. Can she bring him to justice or will love win the day? This movie could have been a rather rote romantic comedy, but under the direction of Steven Soderbergh, it becomes a film noir dramedy with sharp dialogue and lots of plot twists and turns. Also of note: Michael Keaton reprises his role of ATF agent Ray Nicolette from Jackie Brown. The character of Karen Sisco would also turn up again on television in 2003.
3:10 to Yuma 3:10 to Yuma (2007)

The most recent film adaptation of 3:10 to Yuma stars Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in the old west morality play. Once again, things are not as they seem and the "good" and "bad" guys are neither, just different sides to the same conflicted coin. The dialogue and acting are superb here, creating a real sense of dread to go along with the desolate atmosphere of the Arizona dessert. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards the year it was released. It should also be noted that the 1957 version starring Glenn Ford was added to the National Film Registry in 2012.

You can browse our online catalog for more than 150 titles about or by Elmore Leonard as well. Although, that prospect may be an addictive one, as the re-readable and re-watchable meter of Elmore Leonard's works are through the roof, so be forewarned...

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