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Geek obsession: Elmore Leonard
Why it’s daunting: On the surface, getting into Elmore Leonard doesn’t seem all that daunting. The man writes endlessly accessible tales of cops and robbers, ordinary people tossed into extraordinary circumstances, and the men who tamed the Wild West. It also doesn’t hurt that many of the man’s works have been adapted into movies and TV series, with at least a handful of those adaptations rising to the level of being genuinely engaging and entertaining products. His fans include everyone from Martin Amis to Stephen King. From all appearances, Leonard should be one of the easiest great, living American writers to dig into, yet he’s not exactly a household name, even after so many of his books have been adapted so successfully.
Why? Well, Leonard’s sheer amount of output is, to put it mildly, daunting. He’s written just under 50 novels, and he continues to turn out a new book nearly every year, well into his eighties. While few of these books are particularly dense, just sorting through all of them to find the really good ones, the ones that would get prospective Leonard fans hooked, is something few have the time to do. It also doesn’t help that he favors genres that aren’t held in the highest of esteem; many of his earliest works are Westerns, a genre that hasn’t been popular in American fiction in decades.
But the best of Leonard combines the intensity of noir-ish crime fiction with peerlessly drawn characters and snappy dialogue so perfectly pitched that it almost begs to be read aloud. Plus, Leonard has written enough great books that intrigued readers could probably go to the local bookstore, pick one at random, and likely find a pretty good one. Still, a few duds lurk in Leonard’s output, even among the popular novels that keep getting reprinted.
Possible gateway: Out Of Sight
Why: Leonard’s 1996 novel is now more famous for its (very good) 1998 film adaptation by the young and hungry Steven Soderbergh, eager to prove he could work within the studio system, but the original novel is just as good. (It’s not an insult to either book or film to say that people’s preferences may rely on which they encountered first.) Long-time bank robber Jack Foley manages an escape from prison, but he simply lands back in the soup, confronted by the beautiful, endlessly confident federal marshal Karen Sisco. His man tosses her into the trunk of the getaway car, Foley climbs in after her, and the rest is enjoyably twisty from there on out. Leonard frequently returns to ideas of what makes crime wrong, of what makes people devote their lives to the seemingly thankless pursuit of criminals, and of what separates legal from illegal. Out Of Sight dabbles in all of these themes, but it contains many of Leonard’s best characters as well, including the central twosome, who engage in a dance that seems just as likely to end with them destroying each other as it does with them falling in love. Leonard manages to find a way out of the “cop and criminal fall for each other” clichés without betraying his characters, and the dialogue is among his best.
Next steps: Leonard’s favorite of his novels is Tishomingo Blues, an often hilarious 2002 novel featuring a panoply of characters in Mississippi. It’s almost certainly the best book ever to feature the Dixie mafia, Deep South casinos, high divers, and Civil War re-enactors. Unlike Out Of Sight, the thriller elements here are exceedingly slight. The book is more of an excuse for Leonard to toss a bunch of characters together in a vaguely exotic setting and see what happens when they start talking to each other. But it’s among Leonard’s funniest books Leonard, and after the relatively simple Out Of Sight, it’ll show everything that Leonard is capable of at his very best. (Some fans swear off the novel for its sprawling plot and large cast of characters, but they’re often too wedded to his more straightforward thrillers to appreciate Leonard’s wilder tales.)
From there, another novel that resulted in a stellar movie would make a nice next stop. Rum Punch inspired Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 film Jackie Brown, but Tarantino’s adaptation of that book was much looser than most Leonard adaptations. Although he kept many of the basic plot points, he changed enough other details that people who’ve seen the film will find Rum Punch an enjoyably new experience and Leonard’s most traditionally Hitchcockian tale of suspense. As flight attendant Jackie Burke attempts to outsmart assorted criminals to keep a wad of cash she’s muling for a local lowlife, she gets wiser to the rules of the game as the novel unfolds. Like most Leonard, the book keeps a sense of humor about itself, but it’s also slightly darker than many of his other works, as the characters often get caught in deeply desperate straits.
Another good candidate for a next step is Leonard’s 1988 novel, Freaky Deaky, which finds Leonard in subtly political territory as he contrasts the realities on the ground in ’80s Detroit with the hopes and dreams his characters had during the ’60s. It’s more in line with the grittier, more traditional crime novels Leonard wrote in the ’80s, but has a well-drawn cast of characters and neatly incorporates stories of how dreams fade. It’s one of his unexpectedly poignant works, but also a pretty terrific crime thriller with explosions aplenty.
After that, the sky’s the limit. “Fire In The Hole,” which appeared in the 2002 anthology When The Women Come Out To Dance (and available online), features one of Leonard’s most intriguing good guys, Raylan Givens, the inspiration for FX’s Justified. Other possibilities for follow-ups could include 1969’s The Big Bounce, 1974’s 52 Pick-Up, or 1989’s Killshot.
Where not to start: Leonard’s most recent novels have their moments, but are often bloated and missing pleasures of his classic works. In particular, 2010’s Djibouti isn’t bad, but certainly won’t give new readers the best sense of Leonard’s accomplishments. On the flipside of that coin, 1983’s fantastic LaBrava, which won the Edgar Award, has a twisty plot and convoluted back-story that may be too dense for newcomers.