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Elmore Leonard: An Appreciation

Oct 09, 2013

If you know me at all, you know how much Elmore Leonard’s books have meant to me for nearly 30 years. Ever since picking up a paperback copy of Swag at a used bookstore in 1984, I have been a rabid fan. When he passed away in August, Critics At Large asked me to pen an appreciation. It was posted today (October 8) here.

If the link expires, you can read the text right here.

When Elmore Leonard died in August, shortly after suffering a stroke at age 87, tributes flowed fast and furious in newspapers, on blogs and other media. Some were from writers you would expect to love Leonard (Robert Crais, Michael Connelly); others came from those on whom he would seem to have had little or no influence (Jackie Collins).

I suppose I fall somewhere in between.

My crime novels, save for one, have been first-person private eye stories. With the exception of his classic Western, Hombre, Leonard never wrote in the first person. Nor did he ever feature a private eye as a protagonist. My first loves and most direct influences were Ross Macdonald and Raymond Chandler, and, later on, Robert B. Parker, Crais and Dennis Lehane, all of whom featured first-person private eyes who mixed humour and action in a blend I found satisfying and inspiring.

And yet Leonard became my favourite writer of all time, of any genre. Over the past thirty years, I read and reread his books compulsively. Though his voice and mine are vastly different, and his use of multiple points of view something I have only tried in one book (Lostport), I can pick up any novel of his, even one whose ending I know perfectly well, and savour it for its economy, brilliant dialogue and mastery of time, place and character.

He began his writing career in the early fifties, penning Western stories for the magazines that flourished in those years. Available now in various collections, the stories developed themes he would build on throughout his career: decent men in trouble, whose character is revealed through the action they take to get out of it. His Western heroes often appeared quiet and unassuming on the surface and were easily underestimated by their enemies; a good example is the story “3:10 to Yuma,” which was filmed in 1957 with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, and again in 2007 with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. Ford and Crowe played the bad guy; Heflin and Bale the quiet, decent good guy.

He soon began writing full-length Western novels, two of which are arguably among the best ever written: Hombre, adapted into a classic film starring Paul Newman, and Valdez is Coming, another classic that starred Burt Lancaster. The latter fits perfectly with the theme of the underestimated hero: Bob Valdez, a mild town constable, who seeks to right the wrong done to an Apache woman, is nearly murdered for his trouble, and, summoning his past as an Army fighter, takes on a small army of men rather than back down.

As good as his Westerns were, the world of crime beckoned and in 1969, Leonard published The Big Bounce, a caper set in rural Michigan. It was not particularly successful as a book or film (starring Ryan O’Neal) but it paved the way for more crime books and out they poured.

Like his Westerns, the first few novels (Mr. Majestyk, The Moonshine War) were set largely in rural areas. It wasn’t until he began to exploit the urban jungle of Detroit that he came into his own. Between 1974 and 1980, he published Fifty-Two Pickup, Unknown Man No. 89, Swag, The Switch, City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit and Split Images, each one better than the last. He avoided using a series character, in part because he didn’t want film studios to be able to option more than one book at a time. Not until City Primeval did he introduce a cop hero. The protagonists of the other books include a car thief, a process server and a Detroit housewife and her kidnappers.

From the start, he showed a great talent for bad guys. Their dialogue, their inner voices, their rhythms became more intricate, more colourful, more musical over time. It was like watching a great jazz player develop his chops. His villains are greedy, impulsive, fearless—classic sociopaths determined to take exactly what they want. They share a lot with the gunslingers of his Westerns; as long as they have a gun they can stick in someone’s mouth, they feel empowered and impervious.

In the early eighties, he began setting stories in Miami, bringing new colours and flavours into books like Gold Coast, Cat Chaser, Stick and LaBrava. Again, the heroes are an unusual bunch. Cat Chaser, for example, features the owner of a small seaside motel who falls in love with the wife of a powerful Dominican expatriate and finds there’s a price to pay. Joseph LaBrava is trying to make it as a photographer in South Beach; he winds up in the middle of an intricate plot to kidnap a former film star.

There is more to both men, however, than meets the eye: the motel owner, George Moran, is a former marine who is tougher than he appears to be. LaBrava is a retired and very resourceful Secret Service agent who gets in the way of the would-be kidnappers.

Decent men in trouble, easily underestimated by their enemies. The trail back to his Western themes is abundantly sharp and clear.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, his output and acclaim grew. Critics across the globe routinely hailed him as the greatest living writer of crime fiction. Many a literary writer confessed to being fans. When Glitz—my all-time favourite of his novels—was published in 1985, Newsweek put him on its cover. He continued to mine his settings in Detroit and Miami in books like Freaky Deaky, Maximum Bob, Out of Sight, Rum Punch and Mr. Paradiso, while exploring new territory, including New Orleans (Bandits), (Italy (Pronto), Los Angeles (Get Shorty, Be Cool), Rwanda (Pagan Babies) and Harlan County (the story “Fire in the Hole,” adapted into the hit FX series Justified).

