Friday, June 28, 2013

Friday's Forgotten Books: Elmore Leonard Day, June 28, 2013

Todd Mason has offered to collect any posts next Friday. Thanks Todd!!

 (Information from Elmore Leonard's website)

Elmore Leonard was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, October 11, 1925 and moved to Detroit in 1934.
In high school a classmate gave him his nickname, “Dutch” after the Washington Senators “knuckleballer”, Emil “Dutch” Leonard. This stands as his nickname to this day.

In 1943, at the age of 17, Leonard graduated from The University of Detroit High School, and was  drafted and assigned to the Seabees, the fighting construction battalion of the United States Navy. He served for a little more than a year and a half in the Admiralty Islands and the Philippines.

Leonard enrolled in the University of Detroit and majored in English and Philosophy.
He married Beverly Cline in 1949 and went to work for the Campbell Ewald advertising agency. He soon became an ad writer but wrote Western stories on the side, selling mostly to pulp magazines, and to men’s magazines like Argosy, and one story to the Saturday Evening Post.

He chose westerns because he liked western movies and wanted to sell to Hollywood. Influenced by Ernest Hemingway, he applied Hemingway’s spare style of writing to his stories. For source material, Leonard focused on the Cavalry and Apaches of Southern Arizona in the 1880s. He wrote five western novels and thirty short stories in the 1950s, two of which sold to the movies: 3:10 to Yuma and The Tall T.

In 1961, Leonard quit his job at the ad agency to write full time. The western fiction market had dried up. But the demands of a growing family required him to take freelance advertising jobs instead.

After five years away from writing fiction, Leonard finished his first non-Western novel, The Big Bounce, buoyed by the sale of film rights to his novel Hombre. His Hollywood agent, the legendary H. N. Swanson read it and told him, “Kiddo, I’m going to make you rich.”

Leonard began selling his work to Hollywood on a regular basis. When his next novel, The Moonshine War sold, he wrote the screenplay. Screenwriting would give him the income to pursue his real goal: writing novels full time. 52 Pickup was published in 1974, the first of several novels set in his hometown, Detroit.

He read The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins and credits Higgins with showing him how to “loosen up” his writing and “get into scenes quicker.”

In 1984, LaBrava was voted the best novel by the Mystery Writers of America. The following year, Glitz appeared on the New York Times bestseller list and Leonard was touted as “the greatest living crime writer.”
Freaky Deaky, Killshot, Maximum Bob and his “Hollywood” book, Get Shorty, which in 1995 was made into a hit movie by Barry Sonnenfeld and catapulted him to even greater fame.
Two more successful film adaptations followed: Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, based on Rum Punch in 1997, and Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight in 1998.

In 2001, The New York Times published Leonard’s “Ten Rules of Writing” now famous among writers and critics featuring his axiom, “I try to leave out the parts that people tend to skip.” In 2007, the rules were made into a little book called Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, illustrated by Joe Ciardiello.

In 2005, at the age of 80, he wrote his fortieth novel, The Hot Kid, featuring his iconic marshal, Carl Webster, receiving some of the best reviews of his long career. That same year, he followed up with a 14 part serial novel for the New York Times Magazine entitled “Comfort to the Enemy.”  In 2006, he completed the Carl Webster saga with Up in Honey’s Room. He also went full circle, as the book was set in the Detroit of his youth.

That same year, he received the prestigious Cartier’s Diamond Dagger Award in England and The Raymond Chandler Award at the Noir in Festival in Courmayeur, Italy.

More awards followed:  The F. Scott Fitzgerald award in 2008; the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.

In late 2010, Djibouti was published; a fun romp through the world of Somali pirates and home grown Al Qaeda terrorists, seen through the eyes of a documentary filmmaker. 
Today, inspired by Justified, based on his novella, Fire in the Hole (2000), Elmore wrote his 45th novel, Raylan.  Parts of this novel have been incorporated into the second and third season of Justified.  “I can pick up Raylan’s story anywhere,” Elmore said.  It’s like visiting with an old friend.”
Elmore Leonard lives in Bloomfield Village, Michigan.  He has five children, twelve grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

Personal Note: I have heard Elmore Leonard speak twice about his career. He is a thrilling speaker, telling stories as long as the audience stays in their seats. He usually is accompanied by his son, Peter, also a novelist or his assistant.

