The best novelists create a world around the reader. You can feel it bubbling up in irrepressible invention. So we have "a guy by the name of Booker, a twenty-five-year old super-dude twice convicted felon" in his Jacuzzi when the telephone rings. No one answers it, and Booker gets out of the Jacuzzi. At the other end of the line, a woman, Moselle, asks him to sit down. When he does, she informs him that he’s triggered a bomb in the chair – "when you get up, honey, what’s left of your ass is gonna go clear through the ceiling". The bomb-disposal boys arrive in their nonchalant way: "Booker said ‘Another one goes hmmmmm. I’m sitting here on high explosives the motherfucker goes hmmmmm.’" Is there a bomb? They can see 10 sticks of dynamite underneath Booker. But they can’t see a fuse. And now Booker really needs to go to the bathroom, and one bomb-disposal guy is talking about his wife Phyllis’s bad behaviour to a waiter in a restaurant. "Phyllis goes, ‘Wally, when we’ve finished dinner, you gonna take us out and introduce us to the dishwasher?’ She goes ‘We really don’t care what your name is as long as you’re here when we want something.’" And there we leave them.
Does Booker get bombed to bits? Oh yes, of course he does, as we find out much later, in passing. The magnificent first chapter of Freaky Deaky is Elmore Leonard at his most audacious, balancing the promise of ultra-violence, a ludicrous situation and a series of more or less cool dudes possessing a perfect, profane articulacy. As in many Leonard novels, the main action is preceded by an eye-popping set piece with limited connection to the story. It takes the unexpected path from beginning to end; it never abandons the possibility of humour, however rough the going; and it casts its sympathies unpredictably. There is no greater writer of crime fiction than Elmore Leonard, and no one who has more resplendent energy.
Leonard has had the classic career of a market-oriented novelist. Born in New Orleans in 1925, but growing up in Detroit, he began by writing novels and short stories in the then popular western genre. During the day, he worked as an advertising copy-writer. When the magazine market for western stories dried up, he turned to crime fiction with The Big Bounce. His stature has grown steadily. With the publication this month of his new novel, Raylan, a revival of an old hero after the success of a TV series, Justified, his mastery of his own particular genre is complete. Anyone can write a plot in which crooks kidnap each other to extract each other’s kidneys; it takes an Elmore Leonard to conceive of one in which the kidneys are sold back to their indignant original owner.
Raylan is unmistakably a late-period work; its texture is spare, even by Leonard’s standards, and it cuts to the chase laconically. The hero-marshal, Raylan, has cropped up before: Leonard likes to save himself time by repeating not just the type of character, but the same character under the same name. Raylan is a drily witty cop who, in another life, might have been a useful and charming armed robber. Like the western sharpshooters of Leonard’s first books, his speciality is shooting several villains more or less simultaneously without blinking an eye. This novel, too, carries on with Leonard’s trademark energy, including some memorable members of the repulsive Crowe family who have previously turned up as pathetic villains; one here has an unbelievable collection of Elvis memorabilia; the other lives in a house so dirty that he entertains himself by shooting the rats in the kitchen and discussing whether it’s worth cooking and eating them afterwards. Like pretty well every Leonard novel, it is a delight.
Though many of his novels have been turned into films, it’s the novels themselves that possess the real crackle and technical command. If you think of the first lines of the great Tishomingo Blues, it is quite unfilmable – "Dennis Lenehan the high diver would tell people that if you put a fifty-cent piece on the floor and looked down at it, that’s what the tank looked like from the top of that eighty-foot steel ladder … when he told this to girls who hung out at amusement parks they’d put a cute look of pain on their faces and say what he did was awesome. But wasn’t it like really dangerous?" A film could show Dennis telling one girl this, on one occasion. The resources that allow a narrator to convey the endless repetition of Dennis’s conversation and the predictable responses, and put it within a dry reported speech, as if Dennis were, bored, half-overhearing himself, are there to be exploited by the novelist of huge technical command.
