Two Masterpieces by Elmore Leonard

(From 2013)

As a voracious reader of crime fiction, I’ve naturally read a lot of Elmore “Dutch” Leonard. It’s sad to hear of his passing today. Still, he lived a long life and was one of America’s most-loved and respected crime novelists, so it’s certainly not a bad way to exit.

As with Ross MacDonald and Raymond Chandler, Leonard can be overrated by literati who otherwise don’t read much crime fiction. Leonard’s diverse leads frequently seem to be the same person under different names; many of the plots don’t stick in the mind; the cool and slangy “drugs and criminals” culture doesn’t mask how distractingly “aspirational” many of his stories really are. (In other words, the reader should “desire to be the hero” in somewhat sentimental fashion.)

Still, Leonard has given me many hours of escapist pleasure over the years. Two books have stood out.

City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit. (1980) Any Leonard fan can tell you that Dutch combined the traditional western (like Jack Schaefer’s Shane) with the first George V. Higgins crime novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The topic of both is obscure codes of male honor, a malleable frame ideal for watching characters ride inevitably off into the sunset.

Leonard was often called the poet of Detroit. In City Primeval the judge who is the first murder — black, racist, powerful, hated, sexist (but tries to pick up the woman he insults anyway) — seems to be someone who could have only come from troubled Motor City.

The book is relentlessly exciting. Killer Clement Mansell’s first, non-violent showdown with cop Raymond Cruz is a perfect exposition of macho code. Towards the end, the author brings in Western clichés with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It really works, for the result is almost meta.

Get Shorty. (1990) Speaking of meta: like Chandler’s The Little Sister and Joseph Wambaugh’s The Glitter Dome, Leonard’s Get Shorty was written to take revenge on Hollywood.

Leonard really knew this milieu. He probably barely needed to invent anything! Donald Westlake told me about the time Leonard took an early lunch meeting with Harry Dean Stanton. Stanton showed up very late, announced, “I must tell you I am extremely drunk,” and more or less fell asleep at the table.

Meta is everywhere in Get Shorty. I cannot ruin the surprise and explain the absolutely marvelous title: you must read it and find out for yourself.

This skewering of the movies was made into a movie, too. It’s a good movie, but the book is more subtle — and also more vicious.