Two Masterpieces by Elmore Leonard

(From 2013)

Elmore “Dutch” Leonard passed away today at the age of 87.

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 “aspirational” many of his stories really are. (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. For both Schaefer and Higgins, obscure codes of male honor are part of a malleable frame ideal for watching characters ride off into the sunset.

Leonard was called the poet of Detroit, and in City Primeval the characters could have only come from troubled Motor City.

The book is relentlessly exciting. 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.

Get Shorty. (1990) Leonard’s Get Shorty was written to take revenge on Hollywood.

Leonard spent a lot of time trying to get his books made into movies and really knew this milieu. 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.

I cannot ruin the surprise and explain the absolutely marvelous title Get Shorty. You must read it and find out for yourself.

In 1995 this skewering of the movies was made into a movie. Get Shorty has wonderful performances from John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, Rene Russo, Delroy Lindo, and Dennis Farina, but the book remains even more subtle and vicious.