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More People Should Know About Elmore Leonard
The author who spoke not only to the roots of a genre, but all its tiny moving parts.
Two things come to mind when I think of American fiction: Westerns, and pulp.
One author comes to mind above the others when I think of the middle of that Venn diagram: Elmore Leonard.
Despite the pithy title of this essay, a lot of people already know about him. He’s a highly celebrated novelist and storyteller. I’ve studied the hell out of this work to improve my hand with dialogue. He’s one of my favorites; I don’t think there’s a limit to how much he should be talked up.
In the briefest background I can manage for a man with a very colorful life, Elmore Leonard was born in Louisiana in 1925 and raised in Detroit, Michigan. He served in the Navy during the South Pacific campaign in WWII, and after returning to Detroit for university postwar, Leonard graduated into the wide world with an English degree and a head full of stories.
He got his professional start with Western shorts published in popular pulp magazines of the 1950s—you probably know some by cultural sticking power already if not by name, such as 3:10 to Yuma and Joe Kidd.
From Westerns he pivoted into crime fiction with the 1969 novel The Big Bounce, and the hits just kept coming. Leonard was prolific and multifaceted, often co-writing or producing the screenplays adapted from his stories. He passed away in 2013, but he has left us with an ouvre we are all better for having.
I hesitate to be trite, but it’s true to call Elmore Leonard a writer’s writer. Saul Bellow and Stephen King count themselves among his disciples, but to me it’s the comparison to Jane Austen that remains the most striking (and also the most accurate, in my opinion—if Jane Austen were a little more butch, and American, and spent time in the Navy).
Like Austen, his work takes a uniquely tight lens on character—the way Leonard’s people think, and speak with others, and how they hold themselves in conversation leaps from the page. You get into their dirty secrets and hidden machinations, and it makes his stories not only a hell of a good time but also deeply accessible. You don’t have to be A Western Reader or A Crime Reader to lose yourself in his wordplay. You just have to be curious, and willing to hang up your sense of expectation at the door.
Leonard did away with the crutches of expectation and simply wrote. He treated genre conventions like mere suggestions, just a few more tools in his toolbox, and built a language with it expressly to make his own fun. And he really did have fun with it. He viewed writing as a joy, not a penance or an albatross around his neck, and it shows in his work.
Film and television writers have adapted his novels and shorts with voracity. The reasons why are obvious when you crack open any page and just start reading—Elmore Leonard stories are crafty. They are disarmingly plain on the surface, but take in just a few lines and you’re hooked. It’s a style best consumed aloud, partaking in the uniquely human tradition of shooting the shit and weaving a few yarns with your buddies. Leonard’s prose sings, stings, nips, and laughs with you, inviting you to inhabit these left-of-center characters. It’s no wonder actors and theatrical folk of all stripes jump at the chance to be a part of it.
Developed by Graham Yost and premiering in the spring of 2010, Justified started out as somewhat of a monster-of-the-week cop procedural. Drawn from Elmore Leonard’s series of stories about Raylan Givens, particularly 2001’s Rust Belt drama Fire in the Hole, it follows the jaded lawman as a modern homage to the Western and asks a simple question: what does the trope of a cowboy do if you drag it into the 21st century, with all the messes we’ve made of this country’s own mythos and the empty promises it’s tried to fulfill, and let him loose with his ideas of duty and honor still intact?
You get one of the best modern Westerns on television.
It’s fun. It isn’t high on its own supply. It’s got a theme song so ridiculous you can’t help but bob your head along. It has Leonard’s signature engaging, irreverent banter (see: one of many wily blondes chiding Raylan to slow his drinking, or else “You’d be facedown on the bar and of no use to me,” to which he replies, “I wouldn’t be so sure about that”). It’s paced like a stage play. It feels like the actors are having the best time of their lives with these roles. It’s so much better than it has any business being. Once you hit season 2, the story knows exactly where it wants to go and just keeps running.
It’s a fucking triumph. The masculine absurdity is off the charts and completely unafraid of itself. The show is just as much a joy to watch as the stories on which it’s based are to read.
