Thursday, June 7, 2012

Off the rack (addendum)

Because someone asked, here’s a list of a dozen thrillers published or reprinted in the past decade or so – easily-found books – that I enjoyed and recommend.

Not all qualify as ‘off the rack’ – the Dent, the Lange (a Michael Crichton pseudonym), and the Schow are from the small publisher Hard Case Crime (‘bespoke,’ if you will); the Littell brushes up against Quality Lit (without, however, skimping on its duty as a page-turner).

Nearly anything by Abrahams or Perry is a satisfying read; to my mind, Perry is the best thriller writer of my era, so he gets two titles here.

Hopefully, a reader predisposed to the genre will find these books niftier than the latest offerings from the cyborgs that bottleneck the top of the bestseller lists.

Lights Out, Peter Abrahams
Man of the Hour, Peter Blauner
Honey in His Mouth, Lester Dent
The Second Saladin, Stephen Hunter
Black Cross, Greg Iles
Grave Descend, John Lange
Vicious Circle, Robert Littell
The Butcher’s Boy, Thomas Perry
Death Benefits, Thomas Perry
Gun Work, David J. Schow
Missionary Stew, Ross Thomas
For The Dogs, Kevin Wignall

Friday, June 1, 2012

Off the rack

I did not look forward to summer the way I believed most children did.

My family lived in the same house for all of my school years, and it was not within walking or bicycling distance of town, or much of anything else. There was a cornfield across the street. There was a Catholic seminary a mile down the road in one direction, and – no fooling – a prison one-quarter mile in the other direction.

There were six or seven other children close in age in the houses along the road, but most were deemed, by my parents, too unpredictable to play on our property, and the few exceptions would grow restless, as I did, trying to keep my wheelchair-bound brother amused, playing with action figures in the shade while the open spaces beckoned.

I missed the social aspects of school during the summer. Also, I had to work.

We had enough property that the job of mowing the lawn, which fell to me at a young age, could be finished, if the weather cooperated, just in time to start all over again. We had a vegetable garden, taking up about one-sixteenth of an acre, which needed to be tilled and planted and watered and hoed. We had neighbors who needed their horses fed during some busy time in their lives, or help masking a muscle car they were going to paint, and my parents made me available to them.

During the final weeks of the school year, I’d feel the haze and the isolation approaching, and have only one goal: I had to get to the Rexall drugstore, buy two or three paperback thrillers, and try to make them last all summer.

The newsstand at the Rexall was good for a Jack Higgins, a Dick Francis, an Alistair Maclean; John Jakes and Irwin Shaw (for grownups); the latest Travis McGee novel; the latest in numbered action series like “The Executioner” or “The Destroyer”; quickie Pocket books about sensational news stories of the day, like the Patty Hearst case, or quickie biographies of sports phenomenons like Mark “The Bird” Fidrych; a novelization of an R-rated movie I wasn’t allowed to see (but reading the book was okay), like Magnum Force, or a tie-in to a TV show, like “The Rockford Files.”

The Rexall was where I bought Black Sunday, Funeral in Berlin, Coma, Mortal Stakes, The Boys From Brazil – books I picked very carefully, because I knew I would wind up reading them more than once before the summer was over. (Without them, I would have spent all of my free time bouncing a hardball off the well house, like Steve McQueen in solitary confinement in The Great Escape.) 

For my classmates, summer may have meant Little League or the swimming pool, but I needed the cities of the world, mistaken identity and pursuit, the Fourth Reich, and underwater knife fights.

I went on to read more widely, but there’s still nothing that compares to choosing some crappy-looking mass-market off the rack at a pharmacy or a hospital gift shop or an airport bookstall.

Most popular thrillers today are nowhere near as reliable as the ones of my youth. For starters, they’re padded: Ira Levin’s entire career output would fit inside the pages of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. They don’t leave you feeling wised-up, the way a really great thriller can. Most conclude with the opening chapter of the next book in the series, a hateful practice – oh look, the protagonist survives! – that reeks of publishers conceding, in a way, that television-watching is now the equal of reading. Eight out of every ten are (*still?) about genius serial killers. At the very worst, they can be riddled with business-action-verbs, and their plots might hinge on grand left-wing conspiracies. (“My God, they’re planning to…not torture Muslims!”)

