Sunday, February 5, 2012

More than a great crime writer?

Whether Elmore Leonard is, as Philip Hensher argues, "The Great American Novelist," I leave to others more qualified to judge — but Hensher does identify an important reason I enjoy Elmore's novels so much:
.... 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.'" ....

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. [more]
And then their is Justified [FX]

Elmore Leonard: the great American novelist | Books | The Guardian

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