Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Top 10 Elmore Leonard books: #8

The most recent entry on the list and in some ways the book he was born to write.

8. The Hot Kid, 2005

It seems fitting that Elmore would write a book about the Prohibition/Depression Era, which he grew up in during his early years. You just didn’t think it would take close to 55 years since his debut to write one. Nevertheless, it is a wondrous piece of work and easily the best book he has written in the 21st Century.

Like last week’s Get Shorty, the book deals with a number of characters looking for fame and fortune. Difference is fame and fortune often comes with the caveat of death. Jack Belmont, the antagonist of the novel, has no qualms about death as long as he’s the one dealing. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shop, but what he lacks for in brains he more than makes up for in tenacity and violent aggression.

The protagonist, Carlos Webster, isn’t too far removed from Belmont. The difference being he’s a U.S. Marshal and is more likely to deliver violence to those who deserve it. In a lot of ways, he’s very similar to Raylan Givens, who would have been right at home in the 1920’s setting. Carlos is a little more restrained and a little more aware, but the parallels are obvious and hard to ignore.

Leonard even has some fun with a little self-awareness in Tony Antonelli, who has a habit of breaking the rules Elmore Leonard set down in 2000. Antonelli, like the others, is looking to strike it big, but he’s more comfortable on the sidelines and orating in such a way that calls attention to the writer instead of the story. Practice makes perfect. Elmore cut his teeth in the Western genre for close to two decades and he had his share of bumps along the way, but he learned the game and in an interesting way he’s come full circle with this book.

While Leonard spends more time with backstory than he has in previous novels, the vignettes and characters are among his strongest and Leonard’s love of the prohibition/depression era and the characters and myths and heroes are front and center.

Fun fact: Veterans of Leonard’s novels will of course recognize Carlos Webster’s father Virgil as one of the main characters of his 1998 novel Cuba Libre.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Top 10 Elmore Leonard books: #9

Arguably the most well-known of Elmore's books slides into the #9 slot.

9. Get Shorty, 1990

By 1990 the “Dickens of Detroit” had found a second home in Miami for his novels, which served as the primary setting for many of his works in the 1980’s. Get Shorty starts in Miami before going to his unofficial “third” home: Los Angeles. His debut on the West Coast is a great look at the people looking to strike it rich in Tinseltown. The book isn’t quite as overt or as funny as the very good 1995 film by Barry Sonnenfeld, but as a story it still works.

Chili Palmer, introduced to us in one of those long first chapter intros that has been a Leonard trademark for years, has dreams and aspirations of hitting it big in Hollywood. He has a good story, drawn mostly from real life, and characters like Harry Zimm, Karen Flores and Leo Devoe, our hapless, “dead” drycleaner who gets the story rolling, are among the people he encounters looking for a second lease on life. Or at least a brief flash of glory.

Harry Zimm, who is a notch or two below “B” movies, sees a chance at the big time with an original screenplay that has Oscar potential and an A-list star interested. Problem? He’s got limo drivers who deal drugs on the side on his ass over investment money he wasted trying to buy the “legit” property. He also has trouble making inroads to the “A” list star, Michael Weir, who happens to be Karen’s ex (Harry also used to be in a relationship with Karen) because he isn’t on the “ins” with mainstream Hollywood.

Chili’s impact on these characters is what keeps the story going and the individual scenes make up for some of the scenes involving Bo Catlett and Bones, who aren’t quite as interesting as the rest of the characters.

There are also some playful digs at Hollywood, who had screwed up Elmore’s stories once too often. By 1990, the only decent adaptations were the original 3:10 to Yuma, Hombre, and 52 Pickup. And 1989 saw the release of Cat Chaser with Peter Weller and Kelly McGillis. Another bomb. He also had to deal with the prima-donna side of Hollywood when trying to get LaBrava made because Dustin Hoffman was a tad difficult, shall we say. You think Elmore forgot? Guess again.

Get Shorty is definitely one of the most accessible of Elmore’s novels and a very good choice for a newbie looking to enter the Leonard canon.

Fun facts: Jimmy Cap is seen off-stage in this book, but he’s been seen or referenced in a few other novels including the aforementioned Cat Chaser and Raylan’s debut in Pronto, where he finally met his end.