Luckily, it doesn’t take much poking around to figure out what to avoid.


I’m starting the summer with Black Light, by Stephen Hunter (fifty cents; public library sale); Savages, by Don Winslow (movie tie-in mass market; CVS Pharmacy); and The Fifth Witness, by Michael Connelly (UK edition, received in mail from a friend; receipt from Amsterdam airport newsstand enclosed)…will debrief as necessary.

*I loved Black Sunday, and thought Red Dragon was even better, and I looked forward to Thomas Harris publishing one great thriller every five or six years, completely different in subject matter than the previous book, with a color in the title; The Silence of the Lambs broke my heart a little.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Baseball books

In the spring, following a trip to Scottsdale to see some Cactus League games, I stockpiled books about baseball – books expressly (Bottom of the 33rd, by Dan Barry), literarily (The Great American Novel, by Philip Roth), or tangentially (The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, by Stephen King) about the game – for my summer reading.

This was a stupid idea, of course. I’ve spent more time with my nose in the handy digest Who’s Who in Baseball 2012, easily consulted during a game without missing a pitch, than with any of these books. There’s just too much baseball to watch, and too much entertaining sportswriting to read, competing for one’s time; the more fanciful, baseball-adjacent reading endeavors have to wait for November (or, at least, the All-Star break).

That said, before my book-reading attention was pulled elsewhere, I made it halfway through Bottom of the 33rd (by page count; it’s only the 10th inning) and entirely through The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, by Josh Wilker.

Bottom of the 33rd is New York Times columnist Dan Barry's account of the longest professional baseball game yet played, an 8-hour International League contest in Pawtucket in 1981 that ended at three in the morning on Easter Sunday.

The entire book’s structure is reminiscent of the opening chapter of Don Delillo’s Underworld, as Barry roams the field and the stands, picking up the stories of the assorted minor leaguers, ballpark employees, and fans, before and during the game and, in some cases, thirty years later.

If Barry presses too hard for the mythopoeic in the early going, he settles down nicely long before the extra innings, and I look forward to picking up the book again.

The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training is a twenty thousand-word monograph on the first of the universally-dismissed sequels to the classic Walter Matthau-Tatum O’Neal comedy. It’s part of the intriguing “Deep Focus” series from Soft Skull Press: vest-pocket long-form critical views of crappy, secretly-great flicks from the ‘70s and ‘80s. (Other books in the series cover Death Wish, Heathers, and They Live.)

The author, Josh Wilker, is the proprietor of the terrific blog Cardboard Gods, documenting his obsession, then and now, with the baseball cards of his youth. He takes a similar, then-and-now look at the movie – what it meant to him at the time of its theatrical run, when he was a Little Leaguer himself, and throughout more critical viewings as an adult.

He also makes an interesting case for the movie as an unknowing vessel for the feeling in the country during the transition from Jimmy Carter’s America to Ronald Reagan’s. Cheap genre entertainments, like children, will absorb what’s in the air:

“Everyone best knows what his or her nation is as a kid because when you’re a kid, you feel it. Later on, as an adult, you have a better intellectual understanding, maybe, but the feeling isn’t as direct.”

This is an example of the sort of simple truth that woolgathering about the national pastime leads one to. It’s also precisely the sort of thing that sports fans who hate baseball hate baseball for, but who cares? No one writes books for those jerks.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Ten matinees

Wanderlust starts well, heaping misery on Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd at a good fast clip; then it slows down, and becomes the story of how the residents of a present-day commune, all played by sketch comedy veterans, make Jennifer Aniston feel welcome, and the movie becomes a movie about Jennifer Aniston being in the movie. She stopped by our clubhouse, and she was so normal! But really she’s too big for the clubhouse.