He began to fare better in movie adaptations of his work. Some of his best novels were never filmed or turned into stinkers, like the 1985 version of Stick directed by and starring an overmatched Burt Reynolds. But Get Shorty and Out of Sight were both extremely well done and faithful to the novels, as was Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino’s adaptation of Rum Punch.

In his later years, he began a series of stories featuring the U.S. Marshal Carl Webster, also known as the Hot Kid (Comfort to the Enemy, Up in Honey’s Room); published his first children’s book (A Coyote’s in the House); set a book among the pirates of Somalia (Djibouti); went back in time to the Spanish-American war (Cuba Libre); and in his last book, Raylan, interwove three stories about U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens and his friend and sometimes nemesis Boyd Crowder.

Coincidentally, Raylan came out the same day in January, 2012, as my third Jonah Geller novel, Boston Cream. Both featured plots involving organ theft. Just my luck, I thought. I have to compete with the all-time master of crime, like a mosquito flying into the windshield of an oncoming truck.

I had the pleasure of meeting Leonard in 1987, when he came to Toronto for the International Festival of Authors. I had managed to track down his unlisted phone number at his home in a suburb of Detroit and had a long phone conversation with him about his characters and his use of point of view. A few weeks later, we met for ninety minutes at his Toronto hotel and continued the discussion. I’ll never forget some of the things he told me, including this primer on point of view.

In his great novel Glitz, there was a scene he didn’t think was working, between casino executive Tommy Donovan and his wife Nancy, who was the real brains in the couple. He’s half-drunk most of the time and she can cut him off at the knees when she wants to. But the scene wasn’t catching fire, he told me. Their bickering was too corrosive, not getting him where he wanted to go.

So he drafted in a third character, a wisecracker named Jackie Garbo who helps run the casino, and wrote the scene from his point of view. The result is a classic. Now he had levity to balance the acid in the scene. Jackie can’t believe the husband, Tommy, is reckless enough to show off and take on Nancy when he’s half in the bag. He can barely hide his astonishment and amusement as she cuts him to bits. It was a brilliant solution to a problem, worthy of the man whose Ten Rules of Writing are sacred to many a writer and writing teacher.

If you have never seen the rules, they are well worth reading and remembering. You can find them here.

The one I try to abide by the most is number ten, which he always claimed was the secret to his success: “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” It’s a brilliant summation of his approach to his craft and he was, above all, a master craftsman.

And a musician at heart. And a romantic, whose characters often fall quickly and deeply in love, like Vincent and Linda Moon in Glitz, or escaped convict Jack Foley and Marshal Karen Cisco in Out of Sight.

Above all, he was a true original. One can argue there would have been no Raymond Chandler without Dashiell Hammett before him; no Ross Macdonald without Chandler; and no Parker, Crais or Lehane without that first great triumvirate before them.

But Leonard owed nothing to anyone. He forged his own path from the harsh Western landscapes of the Arizona Territory to Detroit and beyond. He created his own brand of hero and a fantastic collection of bad guys.

“Wonderful things can happen when you plant seeds of distrust in a garden of assholes,” says Vincent Mora in Glitz.

It would be hard to come up with a better description of what Elmore Leonard did for more than 40 years. His garden of assholes is Babylonian in nature. It pains me to know there will be no more books forthcoming. No more good guys like Vincent, no more bad guys like Boyd Crowder. But I do have a shelf full of his books that have given me enormous pleasure since I first picked up a copy of Swag in a used bookstore in 1984, read the first page, and was instantly hooked. And they will keep giving me pleasure until the last one crumbles from overuse.

A Baker’s Dozen: 13 raves for Miss Montreal

Jul 19, 2013

If you don’t have time to read all the rave reviews that have been coming in for Miss Montreal, here are excerpts from the first thirteen I’ve seen.

“Maturing as one of recent crime fiction’s shining stars, his latest effort will resonate with anyone who knows [Montreal], and earn Shrier many new followers… a topical plot full of twists and virtually nonstop action. All in all, Miss Montreal is the strongest entry in an already very strong series.” – Jim Napier, January Magazine

“A great crime romp through our city. Shrier gets Montreal right. The grittiness, the contradictions, the corruption, the politics — even the potholes.” – Francois Lauzon, Montreal Gazette

“Alongside the thrills, we get a trip through a city that Shrier knows intimately and loves utterly. Montreal is more than a background, it’s a character in the novel, as L.A. is to Chandler or Boston to Parker. This is the best Jonah Geller book yet.” – Margaret Cannon, Globe and Mail

“The best and liveliest [Geller book] so far… Crime novels featuring able, sympathetic investigator bonded with rough-and-tumble, harder-edged buddy constitute a familiar formula, but it’s a formula that, done right, can be winningly fun to read. In Miss Montreal, Howard Shrier does it right — and does so thoughtfully, in the context of some important, current issues while he’s about it.” – Joan Barfoot, London Free Press

“A smart mix of deduction, instinct and being in the worst place at the best possible time. Jonah Geller can’t ever escape the darkness that haunts him, but there’s a sense—despite the dangers that befall him—that he has a better-than-even chance of making good with a bit of light.” – Sarah Weinman, National Post