Ed Gorman is the author of many westerns and crime fiction novels. I am especially fond of the Dev Conrad series. He also edits anthologies and writes short stories. You can find him here. 

"The basic structure of an Elmore Leonard plot," Larry Beinhart explains in How to Write a Mystery, "is that a big tough guy pushes a little tough guy. The little guy doesn't take it. He shoves back. The little guy is the kinda guy, the harder you shove him, the more trouble he's gonna be. In the end, the big guy really wishes he'd picked someone else to shove. When Leonard started he wrote westerns, and in those early books you can see the bones without an X-ray. I recommend Valdez Is Coming to anyone who wants to understand the structure of an Elmore Leonard novel."

Exactly and in all respects. One of the most enlightened and enlightening insights ever written about Leonard's work. 

Valdez is one of my favorite of the Leonard novels. The villain Frank Tanner is drawn in bile and blood and Valdez, thought by townspeople to be something of a loser, shines when reveals himself to be a former Army tracker and killer. 

The story is simple and straightforward. As part-time constable Valdez is tricked into killing an innocent man. Afterward, regretting what he's done, he asks Tanner and his cronies to at least chip in and give the dead man's widow some money. They treat him as if he were drunk and crazy. But he keeps on with his servile (he is a man who knows his place) until they begin to punish him. They crucify him as the cover depicts and leave him to death in the desert.

But he comes back to ask Tanner once again for the widow's money. Tanner declines and soon comes to regret it as Valdez now becomes the deadly man he was in his Army days.

We forget that in novels such as 52 Pick-Up and a few others Leonard had the power to hurt you. You see that especially in his western stories, the complete collection of which is readily available.

Elmore Leonard, Tishomingo Blues (2002)

I’ve read a lot of Elmore Leonard’s books since first discovering Unknown Man No. 89 back in 1981. His many virtues have been amply documented, starting with his dialogue and going on to such memorable characters as Chili Palmer and Raylan Givens. Sometimes the plots don’t hold together all the way to the end but in general Leonard provides quality entertainment nearly every time out.
Sometimes two or three years go by before I read his latest book, often leading to catching up with several I’d missed, but for whatever reason a decade went by before I picked up and read a copy of Tishomingo Blues. Maybe I thought it was set in the past, I don’t know, but I’m glad I finally got around to it.
The book is set in the Mississippi Delta report town of Tunica, Mississippi, not far from the crossroads on Highway 61 where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the Devil. Daredevil Dennis Lenahan makes a living diving from 80 feet up into a tank of water. Unfortunately, while he is getting read to dive he witnesses a Dixie Mafia murder. Also witnessing it is Detroit sharpie Robert Taylor, surely one of Leonard’s best characters. He’s down in Mississippi with a picture purporting to show his great grandfather’s lynching nearly 100 years earlier but he’s got an agenda of his own and he thinks Dennis can help him. Throw in his Detroit associates, Dixie drug dealers and a bunch of Civil War reenacters and you can could on Leonard to keep the balls in the air for several hundred entertaining pages. While this might not be among his best books it is an enjoyable and entertaining one and one I dare say you’ll enjoy.