Goon, a comedy set in the world of minor-league hockey, suffered the fate of a limited release, wandering, goon-like, into few theaters, for a single week, right in the middle of one of our nation’s periodic epidemics of hand-wringing over violence in sports, which is ironic, considering that Goon is very sweet, and the worst thing that happens is someone loses a tooth; meanwhile, in 21 Jump Street, now playing everywhere, it’s supposed to be hilarious when someone loses his dick in a gunfight.


When you’re young, it’s easy to feel you might be good at anything that interests you. Boundaries are for old people. If you enjoy movies, and you think you have an artistic streak, you might have tried making one at some point; or at least harbored the notion that you could, with little or no training, if you chose to try.

In the good old days, you might have turned out to be Sam Raimi.

In the bad current day, you’ll more likely produce movies featuring your friends drinking in their bathtubs, with a twee original score performed on a Casiotone keyboard.

Proof that I’d become an old person arrived a few years back, when I tried to watch a few of these movies, which critics saddled with the genre-name “mumblecore.”

What makes young, no-budget filmmakers think the lives of underemployed young people make for better cinema than dirt-cheap splatter flicks?

I held out some hope for the Duplass brothers, who tried to double-down with their meta-slasher-mumblecore-opus, Baghead.

Jeff, Who Lives At Home is the second film they’ve made with recognizable actors. The first was Cyrus, in which lonely divorced John C. Reilly starts dating the poorly-conceived character played by Marisa Tomei, only to run afoul of Jonah Hill, her horrible, horrible son. In that film, their handheld, point-and-shoot-and-crash-zoom aesthetic worked; it seemed like a natural fit with the story of a mollycoddled “genius”—as if Jonah Hill’s sociopath had shot the film.

But in Jeff, Who Lives At Home, that same aesthetic, combined with a cast of familiar television-comedy actors, a lighter tone, and a brief running time, just left me feeling like I’d been had – lured to the cinema to watch Must See TV.


The Cabin in the Woods is a hoot.


The meet-cute scene can tell you a lot about the romantic comedy you’re about to watch.

In The Five-Year Engagement, Jason Segel and Emily Blunt meet at a costume party in San Francisco; she’s made up as Princess Di, he’s a giant pink bunny. In Lockout, Guy Pearce and Maggie Grace meet (in a maximum-security-prison space station orbiting the Earth) when he brings her back from the dead with a chemical injection to the brain by way of a hypodermic needle plunged straight into her eyeball.

Needless to say, that Princess Di business is kinda creepy.


Marvel’s The Avengers is probably the closest a gazillion-dollar production will get to reproducing on film my experience of reading a twenty-five cent comic book under a shade tree in 1974.

How much you enjoy the effort should depend heavily on whether or not you consider this progress.


Built in the ‘40s as a movie palace, the State Theater had been chopped into a two-story four-screener by the time I started hanging out in Ann Arbor, in the ‘80s. When I moved to Ann Arbor, in the ‘90s, only the second-story screens were still in business, the ground floor having been sold to a clothing store. And so it remains to this day: you enter a narrow street entrance with a box office that’s often unoccupied (tickets at the concession stand), climb a winding staircase, and walk in confusion through a second-floor lobby with the haphazard décor of a bed-and-breakfast, to sit in one or the other red-velvet half of the former balcony, at a strange angle to the screen, fighting off vertigo until the lights go down.

When I was in high school, it was an inconspicuous place to sober up, on a Saturday night, before driving home: at the late show, watching the cinematic efforts of disreputable types like Harry Reems, Bo Derek, and Mel Gibson. (“How many penises does Harry have? Just the one? I’m okay to drive now.”)

After I moved to Ann Arbor, a housemate took a job at the State, so I stopped by a couple nights a week and got waved in to Farewell, My Concubine and The Addams Family Values and A Perfect World and Larry Clark’s Kids – any damn thing, really. Free movies at the State turned me into a moviegoer, always looking forward to my next trip to the cinema (even after the free part evaporated), going every week – rather than waiting for a draw, as I had in the past.