“Montreal’s hectic vibrancy, ethnic tensions and political shenanigans are well-captured and should translate exotically south of the border… Geller’s perilous and hilarious exploits with ex-contract killer Ryan (surely one of the more inventive rich crime-lit pairings) muscle this tale along… Go, discover Geller. Because Shrier is in hot pursuit of a best-novel three-peat.” – John Sullivan, Winnipeg Free Press

“Shrier portrays the city with the eye of a true connoisseur. His characters are as vivid as the streets – smart, wisecracking and less than squeaky clean. And Geller is that perfect mix of tough and compassionate. Miss Montreal is one of those books you can’t put down. It’s a great addition to the world of crime fiction and a must-read for fans of La Belle Ville.” NNNN – Lesley McAllister, NOW Magazine

“Geller’s voice is smart, funny and contemporary. This summer read features fast cars, wisecracks and guns galore — what more could a reader ask for?” Joann Alberstat, Halifax Chronicle Herald

“Shrier has clearly not lost touch with Montreal and its ever-volatile social, political, cultural and crime scenes… It’s his knowledge of the city’s inner workings that makes his latest caper so credible — and frighteningly so.” – Bill Brownstein, Montreal Gazette.

“My pick of the month for June… Well worth reading. Someone should make a movie out of this.” – Richard King, Global TV (AM Reads Book Club)

“This fast-paced mystery features both action movie-worthy car chases and a nuanced portrayal of tensions between Quebec’s cultural groups — with vivid accounts of the city’s famous neighbourhoods and seedy underbelly.” – Jillian Bell, Chatelaine (Summer book club pick.)

“Shrier’s books are consistent in tone and depth, smartly written mysteries that rarely telegraph where they’re going. Miss Montreal deftly focuses on Canada’s most unique city, dealing with its perpetual nationalistic French-English divide, current immigration concerns including integrating a sometimes hostile Muslim population as well as hearkening back to the city’s storied past. It’s another ambitious but successful book, proof positive that Shrier is one of the finest mystery writers extant.” – Shlomo Schwartzberg, criticsatlarge.ca

“Howard Shrier has done a fantastic job with the setting. Descriptions of Montreal, the inhabitants and the current atmosphere are all detailed and ring true. The plotting was excellent and frighteningly believable. Simmering racial and cultural tensions on many fronts, the separatist movement, political machinations, terrorism and more populate this fast-paced novel. Fans of the crime genre, I encourage you to discover this award winning Canadian series.” Luanne Ollivier, A Bookworm’s World

Rap Sheet Giveaway

May 22, 2013

https://www.facebook.com/#!/jkingston.pierce/posts/461569410592584?notif_t=mention

Blogger J. Kingston Pierce, founding editor of the long-running Rap Sheet crime blog, is giving away seven copies of Miss Montreal to mark his seventh anniversary with the site. Check it out!

Update: Here’s list of the winners, including Crime Writers of Canada member Alison Scarrow.

http://therapsheet.blogspot.ca/2013/05/is-miss-montreal-coming-to-your-home.html

Miss Montreal launch at the Dora Keogh

May 15, 2013

The official launch of my new Jonah Geller novel, Miss Montreal, takes place Tuesday, May 28, 6-8 p.m. at the Dora Keogh Pub on Danforth just east of Broadview. Come hear a reading, get a book signed, have a drink and a meal, meet new or old friends or all of the above.

Hope to see you there.

The Next Big Thing: Miss Montreal

Dec 06, 2012

THE NEXT BIG THING: MISS MONTREAL

What is the working title of your next book?

Miss Montreal.

Where did the idea come from?

I was born and raised in Montreal and wanted to set a book there that reflected some of the political and linguistic tensions for which the city (and province of Quebec ) are known.

What genre best defines your book?

First-person P.I. thriller.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Besides me?(Hey, I trained in theatre back in the last century.) I’ve always liked Zach Braff for his humour and openness, though I’m not sure he has the physical presence to play a martial artist like Jonah Geller. Same for David Krumholz of Numb3rs fame. Has the look and feel of Jonah but if kind of small (not that that discouraged the makers of Jack Reacher from hiring a certain height-challenged actor).

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Toronto PI Jonah Geller and former hit man Dante Ryan investigate the murder of a Montreal journalist who got caught up in religious fanaticism, gunrunning and politics.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It is represented by the Helen Heller Agency and will be published by Random House Canada May 28, 2013.

How long did it take you to write the first draft?

About six months, once the bulk of the research was done. That’s about average for my books so far.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I’ve been favourably compared to Robert B. Parker and Robert Crais—I’ll take those two any day.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I live in Toronto and have written about Buffalo, Chicago and Boston—but never Montreal. I thought it was time to set a story in my home town, and have just begun work on another book that takes place there in 1950, when it was Canada’s version of Havana or Vegas.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Jonah finally gets the girl in this book, which he had previously failed to do. The colour of Montreal, the grit and glamour, make for a great setting.  There’s more of Dante Ryan in this one, which will please readers who love that character. And it has the same blend of action, humour and heart fans of Jonah Geller expect.

Now for the tags: Look for their posts next week and consider trying…their Next Big Thing!

Jill Edmondson, Sean Chercover, Rick Blechta.