“I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue,” Elmore Leonard wrote
when elaborating on his Rule No. 10.
Not if it was his, I didn’t.
Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, USA — Hollywood Sign — Image by © Robert Landau/CORBIS
Wilson Mizner described Tinsel Town as “a trip through a sewer in a glass-bottomed boat”, a dream factory where crass commercialism regularly trumps art. Even so, literary heavyweights like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Evelyn Waugh labored in the lucrative Hollywood trenches as screenwriters. Beneath the glitz and glamour, grim reality served up plenty of juicy material. Swimming with the showbiz sharks paid off.
There was no one better at it than Elmore Leonard. His books-into-movies were blockbuster films. Early in his career, he worked for Chevrolet and smoked packs of Virginia Slims. Leonard wrote ad copy (“Wait’ll you feel what torsion springs have done for truck handling”) but, in the wee hours of morning, met his personal goal of two pages every day. One prolific guy.
For years he wrote short stories and stored them in a box in the basement. Recently, his son Peter and daughter Jane, brushed them off, typed them up, and published them as a collection, Charlie Martz and Other Stories: The Unpublished Stories. It’s pure “Elmore unfiltered, warts and all.” Expect gunfights, bloody ends, and furtively planned attacks delivered with Elmore Leonardesque snappy dialogue and wry humor.
I loved the movie Get Shorty. So did Elmore Leonard, my pick for the éminence gris of crime fiction. If I want to read a good story about bad guys, well, Leonard is ’nuff-said brilliant.
Hollywood is full of Leonard fans. Studios have been making movies out of his western stories and crime novels since the 1950s. He might be called a genre writer but he’s taken seriously, very seriously, by the literary crowd. So, how does he do it?
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.
Well, I started this post intending to write about Hollywood novels like The Last Tycoon (Fitzgerald) and The Loved One (Waugh). But I’m both chronically distracted and thoroughly smitten by Elmore.
Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard
Nobody writes openings like Elmore Leonard.
There’s bad blood between Chili Palmer and Ray Bones, the guy who stole Chili’s coat and is now his boss. Bones has ordered him to collect $4,200 from a dead guy. Except the guy didn’t die; he went to Las Vegas with $300,000. So Chili goes to Las Vegas, one thing leads to another, and pretty soon he’s in Los Angeles, hanging out with a movie producer named Harry Zimm and learning what it takes to be a player in Hollywood.
Leonard hits the comic bulls-eye with this laugh-out-loud page-turner full of zingy one-liners about a small-time loan shark chin-deep in colorful lowlifes.
Be Cool by Elmore Leonard
In the sequel to Get Shorty, Leonard pokes fun at the Hollywood scene and the task of a sequel writer. He takes readers on a back-side tour of Tinseltown’s other big business—the music industry.
If an adverb became a character in one of my books, I’d have it shot. Immediately.
The Hot Kid by Elmore Leonard
Slick cars, speakeasies, bank robbers, and shoot-outs in Oklahoma during the 20s and 30s ~ another joy ride with crackling dialogue and characters that jump off the page. “I like ’em all, but if one doesn’t work, I’ll have him shot.”
And then there’s Swag, where you root for the crooks.
Killshot has Leonard’s best-ever opening chapter. Freaky Deaky is full of articulate profane dudes involved in a slippery scheme.
Raylan is about a drily witty cop who shoots villains without blinking an eye.
In Elmore Leonard capers, you always know very soon who killed whom, who is in charge of the scam, what the criminal’s plan is. What fills the novels – joyously, incomparably – is talk. And it’s brilliant.
Disreputable characters. Colorful lowlifes. Such entertaining company.
All his literary life, Elmore Leonard was writing and rewriting, making his pages sing. And, yes, sometimes he even broke his own rules.
When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio’s on South Collins and had his leather jacket ripped off.