When I heard that novelist Elmore Leonard has died this morning I felt as though I had gone into double mourning. Once for one of my favourite authors ever and once for the city he had created in my mind’s eye.
My first contact with Leonard’s writing was Rum Punch when I was in high school. I was reading for english class and somehow I convinced my teacher that it was something of literary value*. What the teacher did not know, because the internet was still in its infancy, is that Rum Punch had just been released as a feature film under the title, Jackie Brown. I was fully ready to just watch a great Tarantino movie and write a report about it instead of reading a book. But my laziness was foiled, I started to read the book just out of boredom one day. By the time I put the book down I was 1/3 of the way through. I was hooked.
Growing up across the river from Detroit, the city always loomed large to me. There was always a small sense of danger about going over to Detroit that the city wasn’t 100% safe but in reality was just as safe as Windsor as long as you didn’t venture too far off the beaten path. Elmore Leonard had something to do with that image. Even in his stories set elsewhere, Detroit was integral to the feel of Leonard’s work. Every mysterious or foreboding character in Leonard’s stories hailed from, had roots in or had met the other characters in the story in; Detroit. Few authors have forged such a loving relationship with their hometown.
As a writer, Leonard did a bunch of things well and as a curator of the American experience he was a strong advocate of inclusion in his writing. His writing was readable, it clipped along at a breakneck pace and you could rip through one of his novels in a couple afternoons. At the same time he was able to weave complex characters, serpentine plots and legitimately funny dialogue into down to earth utterly readable prose. Possibly most amazing, was the fact that he was a white guy who could write strong female characters and intelligent black characters during a time when he did not have to do that. He didn’t get political correctness points for doing this, it was just his choice to include voices that were not in the literary mainstream and that choice paid off.**
Most of the obits I’ve read today talked about the huge swath of Leonard’s work that has been adapted by Hollywood or have mentioned his early career as a writer of Western novels and short stories. Those are all notable achievements of Leonard and I have enjoyed many of those adaptations. From 3:10 to Yuma, to Justified, to Out of Sight, Leonard’s ability to write quick, street wise, smart assed dialogue and have other writers be able to slip into his skin and write in his voice is spectacular. I feel however, it was his ability to build an entire city in his reader’s minds that made him truly great.
Rest In Peace Elmore Leonard and Rest in Peace to your Detroit.
*I think Leonard is vastly more valuable than some The Chrysalides and one could assume that she felt bad for making us read the insufferable crap contained in the grade 11 english curriculum. I credit her for being openminded or apathetic enough to buy my argument.
**For at least a few years in my teens I assumed (incorrectly) that Elmore Leonard was black because he wrote black character so well. That, and he is a charter member of white guys who have names that make them sound black. Reggie Cleveland, Grady Sizemore and Ty Wiggington are the other three men on that Mount Rushmore.