Justified ran for six seasons, and was recently revived for a miniseries in a genius move for a dramatic IP: keep the cowboy, change the story.
City Primeval takes all the themes of the original Justified storylines and builds on them—who is Raylan Givens, really, when thrown into yet another lion’s mouth? Is there any nobility left in American law enforcement? Where does the blurry line of systemic corruption end? When does one cease being the solution, and instead becomes a symptom of the larger problem?
On his home turf in Kentucky, we’ve already seen Raylan wrestle with the sticky subject of being his father’s son; whether he’s doomed to repeat the cycles of abuse foisted on him, or escape and find the quiet he so desperately seeks as he grows older. His past haunts him, as it has always haunted the gunslinger of yore with long legs that won’t quit running closer, closer, ever closer.
But in Detroit, Raylan has a mirror held up to his usual way of doing things. Here, he’s no longer the arbiter of this town’s stories. He’s an interloper, fucking up the rhythm, coming in a few beats too early. He’s out of his own depth, and none of his instincts work.
He can’t do it alone, which is a sideways sort of convenient for him because Elmore Leonard stories love women.
Too often, as much as I adore the genre, pulp fiction only sees women as splashy cover pieces with big tits and tiny waists set up to either fall damsel and give the hero a reason to get shit done, or tempt him into certain ruin as a femme fatale. Elmore Leonard’s women are just as messy as his men—Greta and Moselle in 1988’s Freaky Deaky have complex inner motivations behind the things they do; Nancy in The Big Bounce carries the sort of devil-may-care swagger and self-assuredness usually reserved for bad guys with cigars and henchmen.
When modern American fiction wants to make its women badass, the move tends to be making them into rhinestone cowgirl post-feminists who are alcoholic and mean-mouthed, but still the perfect ideal of womanhood in the eyes of the cowboys who fall over themselves to be with her.
[averts my eyes from Beth as Yellowstone’s archetype-laden, muddied-up Madonna]
[nods iffily at Sharon Stone in The Quick And The Dead, if only because I’m protective of iconic sexual awakenings of the 1990s]
By Leonard’s hand in Justified, we get Ava Crowder—the messiest of the messes, trapped in a system she doesn’t know how to break besides trying to wield it, until it nearly kills her (more than once). We have the whip-smart Winona, who knows what she wants and deserves but is trapped in thrall to the promises of a life Raylan swears he can give her over and over, if only he can learn to table his instinct to always choose work over the emotional dice-roll of playing house.
(He doesn’t, of course. Every good Western is at least a little bit of a tragedy.)
And in City Primeval, we get 🎉CAROLYN WILDER🎉
Without spoiling the absolute perfection of her character arc, Carolyn is not only beautiful and self-assured, but also ambitious and cunning—unafraid to step on toes to do the right thing, even if her hands get some dirt on them.
Elmore Leonard has never been afraid to trust his women with the same stakes he puts on his men, and as such he makes them into not only phenomenal foils, but free-standing characters. They look at the game the men are playing (and building, and causing, and perpetuating) and ante up instead of folding.
Part of the reason City Primeval is so exciting is that Carolyn is the first woman with teeth long enough to bite Raylan’s ego so deep it makes him jump. Femininity has power in any good story, but particularly in a genre as high-stakes as pulp. Sex and crime are two sides of the same coin, depending on how you flip it. If you have one, you should probably have the other with the intention of paying full price.
The chemistry of an Elmore Leonard gal with her (anti)hero is scaldingly good, every time. The Jane Austen comparison lives on with Leonard’s spirit in the story; the TENDERNESS. Take one look at the way people make doe-eyes at Raylan Givens and tell me you don’t feel it too.
Speaking of chemistry: how about some villains?
Some of my favorite villains refuse to play by the rules. Nicky Santoro in Casino (1995). Marlo Stanfield in the final seasons of The Wire. Boyd Crowder in the entire run of Justified.
In the novel from which this latest romp for Raylan Givens is drawn, the problem child Clement Mansell is nicknamed “the Oklahoma Wildman.” Elmore Leonard has a penchant for unhinged assholes stirring the pot, and Mansell is no different. From episode one of City Primeval, after shooting a man in cold blood for nothing but unwittingly interrupting a plan built with spit and audacity, he finds himself with a proverbial bomb in his hand and asks aloud, “Okay. You wanna play? Let’s play.”