Jeff Meyerson

Tishomingo Blues by Elmore Leonard
(Review by Deb)
Sometimes it doesn’t pay to know too much about the actual place where a work of fiction is set.  This might be one of the reasons I have never been able to get into James Lee Burke’s books—his Louisiana is unlike any Louisiana I have ever experienced, despite having lived here for many years.  But I figured I’d be fine when it came to Elmore Leonard’s Tishomingo Blues (published in 2002), set in Tunica, Mississippi, which is about a six-hour drive from where I live: close enough to understand, far enough away to happily suspend disbelief.
Tunica is in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, part of the Mississippi/Arkansas/Tennessee tri-state area, and close to many legendary Civil Rights and blues music landmarks, but is best known today for its string of Indian casinos and hotels. Wikipedia informs us that Tunica County is 70% African-American and 33% of its population lives below the poverty line; but this is not the Tunica of Leonard’s novel.  The Tunica of Tishomingo Blues is a place awash in casino money and the by-products of getting too much money too fast:  drugs, prostitution, corruption at all levels of government and law enforcement, shoddy building construction, a local workforce made compliant by the need to please the area’s largest employer, and the never-ending quest to persuade people to part with their money—by means fair or foul—all presided over by a loosely-organized group of good ol’ boys referred to variously as the Dixie Mafia, the Redneck Mafia, or the Cornbread Cosa Nostra.  This may indeed be the “true” Tunica—I wouldn’t know, which made Tishomingo Blues a much happier reading experience for me than, say, Tin Roof Blow Down.
Tishomingo Blues is a raucous tale of diver Dennis Lanahan, who performs dangerous high dives on the southern carnival circuit.  Growing tired of that nomadic lifestyle, he talks his way into a job at one of the newly-opened casinos in Tunica, where he’ll perform his high-dive act twice a day for casino patrons in exchange for not having to do all the travel, set-up, and take-down that is part of the carnival world.  In his new job, Dennis meets a wide variety of characters, some noble, some shady, some a little of both, all of whom will somehow play a part in the unfolding drama. 
Dennis first meets Charlie, a former baseball pitcher whose greatest achievements occurred in the minor leagues (he loves to dwell on his glory days striking out the likes of Don Mattingly and Wade Boggs, conveniently forgetting that he struck them out during their time in A-ball).  Charlie is sort of an unofficial greeter at the casino; he glad-hands the patrons, tells his baseball stories, and makes sure guests are inclined to open their wallets at the gambling tables.  Then there’s Robert, a black Detroit native, who is stringing out a very long and dangerous con in Tunica, involving an old photograph of a lynching, but who bonds with Dennis over their shared interest in Delta Blues music.
Dennis also meets (and, very soon after, beds) Vernice, a cocktail waitress of a certain age.  Vernice is an interesting character and one I suspect to be close to the truth of the economies of a place supported more and less by legalized gambling:  a middle-aged woman who’s been around the block a time or two, not a lot of formal education but plenty of life experience, but with limited economic prospects, who ends up working at one of the few jobs available in the area, knowing that much of her earning power rests on the increasingly difficult job of appearing young enough and attractive enough for the largely-male clientele of the casino.
While practicing for his first dive, 80-feet above a small pool, Dennis witnesses the murder of the man assigned to be his assistant.  Dennis didn’t care much for the taciturn and unpleasant man, but by inadvertently witnessing his murder, Dennis has a target on his own back and must save his own skin by joining forces with Robert, while playing cat-and-mouse with the murderers, the out-of-town investigator, the casino owner, a high-rolling gambler and his glamorous trophy wife, the owner of a company that builds substandard prefab housing, and a multitude of other characters, all of whom are connected in one way or another with the murdered man and his murderers and most of whom are participating in an upcoming Civil War battle reenactment.
There’s a lot going on in this book—one might be tempted to say a little too much—and it takes a while to keep the characters straight, especially when many of them talk in an interchangeable way (you could take a quote out-of-context and no know if it was uttered by a fatuous white Civil War re-enactor or a black man straight out of Detroit).  Everyone seems to immediately know all the Leonard pop-culture touchstones (blues music, the movie Shane), but contemporary references often seem blurred.  However, the whiz-bang plot and lightening fast-action make up from any failures in character differentiation or contemporary culture.  There will be other deaths, other betrayals, other surprises. Suffice to say, Dennis must use all his wits (and, occasionally, a gun) in order to keep himself alive and all the people who want him dead at bay.  Meanwhile, we get an interesting look at casino culture in a small (i.e., not Vegas or Atlantic City) town and the kind of world where every character is familiar with the obscurest battles of the Civil War and keep them alive by re-enacting them.  (Side note:  I’ve lived in the south off-and-on for almost half of my life and I’ve never seen a Civil War re-enactment and have never met a person who has participated in one.)
As I finished this book, it occurred to me that the “Dixie Noir” genre has essentially replaced those hillbilly pulps that always featured nubile Daisy-Mae types on the cover.  I suppose the south, with its complicated racial history that is still being played out today, vast areas of undeveloped land and untapped resources, and a rather lamentable tendency on the part of some to exploit these things for economic gain, will always provide rich soil for writers.  Whether Tishomingo Blues is any closer to the “true” south than God’s Little Acre, I’ll leave that for others to decide.


A more recent collection is more comprehensive, but this is the collection I read and most enjoyably. Three stories caught my attention. 

THE TONTO WOMAN is the story of a woman scorned by her husband after she is captured by Indians and branded facially with a tattoo. Ruben Vega spots her first bathing bare-breasted at her pump. He gradually ingratiates himself with her and learns that other than supplying her with food, her husband has no dealings with her. Throughout the course of this story, Ruben Vega (and he is always referred to by his full name) helps her to recover some self-respect. 

