Where new writing finds its voice

The Dickens of Detroit: Elmore Leonard’s Addictive Storytelling

Peter Higgins

Illustration by Richard Short

Elmore Leonard is a writer of popular fiction. The kind of stuff they sell in airports. And we should be grateful for that: I can’t think of many writers in whose company I’d rather spend a long-haul flight. He writes thrillers packed with criminals and cops, rackets and cons, drug barons and cocktail waitresses. You crack open the glossy paperback (adorned with the obligatory gushing praise from Stephen King) and right away you know you’re in safe hands: ‘A friend of Ryan’s said to him one time, “Yeah, but at least you don’t take any shit from anybody.”’ No one does opening lines like Elmore Leonard. That was the opening line of Unknown Man No. 89, and this is the opening line of Out of Sight: ‘Foley had never seen a prison where you could walk right up to the fence without getting shot.’

The Foley in question is Jack Foley, one of Elmore Leonard’s better bad guys. Leonard is interested and amused by the bad bad guys, the losers, the junkies and the bozos, but his heart is in the depiction of the good ones, the ones with brains. But brains aren’t enough to stop some people turning to crime. And that’s interesting. Jack Foley, charm personified (played on screen by George Clooney, after all) gets philosophical with us throughout the novel, like he knows exactly what he’s got coming. Like he knows that for all his twinkly appeal, and his wit, and his one-liners, he could just get blown away if Karen Sisco only says the word.

Karen Sisco: Leonard’s finest creation to date. A US Marshall who knows her movies, and doesn’t take any shit from anybody. But pretty soon she’s lying in the trunk of the car with escaped convict Jack Foley. What could they possibly find to talk about?  The movies, of course. Leonard takes obvious pleasure in pointing out that the film Three Days of the Condor was based on a novel called Six Days of the Condor. Perfect.

And Foley wonders: what would have happened if he and Karen had met in different circumstances? Karen’s reply: ‘Nothing.’ But she can’t fool Jack, and she can’t fool us, either. There’s something going on there. Did she mean to miss, when she shot at him, later on? What do you think? In case we are still in any doubt, Leonard gives us one of the great romantic scenes in modern American literature, as Karen sits in the bar in the revolving restaurant at the top of the snowbound hotel, and brushes off the advances of the first guy, and the second. And then the third guy comes up, and she sees his reflection before she sees him, and all he wants to know is: can he buy her a drink? Jack. 

Later, after they’ve been through whatever adventures the novel might have in store for them, Karen sums up her (and Leonard’s?) philosophy pretty neatly: nobody, she says, forced Jack to rob banks. Wait a second. Is that it? We went through all that just for this? Well, one of the peculiar pleasures of genre fiction is the journey itself. And one of the peculiar problems with genre fiction is the destination. (I expect you’re wondering why I’ve gathered you all here this evening …) When everything comes together, when all the loose ends are tied up, when the bad guys get theirs and the good guys get to be heroes, it can sometimes feel like a disappointment. All you want from Leonard’s best work is that it should go on forever: double-cross after double-cross, shoot-out after shoot-out, world without end. You just don’t want the fun to stop. 

And his heroes seem to be having almost as much fun as we are. Here is Ryan – in Unknown Man No. 89 – talking to his friend Dick Speed (and how can you not want to read a novel featuring a character called Dick Speed?):

‘“I’m working for him. How does that look on my resumé? Shit, I don’t like it at all, but I could be right next to fifteen grand.”

“Okay, but remember,” Dick Speed said, “nobody hands you money for nothing, unless you’re giving them a lot more than you think.”

“Wait a minute,” Ryan said, “I want to write that down.”’

Leonard’s perfect rhythm knows that the joke works better if you cut into Ryan’s final line with a quick ‘Ryan said’. We don’t need to be told ‘Ryan said,’ but it makes his dialogue funnier than just ‘Wait a minute. I want to write that down.’ Rhythm. That’s what it’s all about. 

In The Hunted, the lead character, Rosen, musing on the mess he’s gotten himself into: ‘… kept shaking his head and saying shit no, hey, that kind of business was way, way out of his line. He didn’t have the background to stand there and watch them and wait for just the right moment. Christ, these guys had machine guns.’ Leonard’s writing reaches some kind of poetic zenith in Rum Punch (turned into Jackie Brown by Quentin Tarantino, back when he was still interesting). Try this for size:

‘See? Thinking of Louis right away coming to mind. Knowing him twenty years as a man would never tell nothing on you. Had that old-time pro sense of keeping his mouth shut. Even thinking of himself as a good guy basically, Louis would never snitch you out. Louis could be worth a cut of the score. Not a big cut, more like a nick.’

This stuff just flows. Leonard is not one of those writers whose books are described, in the blurb, as ‘beautifully written’. Instead, he just writes beautifully; he knows how people speak and how they think, and he gets the snap and pace of daily life exactly right. His sentences are punchy and quick: get to the fucking point. And even when you think he’s merely fooling around with a dumb little scene, marking time, he’ll throw in something devastating, just when your guard was down. Think of the bit where Foley and his buddy (handily named Buddy) go to the vintage clothes store in Out of Sight. For three or four pages they do nothing more than try on a few suits and coats. No big deal.  Then Foley checks his reflection, ‘… expecting to see himself as a businessman, some kind of serious executive.’ Fat chance, pal: ‘What he looked like was a guy who’d just been released from prison in a movie made about twenty years ago.’

Those of us who aren’t gangsters or drug addicts or hitmen have to take Leonard’s word for it that this is how it is out there, in a world filled with gangsters and drug addicts and hitmen. Maybe these books are entirely divorced from reality – I’m glad to say I wouldn’t know. All I know is that as soon as I’ve finished one, I want another. As soon as I put down my battered paperback of Stick or Swag or Glitz, I’m wondering: how long before my next fix, how long before my next trip into the terrible danger, and the perfect safety, of the Elmore Leonard underworld.