Elmore Leonard—Telling It Like It Is

Hollywood noticed Elmore Leonard long before the publishing critics did.
Hollywood noticed Elmore Leonard long before the publishing critics did.
Stuff happens.

In our lives these events are seen as accidental turns of bad luck, meeting the wrong person, saying the worst thing possible.

Most of the time we don’t perceive them as life-changing epochs in our personal history. Only later, as we look back, do we perceive them as coulda, woulda, shoulda, if-only milestones.

Since books are tales told, events can be seen as enormous portents of change, harbingers of things to come—usually doom. The author, in third person omniscient or first person soothsayer, spins out the story telling us, “Hey, pay attention, this is important.”

Then there’s Elmore Leonard, and the people in his books who tell their stories in their own words and manners.

And it’s in the telling that his characters reveal themselves—society’s oddballs, goofballs, or those with big brass ones—usually without a plan; or with a plan that’s so f***ed up, there’s no way it will work. And yet we turn page after page and can’t wait to see how things turn out. The Washington Post says Leonard is, “the hippest, funniest national treasure in sight.”

Approaching ninety, Elmore has been writing since the 1950s. A remarkable feat in itself.

But to continue producing at such a high level of quality is amazing.

Leonard’s been called the “Dickens of Detroit” (Swag, City Primeval, and Split Images to name a few), yet his novels roam the globe—from Israel (The Hunted) to Havana (Cuba Libre) to Africa (Dijibouti and Pagan Babies), and all across America from beaches as far flung as Miami (Pronto), Palm Beach (Riding the Rap), and all the way to Venice (Road Dogs).

In a YouTube interview, Leonard said he doesn’t write mysteries. “But they’re all about a crime . . . whether from the police point of view or from the guy that’s perpetrating the crime.”

Swag by Elmore Leonard
Swag by Elmore Leonard
While most of Leonard’s characters are on the wrong side of the law or the wrong side of life, including a judge’s wife who communicates with a long-dead slave girl, a stigmatic who heals her worst enemy, gunrunners, body part thieves, and a rogues gallery of unusual suspects, two notables on the right side of the law—U.S. Marshals Karen Sisco and Raylan Givens—carve their own chapters in that genre of walking tall lawmen/women. Sisco takes time out to have hot afternoon hotel sex with Jack Foley, the man she’s pursuing; Raylan shoots first . . . and then shoots again.

Leonard’s characters, far too many to list here, aren’t exactly your BFFs or Facebook buddies. Whether it’s conflicted priest Terry Dunn or high-diving daredevil Dennis Lenahan or con man turned Hollywood producer Chili Palmer or sexy bombshell of a 1940s housewife, Honey Deal, they all have a life that seems to go beyond the pages of their novels. But it’s in those pages that they tell their stories to you so direct, without embellishment, that you come to feel like you’re part of the story.

Leonard’s ear for dialogue is pitch-perfect; almost as if he’s bugged the room with a secret tape recorder and he’s just putting it down for us. This isn’t Elmore Leonard writing, it’s these people talking!

People talking plans. Get-rich plans. Get-even plans. Get out of town with the money, the dame, or whatever larcenous dream they need to make come true plans. And in that pursuit, they’re going to succeed (briefly), fail (inevitably), scheme (constantly), have sex, kill, rob, bring to justice, and whatever other aspects of the human condition you can think of with or without a thesaurus.

“Characters are more important to me than plot,” Leonard said in a 2006 TV interview. The characters have to introduce themselves to him. “I make up my books as I go along. I don’t stop and try to outline a whole book because that’s a waste of time. Because you’re going to get better ideas much later on . . . I don’t ever know all the way through what’s going to happen. I always use the characters’ point of view and leave me out of it.”

His characters not only have a point of view, they also have a code. Funky maybe, but one which they live by. Robert Taylor (Tishomingo Blues) is a drug dealer who deals weed to pay for his college tuition but, “wouldn’t sell heroin to students.” Cowboy Ben Tyler (Cuba Libre) only robs banks at which people who owe him money have their savings. Dawn Navarro (Riding the Rap and Road Dogs) only sleeps with men who can help her steal a fortune—the fact that these three men are also after that same fortune and trying to double-cross each other is only a minor setback. And certainly nothing that she planned.

Stuff happens.

Two very different writers, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park, say that if your next scene is “And then . . .” you are in trouble. What it should say is “Therefore . . .” or “But . . .”


Riding the Rap by Elmore Leonard
Riding the Rap by Elmore Leonard
hat’s Elmore Leonard. King of the unexpected, but oh-so-natural outcome.

In his latest book, Raylan, the taciturn Marshal Givens goes after a nurse and her partner who steal a man’s kidneys. The “and then” progression would be they sell them on the black market. But this is an Elmore Leonard book. So instead, the “But” twist that sends the story off in a new direction, with more stuff happening, is that thieves try and sell the kidneys back to the owner.

Events ensue. None of them planned. All of them startling.

Raylan almost loses his kidneys to the body part thieves. A female coal mining executive shotguns an old man who owns property the coal company wants. And Jackie Nevada, a college coed that Raylan has the hots for, beats some high-rolling card sharks at Texas Hold ’Em for a million dollars:

“I’m callin’ your bluff, hon.” He drops the chips in the pot and shows his hand. “Beat two pair, aces over cowboys.

Jackie turning up her ace in the hole: “A set, Mr. Moody, three bullets.”

Art as life.

Told to us as if we were there with the storyteller.

And since in real life we don’t talk in complete sentences and make jumps in logic, Leonard sometimes tosses aside the rules of grammar to speed along the story. “I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.” This is part of his essay, “Ten Rules of Writing” (never open a book with the weather or a prologue, only use the verb “said” to carry dialogue, and never modify “said,” etc.) where his most important rule is the one that sums up the 10: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

He also hints: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Because while readers might skip through descriptions, they’ll never skip dialogue.

Leonard’s passion for writing gets passed along to his readers. He’s not above giving us a lesson within the context of his book, again through one of his characters just talking; although, just like his plots, it doesn’t seem what it is. In Get Shorty, Danny DeVito’s character (Shorty) says, “I went back to Bensonhurst just to hear you guys talk . . . I wanted to get the rhythms of the speech . . . it’s more like your attitude, your tone . . . Once I get into the authentic sounds of speech, the rhythms, I can actually get into their heads, I can actually think the way those guys do.”

Do tell, Mister Leonard, do tell.

John Geraci is an award-winning screenwriter who recently turned his talents to fiction. He looks forward to this December and the launching of his novel Dead Man Talking—a thriller set in a Southern California beach town where the dead bodies are beginning to outnumber the tanned ones.

Read all posts by John Geraci at Criminal Element.


  1. Saundra Peck

    Stuff so DOES happen!!! Gonna read this book…organ theft intrigues me.

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