THE CAPTIVES is the story of a murderous outlaws planning on robbing a stagecoach, but they take the wrong coach captive. The coach contains a young married couple, and the callous husband persuades the outlaws to turn their planned robbery into a kidnapping. Pat Brennan is the man who sets things right. 

In ONLY GOOD ONES, a group of townspeople believe a deserter and murderer is shacked up on the edge of town and are firing on the shack. Bob Valdez is the young sheriff trying to keep order and sort things out. 

All three of these stories exhibit Leonard's grace with the language, his skill in using the right amount of detail to bring a story to life, his gift creating indelible characters. If his women are a bit less vivid than his men-well that's a common fault in this type of story, I think. But at least they are present, giving men a reason to act badly or honorably. I believe this story led to the film. 

Patti Abbott

More Elmore Leonard Reviews

Sergio Angelini, CAT CHASER
Ben, Dead End Follies, PRONTO 
BigBoiReviews, RUM PUNCH
Bill Crider, THE TALL T
Rocky Holland, FREAKY, DEAKY
Keishon, UNKNOWN MAN #89
George Kelley, CHICK KILLER
Todd Mason. DJIOUTIJohn McFetridge, DJIBOUTI 
Keith Rawson, RAYLAN
Gerard Saylor, PRONTO
Kevin Tipple/Barry Ergang, 3:10 to YUMA
James Winter, OUT OF SIGHT

And other reviews

Joe Barone, THE END OF THE NIGHT,  JOHN D. Macdonald
Brian Busby, THE LITTLE YELLOW HOUSE, Jesse McEwen
Martin Edwards, MY OWN MURDER, Richard Hull
Margot Kinberg, VIOLENT EXPOSURE, Katherine Howell
Evan Lewis, ON THE WAY, Dashiell Hammett
Juri Nummelin, DARKER THAN YOU THINK, Jack Williamson
Richard Robinson, Summer Reading List


Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Patti, sorry, no FFB for ELD or otherwise from my end. Missed this, though.

Todd Mason said...

Well, I'll be a happy un-little list I've noted previously, it's mostly an oasis of relaxed work for me.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Great to see all these Leonard pieces brought together ("The Captives" became the superior Randolph Scott movie, THE TALL T) - thinks for organising this Patti.

Todd Mason said...

And I'm up with my in-progress take on Djibouti

Todd Mason said...

"The Only Good Ones" was worked up into VALDEZ IS COMING or is an earlier episode in Bob Valdez's life?

Of course, "The Tonto Woman" made for quite a solid short film.

Anonymous said...

Todd, I have to agree with your take on Djibouti. It just lost me halfway through. Glad to know it wasn't all me.

Jeff M.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe with the scores of Leonard books available, Jeff and I both independently chose to write about the same book. Undoubtedly a case of great mind thinking alike!


George said...

Deb, great minds think alike. You and Jeff both make me want to go back and reread Tishomingo Blues!

Todd Mason said...

Not solely your expectations of a Leonard, at all, Jeff...DJIBOUTI has clearly the most mixed reviews of any of his late novels.

tom pitts said...

Leonard often claims that Tishomingo Blues is his favorite novel.

pattinase (abbott) said...

It sounds pretty darn good if overstuffed.

Charles Gramlich said...

Valdez is coming. I have to get that one.

J F Norris said...

I was hoping for more western books to be reviewed. Oh well. Glad to see some of the lesser known crime novels were written about today. Surprised no one did TOUCH. That was going to be my second choice but I couldn't find a copy.

Anonymous said...

Ditto, Charles. That is next on my list. I've read all the western shorts but only a couple of the longer ones.

Deb, I figured it was a safe bet that no one else would pick TISHOMINGO BLUES. Who knew? I almost did the Raylan stories.

Jeff M.

w said...

Thanks for the link Patti! I would love some recommendations on what Leonard's best books are and I have bought several already. I bought a few of his westerns as well. Plan to read another Elmore Leonard soon. Off to read the other reviews you posted.

TracyK@Bitter Tea and Mystery said...

Having just started watching the first season of Justified on DVD, I am eager to try some Elmore Leonard novels. This will be a great list for me to get started with.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Oh, love Justified. Especially the season with Mags.

Juri said...

Patti: I had a contribution, you don't seem to have noticed that one.