My Elmore Leonard Problem

Out of Sight from Four Later Novels by Elmore Leonard.  Library of America.  961 pp. $40.00.

I’m coming to the end of my Elmore Leonard period.  I never thought, when I decided to look into his Detroit novels because my son now lives in Detroit and I’ve gotten to know the place a little, that I would wind up reading three thick Library of America volumes and be eager for more (though there isn’t any more.  Leonard wrote other novels, but I think the LOA has located the best of them, and really, enough is enough).  I’ve looked forward to my evening of reading every day when I’ve been reading Leonard.  I can’t say that about any number of more highfalutin writers.

The man was a phenomenon: coming out of Detroit and writing just because he felt like it, picking genre novels because he thought he could do that, getting hooked up with a failing genre (Westerns) and switching without missing a beat to another (crime fiction), continuing to grow as a writer for his entire career.  I wouldn’t hesitate to say that this third volume is the best.  It certainly includes some of his best known works.  His writing is plain and straightforward but not pedestrian, and any young writer who wants to learn how to tell a story could do a lot worse than exploring Leonard’s work.  I’m constantly stunned at how well he tells a story.

My problem is that most of the books, especially the later ones, include moments like this one.

“Maurice turned his head to Glenn.  ‘This is the gentleman I was telling you about use to be a customer, to wear a suit and comb his hair; hell, use to be Frank, this scarecrow, Frankie and his lovely wife Inez.  See what scag can do to a person?  Now then, so we don’t have to tear up your nice home,’ Maurice said, ‘get out the green from where you hid it.  I’m gonna say forty fifty thousand and it’s in this room.  Frankie?  Pay attention.  You’re gonna have to tell me where it is before I count to three.  You ready? . . . One two three.”  Maurice raised the .45, put it on Cedric and shot him in the head.  The impact sent him against the file cabinets and he seemed to hold on before sliding to the floor.  Maurice stepped over to him and Glenn thought he was going to shoot him again, but all he did was stare at him—until Frankie spoke and Maurice looked up.

“’You’ve been wanting to do him, haven’t you?  Shit, you came to do him.’

‘You think so, lets’s try Inez,’ Maurice said, turning to her as he raised the .45.  ‘Ready for the count?’”

I understand what most people would say about such scenes, especially most readers of crime fiction.  They’re a convention of the genre.  They don’t mean a thing.  It’s not real people getting shot and dying.  It’s like actors on a stage.  The problem is—and this is a compliment to Leonard—that he makes them into real people, often with a few deft touches.  These may just be heroin addicts, but they’re human beings.  And a man who would take their lives like this, casually, as if he were patting somebody in the back, is a monster.  But Leonard doesn’t treat him that way.  He treats him as just another crook, the way he treated petty grifters in the early Detroit novels.  A shooting in those early books was a rare thing, and not what the criminal intended.  The later novels (I haven’t looked back to see where this trend begins) all contain a monster.

I don’t think I’m naïve.  I don’t move in crime circles, to be sure, but I have worked with and visited inmates, and at present I visit Death Row once a month to meditate and talk with inmates.[1]  I know there are people like Maurice in the world.  But if you’re going to write about them, I think you should explore them, try to discover what makes them tick.  They shouldn’t just be like furniture, or stock characters.  They’re too awful.

Out of Sight is not about Maurice.  It’s about a bank robber named Jack Foley and a U.S. Marshall named Karen Sisco, who come in contact with each other first when Jack is escaping prison and she just happens to be there, so he takes her hostage and rides in a car’s trunk with her, and remain fascinated with one another even while Jack is continuing to rob banks and Karen continues to pursue him.  It’s not that they’re in love with each other, exactly, but they kind of are.  At the very least they’re erotically fascinated.  Jack, I would have to say, is a little more of a sentimentalist than Karen.  It’s a kind of Romeo and Juliet story of star-crossed lovers, a tour de force, almost as if Leonard wrote it on a dare, and is a good candidate for his best novel, also for the best movie made from his work.  The movie starred George Clooney as Jack and Jennifer Lopez as Karen.[2]

I love the book.  And I understand that menacing characters like Maurice give it an air of danger that it wouldn’t otherwise have.  But human life is precious, seems more precious the older I get, and I hate to read about someone taking it casually.  There’s nothing casual about it.[3]

[1] I’ve mentioned this before, but the men on Death Row don’t seem to be monsters.  They seem to be ordinary people who somehow wandered into a bad situation, sometimes a series of them.  And the ones I’ve talked to are deeply regretful about their crimes.  They’re haunted by them.

[2] Three of the four novels in this volume were made into movies, and I don’t know what they’re waiting for on the fourth one.  Get Shorty is the other candidate for the best movie made from a Leonard novel, with Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Danny DeVito, and John Travolta.  And Rum Punch became the Quentin Tarrantino movie Jackie Brown.

[3] The ultimate answer is not to read crime fiction, and I normally don’t.  But I had fond memories of those early Detroit novels, which weren’t as brutal as the later ones.  And I was captivated by Leonard’s talent.