EMMET MEARA

Nothing tops ‘mordant, flippant’ novels of Elmore Leonard

Posted Feb. 09, 2012, at 3:58 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 10, 2012, at 3:14 p.m.
Emmet Meara
Emmet Meara

It was so long ago that I cannot remember when I was first exposed to Elmore Leonard, the acknowledged leader of the American crime novel. Give me a break. Leonard is 86 and he has written 44 novels of present-day crime and the Old West, many of which made it to the silver screen.

I blame Leonard and Robert B. Parker for warping what was left of my mind and causing a serious Amazon.com addiction. I now have 31 books waiting on my Amazon “cart.” The bookcase and the closets are filled with crime novels. There are bags full and boxes full. Still, I order more.

There are none better than Leonard’s. I suspect the first one I read was “52 Pickup,” which was made into a movie with Ann Margaret as the luscious kidnap victim. If I don’t have all the Leonard works, I certainly have most of them. It took me a decade after watching “Hombre” to learn that it was based on a Leonard short story.

“You got a lot of hard bark on you coming down here without that money,” Richard Boone rasps to the doomed Paul Newman.

Leonard has been described as “mordant and flippant.” I like that. His dialogue is always precious. You never know who is going to get shot or double-crossed or simply left in the motel with all the money gone. New York (ptui!) newspaper columnist Mike Lupica has said, “The next best thing to reading Elmore Leonard is rereading him.”

He has penned his 10 rules for writing, which you should look up some day. But his most important rule is, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Naturally, I had to examine “Justified,” a television show loosely based on Leonard’s character and book, now in its third season. The show was originally recommended by Fashionably Bohemian Bob, who is seldom wrong on these matters. (Alas, he does listen to Eminem). It is a wonderful show, but it comes on at 10 p.m. Tuesdays, which is past my bedtime. Between falling asleep and all those damn commercials, it is tough to concentrate. Actually, it is now tough to concentrate on anything, but I digress.

This week, I rented the “Justified” disc from Netflix. Three hours of uninterrupted Raylan Givens, my favorite deputy U.S. Marshal. The title comes from the description Givens delivers after each shooting of a bad guy.

“It was justified,” he testifies. But we know that Givens likes it all a little too much. The show has been called a “present-day western,” even if it takes place in Kentucky.

Givens (the wry Timothy Olyphant) shot so many bad guys in Miami that he was transferred to Kentucky, of all places. Luckily, Givens grew up in the coal mines of Kentucky and knows almost all of the bad guys moving “hillbilly heroin” (OxyContin) through the area. Givens has to hurry to shoot these hillbillies because they shoot each other at the drop of a hat. The women do, too.

I watch the show in a bulletproof vest, just in case.

I know it sounds frightfully violent, but it’s also very funny. In one scene, Givens confronts a very bad guy on the lawn. The very bad guy is joined by a bad guy and they both get the drop on our boy. Givens knows both their backgrounds, drops a few informer secrets and gets them so mad at each other that they shoot and kill each other. In a classic Leonard scene, Givens then drives away, unharmed.

Now, the television show is not written totally by Leonard. But the writers admit they try to get as close to the master as possible. Close enough for television. The character of Givens originally appeared in “Fire in the Hole.”

Givens is so cool that he actually wears a 10-gallon hat and gets away with it. His relationship with his long-lost father, another desperado, is so complicated that I smell a shootout in their familial future. I have two more discs on order to confirm the body count.

Naturally, a man as wonderful and talented as Leonard started out in newspapers. In 1978, a Detroit editor (like hillbillies, some of them are all right) thought it would be fun to assign reporter Leonard to the homicide squad to get a nice feature. “Dutch” Leonard listened carefully. He is still writing that Detroit story, in novels and on Tuesday nights in “Justified.”

Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at emmetmeara@msn.com.

SEE COMMENTS →

ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business
ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business

Similar Articles

More in Living