This morning on the subway, with a selfie-taking woman sporting a bicep tattoo of Porky Pig anally penetrating a regular pig on one side of me and a man with a George Hamilton tan who wore loafers with no socks on the other side, I found out that Elmore Leonard had died. Leonard, 87, had suffered a stroke three weeks ago, and died at his home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Leonard's career spanned more than four decades and he left an indelible imprint on the popular crime genre of novels, sure, but also film, and most lately, television. His pared down style was admired by acclaimed writers as stylistically different from him as Martin Amis, who once said of Leonard, “[he possesses] gifts—of ear and eye, of timing and phrasing—that even the most indolent and snobbish masters of the mainstream must vigorously covet.” In honor of the great writer, here's a look back at the best of his work in three different media: books, film, and television.
This novel combines everything Leonard did best: unadorned sentences that move the plot along at a perfect pace, enough twists and double-crosses that the reader will audibly gasp, and the motley crew of characters that Leonard was known for portraying so well. There was the corrupt Detroit cop, the tough, beautiful journalist with a perfect ass, the sociopathic multi-millionaire, and the lone wolf good guy who works within the system, but only when it suits him. I first read this book in about the 7th grade, and through it, learned who George Hamilton was, and then used that information to make tons of friends by making fun of people's too dark tans by comparing them to old George. Well, the tons of friends didn't happen, but I'm sure when everyone else eventually learned who George Hamilton was, they respected me.
The thing that's so great about Leonard's books is that there are never any fully moral heroes. I know that this doesn't exactly seem mind-blowing, and there's a long tradition, stretching back to Dashiell Hammett or even Arthur Conan Doyle, of crime novels that don't have totally ethical people at their centers, but Leonard's heroes/antiheroes are so unapologetic about their vices (usually women) that they seem refreshingly human in a way that's rare. Plus, considering he writes in such a macho genre, Leonard really knew how to create strong, smart women characters.
Many of Leonard's books take place in Detroit, Southern Jersey, or Miami— all places that have, at one point or another, promised a sparkling future (yes, even Detroit), but also all places that have dealt with decline and decay, crime and corruption. LaBrava takes place in Miami in the 80s, a time when the sunny dream of Florida had been all but blotted out by rising crime rates and huge amounts of drug trafficking. Leonard was one of the first crime novelists to embrace Florida as a setting (now Florida has become an-all-too-common milieu for crime novels, the New Yorker even wrote about that phenomenon recently), and this novel contains all the Leonard trademarks of double-crossing and vengeance meted out, but it never loses its humor, another Leonard trademark.
This is the book that is said to have really put Leonard on the map, and it immediately hooks the reader with a classic set-up of a young, dead prostitute whose death is ignored by everyone except for one guy. Leonard's dialogue was always spot on, conveying so much more about the characters than mere description ever could, and this book has the perfect example of this when a young girl insists that her name is pronounced "Ear-ess, like the ear, not eye-riss, like the eye." You understand her, but you're annoyed by her. She's human, but she's not sentimentalized. And that's what Leonard did so well, humanized his characters without sentimentalizing them. This is harder than it seems. Everything Leonard did was harder than it seemed. That's why he was the best.
While Glitz might be the book that put Leonard on the map, the author thought that the film version of his novel Get Shorty was his real breakthrough into the public consciousness. The film, released in 1995, had a screenplay written by Scott Frank, and was based on Leonard's 1990 novel of the same name. ALthough many of Leonard's books have been adapted into films, this version is impressive because it successfully streamlined one of Leonard's famously complicated plots without sacrificing any of the twists and turns that are Leonard's hallmarks. Plus? It's just really funny, and has excellent turns from both Dennis Farina and James Gandolfini, both of whom also passed away this year. Aaahh. It might really be time to re-watch this movie.
Out of Sight
This 1998 Soderbergh adaptation of Leonard's novel of the same name was also adapted by Scott Frank, who, it seems, is really able to adapt a fucking novel. Well done, Scott Frank. Besides being notable for being the only good movie in J. Lo's career and for being the film that showed George Clooney could be a movie star (let's all forget his turn as Batman, ok?), Out of Sight has one of the best casts EVER assembled, and some really incredible timeline shifts that emphasize what an immaculately plotted story this is. But about that cast. We're talking Don Cheadle, Catherine Keener, Viola Davis, Albert Brooks, Ving Rhames, and Michael motherfucking Keaton. Can we all just agree that Michael Keaton makes everything amazing? We can? Good. This film is easily one of the best crime movies ever made, and you should probably all watch it in honor of Elmore Leonard immediately.
Admittedly, I haven't seen this series yet (I plan on binge-watching this week though, I swear), but it is beloved by pretty much everyone who sees it, including Leonard himself. In fact, although the series was based off Leonard's character Raylan Givens, who appeared in three Leonard stories—"Pronto, "RIding the Rap", and "Fire In the Hole"—Leonard was actually inspired by the television show to write the novel "Raylan" in 2012. And while I haven't watched yet, Justified-lover Kevin Seccia had this to say, "Of all the legit great shows on TV right now, it's the most fun to watch. Every conversation crackles, as if the participants are always holding guns on each other, when that's actually only the case about half the time." Classic Leonard: conversations crackling, people with guns on each other, and a morally complex man in a white hat. Watch it.
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