The beauty of Leonard’s novels can be achieved at the expense of any kind of moral judgment. It’s often been said that it is hard to tell who the good guys and who the bad guys are in his novels. Sometimes, as in Freaky Deaky, you only work out who you might have been rooting for when you see who is left alive at the end. In a world of unbridled criminality, the criminal who carries out his robbery or murder with style and wit is the object of our admiration. Above all, the allure of intelligence and of articulacy carries the day: we tend to like the man who speaks best and most wittily in Leonard, the one who says "motherfucker" with the best timing.
The suspension of moral judgment is particularly relevant when sexual considerations come into play, and rules are momentarily suspended. Out of Sight pivots on a moment in a hotel lobby, when an alluring female marshal bumps into the sexually charged bank robber she has been hunting, and they agree to take time out to repair to a suite upstairs to screw. Sometimes, the characters rise above moral considerations quite consciously. Jackie Burke, talking in an entranced erotic haze to the bail bondsman Max Cherry in Rum Punch, seems like a figure envisaged by Nietzsche, beyond good and evil: "We’re alike. We weren’t before, you were holding back, but now we are. You and I. Could you pass out complimentary tropical punch in little plastic cups? That’s my alternative and it’s unacceptable." Jackie, an airline stewardess, rises above the mass of humanity just as the magnificent figure of Dennis, the high-diver in Tishomingo Blues does. They look down, and they make choices which may or may not be moral ones but are unconditioned by conventional standards of judgment. This may confuse other characters in Leonard as much as it does the reader. Harry Zimm in Get Shorty, listening to an extended movie pitch based on the pitcher’s life, says: "You know why it doesn’t work? I mean even before I find out you don’t know how it ends. There’s nobody to sympathise with. Who’s the good guy? You don’t have one." But every page of Get Shorty disproves Zimm’s inadequate maxim: there are no good guys, and the drama works, supremely.
Leonard’s novels are not, especially, thrillers; they are almost completely lacking in the puzzle element and the meretricious wielding of that most boring of novelistic features, mystery. In the end, they are closer to that most joyous of criminal genres, the "caper". You always know very soon who killed whom, who is in charge of the scam, what the criminal’s plan is. And so do the forces of the law, more often than not. Secrecy is much less interesting than indiscretion – the joke in Pronto is that Harry tells absolutely everybody the story of how he shot a deserter in the war, all of whom faithfully keep the non-secret when Harry is seeking out new acquaintances to blab to. In Mr Paradise, the wrong prostitute is killed, and the villain persuades her friend Kelly – similarly blond and tanned – to pretend to take on her identity for the sake of an insurance payout. In almost any other crime novel, the pretence would be drawn out, and some kind of mystery spun around the perpetrators of the crime. In Mr Paradise, Kelly’s pretence is seen through immediately, and no one is in any doubt from the start that Montez, Mr Paradiso’s sullen major-domo, orchestrated the killings. Mystery is the most banal thing in everyday life. Look out of the window and ask yourself where that man you see is going. It’s a complete mystery, but, like most mysteries, rather a boring one. Leonard has asked why mystery should be any more interesting in fiction, and has concluded that it can be done away with altogether.
The understanding of a situation can be advanced by bizarre and apparently trivial details, in the tradition of Chesterton’s Father Brown. In Mr Paradise, the untrimmed pubic hair of a murder victim acts as a crucial little cog in the powerfully motoring plot. Ezra Pound is crucial to Pronto. In the exuberant Riding the Rap, a kidnap plot is undone by someone noticing some Jell-O. But the unweaving of a dastardly plot is never Leonard’s real concern. What interests him more is the evolving of the impossible before everyone’s astonished eyes – live alligators delivered to judges as threat, leper colonies (Bandits), whisky priests, Heinrich Himmler’s double (Up in Honey’s Room), and on and on even into the supernatural. Profanity aside, it is all a little bit like Gladys Mitchell on occasion.