The most exciting villain sees the game unfolding ahead of him, doesn’t quite feel like abiding by the rules, and breaks it completely.
Leonard’s baddies feel human, despite the near-godlike way they fiddle with the metanarrative from inside the story’s own guts—Boyd Crowder has the silver tongue of a smooth devil and enough screws loose to set off every metal detector south of the Mason-Dixon. Wynn Duffy is a rotted snake (and one of my favorite examples of “queer villain with a few good gray areas”) with a bone to pick. Limehouse has a kingdom to keep in order, no matter the cost. They’re just as unique and driven and off-kilter as the protagonists, which means they’re just as fallible despite the appearance of plot armor. The exciting part is watching how they unravel.
The villains in an Elmore Leonard story are glass cannons made weak by their own desperation, their hubris, their craving for control. If you try to put chaos in a box, it will chew its leg off like a wild dog in a trap. Any attempt to neaten the edges will hardly hack it—there will always be a hidey-hole through which chaos can escape, another shape to take on in order to slip through the fence slats.
The ideal interplay of hero and villain should have enough tension to it that the filament always feels two steps from breaking, and Leonard follows well in lock-step with the morays of pulp to tell these stories of ruffled people making terrible choices. There’s more than a bit of Highsmith that clings to the obsessiveness, the “I hate that I always know where and what you’ll be next” hyper-awareness. By the end, they all come off a little bit in love with one another—and they are mad as hell about it.
It’s all just reflections: of the self, of the past, and of expectation.
Any good character arc is ultimately about fate. The Greeks got this one right on the money. Are you playing into it, or defying it? Two roads. One choice.
Raylan Givens is a man unable to leave work undone. It’s in his nature. The gunslinger can’t unshoulder the weight of his own narrative destiny. The man with no name will always be nameless, and it’s delectable schadenfreude to watch him attempt again and again to grasp at the straws of trying to name himself; hungry through the glass for a home, a family, anything that isn’t chasing the mythology his own destiny has handed him.
Justified and the morally-questionable bastards (affectionate) who drive Leonard’s stories ask us questions not only of good versus evil, but reveal in the smallest, dustiest pockets of America The Beautiful™ those conundrums humanity has asked itself for ages: are we in the present beholden to the past? Is our future determined by the choices we make as we go, or are the dominoes already set up and just falling in the order that’s been ordained? Are we doomed to be the people others tell us we will become, or can we renounce it all and rewrite our own stories?
Do yourself a favor and give Elmore Leonard a read. If you take nothing else away from this little screed, I hope you leave at least knowing he’s one of the greats.
As a few parting gifts, here’s Timothy Olyphant—Raylan Givens nee Seth Bullock himself—reading from Swag, and Jacob Pitts reading from Freaky Deaky. There’s also Walton Goggins enjoying the hell out of his character in Fire in the Hole, and Leonard himself reading When the Women Come Out to Dance, featuring my favorite intro of all time to anyone presenting their work: “Now I’m not sure why I wrote this story, but I like it a lot.”
We should all be so lucky to find such joy in our own words.
Even if you’re doing it alone, I urge you to read Elmore Leonard aloud. Let yourself play. Honor the man’s memory and don’t take yourself too seriously.
LINKS & THING(K)S
My debut novel, SHOOT THE MOON, is out with Putnam in just over a month!
Preorder here for a time-bending story about ambition, memory, and the importance of telling the ones you love how much they matter.
Some recent favorite reads of mine have been:
the stunning memoir FRUIT PUNCH by Kendra Allen
a harrowing profile of humanity finding peace amid disaster in A PARADISE BUILT IN HELL by Rebecca Solnit
a self-indulgent reread of THE H OF H PLAYBOOK by Anne Carson.
Music I’ve had on repeat lately:
“The Giver” - Sarah Kinsley
The entirety of “I Go Missing In My Sleep” - Wilsen (trying to telepathically request new music from them, always)
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