Movie capsule review: The movie by Barry Sonnenfeld is, like a love letter to Hollywood. The more classic films you know, the better the experiences. References to Rio Bravo, Touch of Evil and James Cagney? Not bad. John Travolta does his performance in Pulp Fiction one better as Chili and Gene Hackman, Rene Russo and Danny Devito are clearly having fun playing Hollywood caricatures. The violence never seems to work all that well because the comedy is so good and so prevalent, but it’s a minor quibble. And hey, it’s better than Be Cool, which never happened. Grade: A-

Monday, February 6, 2012

Top 10 Elmore Leonard books: #10

I'm still working out the kinks for this formula, but figure they'll be more detailed as we go along.

10. Unknown Man #89, 1977

Elmore Leonard’s follow-up to 52 Pickup and Swag opened with a setup that he would use time and time again: The short story as the first chapter.

The first chapter of an Elmore Leonard novel often seems disjointed and out of sync with everything going on. It doesn’t always have to do with the main plot and it feels more like straight narration. The opening chapter is often essential in establishing the main character for Leonard’s narrative, though sometimes that isn’t always the case (see Rum Punch and Killshot).

In Leonard’s 1977 caper, he introduces us to Detroit process server Jack Ryan (no, not that Jack Ryan), who was in the 1969 crime novel The Big Bounce. The previous novel is not required reading, though recommended. In fifteen short pages, he fleshes out the character’s personality, his past, and even offers a few vignettes that run from sad to funny and, in one case involving a doctor, both.

The opening chapter technique is something he has repeated in numerous novels including Get Shorty, Tishomingo Blues, The Hot Kid and many more.

How is the rest of the novel? Very good. Ryan is a more sympathetic hero than in the previous 1970’s crime novels. Stick and Harry Mitchell aren’t bad guys, but they aren’t terribly sympathetic, either. They’re made good by the characters they associate themselves with. Ryan is flawed, but he looks really good compared to the cast he surrounds himself with. None is worse than Raymond Gidre, a racist sociopath with a few memorable scenes where his penchant for murder hits home. Even the guy Ryan is looking for at the start of the book, Robert Leary, has a few murders on his sheet.

The story doesn’t always hit dead center, but the pace is very strong and it was clear, even then, that Elmore Leonard was going to be something special in the crime genre. He had the dialogue skills of George V. Higgins and a lot more skill at prose. If you need proof, just read that opening chapter and find yourself being sucked into a world that seems long and forgotten.

Fun fact: Jack Ryan is mentioned by name in the previous Elmore Leonard novel, Swag, by Sportree, the main antagonist of that novel. I suppose that name-check is what inspired Leonard, though it is also possible he might have been working on both at the same time.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The top 10 Elmore Leonard books overview

It is impossible to overstate the influence Elmore Leonard has had on me and many other crime novelists in this game. He's been writing for sixty years, starting in Westerns, and then moving on to the crime genre in the late sixties when the Western genre pretty much keeled over and died in fiction. His dialogue and prose are virtually unmatched. Authors like Hemingway, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Richard Bissell and George V. Higgins, in particular, helped shape his voice, but he has proven over the years that he is not an imitator. He follows his own path and the authors who have followed in his footsteps now they are looking up at him. Authors like George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Richard Price, Michael Connelly, and James Ellroy have all been influenced in some way by his work and have made their own names with their work, but to a degree their paths wouldn't be possible without Leonard's.

I started looking for a list of the best Elmore's, but I had a hard time finding one. There are a number of camps for what they believe to be his best era and they are quite passionate in their own way. Some prefer the gritty 70's stories in Detroit, some prefer his Miami era during the early 1980's, some like his more humorous side in the 1990's, and there are even a few, I bet, that like his diverse setting pattern in the 2000's to the present. You even have a few die-hards who love his Westerns best. He has definitely done good work in all the eras, so starting tomorrow I'll be counting down 10-1 his best novels, one a week, and the final one will coincide with the season 3 finale of Justified.

What's the criteria? Nothing major. Great writing, great characters, and elements that make me want to read it again. I don't expect this to be the definitive list, but if nothing else it'll be a fun rip through some of the best novels written by the greatest crime novelist ever. I'll throw in some critical analysis and favorite scenes and favorite character and what have you.

So get ready for some fun. I know I'll be.