There is a high degree of irrationality in Leonard. One of the disorienting, as well as exhilarating qualities in the books is the sense that neither narrative laws nor the laws of the world as we know it constrain the action. A pivotal book, Touch, which so disconcerted Leonard’s publishers that a decade elapsed between its writing and its publication in 1987, turns on a stigmatic with the gift of healing – memorably curing every broken bone in his enemy’s body after he has fallen four storeys. Leanne, Bob’s wife in Maximum Bob, is in touch with a long-dead slave girl called Wanda, who brings about the denouement. Perhaps more characteristically, there’s the thrilling presence of a psychic called Reverend Dawn in Riding the Rap, who recurs in Road Dogs; she seems, on the surface, to be a charlatan, something that most of the characters take for granted. Only as the plot proceeds does it become apparent that Dawn knows much more than she should, and the only way she could attain her degree of understanding is through some kind of supernatural means.
Characters who stand outside the normal run of things are Leonard’s stock in trade – miracle workers, gangsters, Nietzschean superwomen, men who dive 80 feet from a platform into a puddle. He’s interested, too, in people below the normal standards of humanity. The dazzling cavalcade of Freaky Deaky centres, in the end, on the monstrous figure of the multi-millionaire Woody, constantly sozzled and lying on his back naked in a swimming pool. Woody’s inability to understand why his scheming houseboy Donnell wants him to amend his will in Donnell’s favour provides some delicious comedy of out-of-focus chatter: "Woody said ‘I guess the place to start, put down I want to cross out Mark’s name and anything in it that has to do with him. Say "As he is no longer a successor co-trustee of the estate." I’m pretty sure that’s what he was. Put that down under his name, successor co-trustee. But you know something? It must say in there what happens if he dies. I mean before I do.’ Donnell, sitting at the library desk with the green lamp on, said ‘Cross out Mark,’ as he wrote it on a legal pad."
The comedy of the hopeless and of the inert reaches a sort of climax in the scene in Rum Punch when the three savage "jackboys", Zulu, Snow and Sweatman, find a rocket launcher in the back of their van to fire at the police trying to arrest them. Their superiority in firepower seems assured, but "’How to fire the motherfucker,’ Zulu said." Here’s the problem: none of them went to school much, and they are thrown back on their limited literacy, trying to read the instructions:
Zulu said "’Re-…’ The fuck is that word there?" Snow said "’Re-…lease.’ Yeah, it say to release the … something. ‘Release the safe…ty.’"
It’s going to end badly, as the police gather round the van.
Leonard’s work is a very long way from the average crime novel, with its sequence of atrocity, mystery, maverick investigator and solution. He is fascinated, for instance, with the mechanics of writing, and wants his readers to share that interest. Characters investigate the textures of dialogue – "’How come,’ Raylan said, ‘you can’t answer a question without asking one?’" (Riding the Rap.) They discuss diction in intricate detail – Foley and Buddy reading a newspaper report in Out of Sight: "’They think you may "flee the country."’ ‘I’ve had to run like hell a few times,’ Foley said, ‘but I don’t think I’ve done any fleeing. You ever flee?’ ‘Yeah. I read one time I fled the scene of a robbery.’"
Most strikingly, Leonard often places the action in a context where we are going to have to contemplate the means of narrative. The superb climax of Tishomingo Blues takes place in a civil war battle recreation event where real shootings and staged shootings within a narrative – all within the context of the pretence of the novel, of course – chase each other. Djibouti is strung along a sequence of a pair of film-makers making editing decisions about how to narrate the story the reader is reading.
Most powerful is Get Shorty, accurately described by Martin Amis as "a masterpiece" and surely one of the greatest novels of the century, the American If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. A dry cleaner fakes his own death and flees to Las Vegas, then LA, with the insurance payout. The protection man who has been fleecing him for years follows him, dropping in first on a Hollywood director who owes a fat wad to a casino. The protection man thinks it’s a good story, and, in the middle of the night, starts pitching it to the director. The novel revolves around at least three film scripts and an enormous extended pitch, and clearly loves its own consideration of the narrative structure. Scenes begin, repeatedly, "Now they were having a drink," like someone retelling, or telling in advance, a film. Scenes occur in reality then re-occur, mildly or fundamentally jigged, in the pitch and the pitchee’s response – "the scene in the casino … should build a certain amount of tension. The audience is thinking, Jesus, here it comes. They know you’re a tough guy, they want to see how you handle the bodyguard."
Leonard handles events which occur, are narrated, and then retold in other novels. The celebrated 22nd chapter of Rum Punch, with bags containing various sums of money, or none, being passed and switched around Macy’s ladies’ department, is followed by at least two detailed retellings of what actually happened. Get Shorty, however, is the most intricate meshing of narrative and meta-narrative, concluding with a lovely Calvino-like consideration between Karen, Harry and Chili of how it should end: "Chili didn’t say anything, giving it some more thought. Fuckin endings, man, they weren’t as easy as they looked."
The violence in Leonard’s action is not dwelt on, but swiftly rendered and passed over. In Pagan Babies, the priest Terry exacts vengeance on some "genocidaires" in Rwanda: "He pulled Chantelle’s pistol out of his cassock and shot Bernard, shattering the bottle he held against his chest … Terry held the pistol at arm’s length on a level with his eyes … and made the sign of the cross with it over the dead. He said ‘Rest in peace, motherfuckers.’" What Leonard loves best is not violence, but the promise of violence expressed with some verbal wit, like the sign in a police station in Mr Paradise: "Too often we lose sight of life’s simple pleasures. Remember, when someone annoys you it takes 42 muscles in the face to frown. But it only takes four muscles to extend your arm and bitch-slap the motherfucker upside the head." They are surprisingly chaste novels, too, given the weight they place on erotic fascination. It is generally not the novel but the characters that lapse into obscenity, and then it is clearly the character’s way of talking that enchants the novel: the gogo-dancer/drug dealer Cundo is talking to his sexy wife, the Reverend Dawn, from prison, reporting the advice he’s getting from the other cons in the telephone queue. "’They ask me if I ever stick hamburger in your – I think they saying "twat" and have a pussyburger.’ Dawn said, ‘What else?’" (Road Dogs).
In the absence of detailed description of sex and violence, what fills the novels – joyously, incomparably – is talk. Leonard is rightly celebrated for his mastery of dialogue, but it isn’t exactly a realist rendering. Rather, like PG Wodehouse, or Dickens, or Waugh, he has half-heard and half-invented a totally convincing idiolect. No one ever talked so well in reality as Robert Taylor in Tishomingo Blues, telling the story of his life like a Scheherazade in a silk shirt, chain and pleated slacks: "I never got sent down. I went to Oakland University three years and did some dealing to pay for my tuition and books and shit, but only weed. I wouldn’t sell heroin to students, fuck up their young minds. Lot of ‘em were fucked up to begin with, worrying about what they gonna do when they got out. I took eighteen semester hours of history – ask me a question about it, anything, like the names of famous assassins in history. Who shot Lincoln, Grover Cleveland. I took history cause I loved it man, not to get a job from it."
One source of Leonard’s eminence is a semi-jocular "10 Rules of Writing". They constitute good, solid advice on the side of simplicity – "Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip." The magic of his own dialogue, however, is that he never underestimates the potential pleasure of the elaborate, high formality and the abstruse in speech. His characters are allowed to explain what they do in dizzying arcana: "A guy calls, he says ‘I like the Vikings and six for five dimes.’ Another guy calls. ‘Harry, the Saints minus seven thirty times.’ He loses, what’s the juice, straight ten percent? If they forget the juice they won’t even get close to the gross." (Pronto) He allows even the most brutal of his gangsters the right to bicker over terminology – "’We didn’t kidnap him,’ Louis said, ‘we took him hostage.’" (Riding the Rap). And, most of all, he recognises the relish his characters have for single words, such as the splendid moment when the hangdog houseboy Lloyd comes into his heritage at the end of Mr Paradise and takes the guns to massacre the villains with the words: "I told you this ain’t your bidness."
Leonard has long been seen as the greatest of crime writers, walking all over even Raymond Chandler, but perhaps the time has come to drop the qualification of genre. In his analysis through laughter of money, crime, spectacle and the play-acting of the powerful, he has created something entirely his own. In his 40-odd novels, his examinations of the way people manipulate language and stories have both recorded and created an aspect of human behaviour. He is just the great American novelist of the great American comedy.
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