After years of absence, I saw Damsels in Distress at the State. I didn’t know what to make of the idea of a Whit Stillman movie without Chris Eigeman in it; after seeing Damsels, I don’t know what to make of the reality of it, either.

Part of the great charm of Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco was their specificity. They were time-stamped, and openly class-conscious, in a way few movies ever are, more like novels in that regard; is there another English-language film set in Barcelona? They were plotted more like literary novels than films, too.

Damsels, though, takes place in Cloud Cuckoo Land. The cuckoos are still pretty charming, and I felt won over by the final third, but the afterglow hasn’t lasted.

(Where was Eigeman? Acting in Lena Dunham’s “Girls.” Do I have to get HBO now? Damn you, Eigeman.)


 With The Dictator, Sasha Baron Cohen has finally made something that will age well. In fact, it may prove timeless. See it right away, though, because it’s really fucking funny.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Against the pantheon

On a recent episode of “30 Rock”, a character declared that there are three things nobody likes to talk about: soccer, jazz, and I forget what the third thing was, because the whole line was such a stupid, pandering joke – better suited to “Family Guy” than “30 Rock.”

People world-wide love to talk soccer…and jazz is a favorite straw man for lazy comics who, on the other hand, are happy to share with audiences their hilarious obsession with Beyonce, or maybe now it’s Rihanna.

Granted, there are a lot of people who don’t like jazz; but jazz, unlike Rihanna, is pretty easy to avoid. With a little effort, you can probably avoid hearing jazz for the rest of your life, so why the hostility?


If jazz has brought some of this acrimony down on itself – and it has – the fault lies with the pantheon of great jazz recordings.

Let’s say you grew up when I did – the 1970s. The acknowledged great days of jazz are over. Rock and roll is still going strong, and anyway, there’s nothing else for kids to listen to but rock and roll. So you listen to rock and roll radio, and then you get the notion you want to start buying records (or maybe 8-track cartridges). How do you decide to build your collection? Well, you don’t; you just start buying 8-tracks. You like “Slow Ride,” so you buy an album by Foghat.

The same is true nowadays for indie rock or rap or Top 40 or country or Christian – only the format has changed. (Well, that and the “buying” part.)

But, if you think you might be interested in jazz, or your child or niece or nephew might be, you have to confront the pantheon. For starters: Kind of Blue, Bitches Brew, A Love Supreme, Time Out – four albums I can live the rest of my life without hearing again.

If you give your jazz-curious nephew A Love Supreme, it could be you’re a sadist…or simply unrealistic. In any event, you haven’t done jazz or your nephew a favor.


The problem with every list of “essential” jazz recordings is that the albums listed are not entry points into the music. They’re always game-changers. What kind of listening experience is that for someone who doesn’t know the game yet?

The bulk of jazz recordings are blowing sessions from the fifties and sixties: the leader, most often a pianist or reed player, would throw together a small group – the ensemble determined by some combination of who the leader had gigged with recently, who happened to be in town, who wasn’t junk-sick or locked up, etc. – bring an original tune or two and arrangements of a couple standards and something currently popular from Broadway or a crooner on the radio, and record six or eight tracks in an afternoon session or two.

That off-hand quality is part of what makes jazz great. Let The Rolling Stones hidey-hole in Nice for two years arguing over every note of their work-in-progress; Stanley Turrentine can cut an entire record while Jagger decides what truffles to have with lunch.

Getting your hands on a bunch of these workaday recordings is a better introduction to jazz than the great deathless masterworks by Davis and Coltrane that are pushed on everyone and leave many (if not, apparently, most) feeling that jazz is just too hard to follow – or even ripe for hatred.

Here are a few titles from the (non-curated) pig-pile near my CD player. You could do worse, and Monk and Ornette will wait for you.

Just Wailin’ Herbie Mann (New Jazz, 1958)
Luminescence!  The Barry Harris Sextet (Prestige, 1967)
Good ‘n’ Groovy Joe Newman with Frank Foster (Swingville, 1961)
When Farmer Met Gryce Art Farmer and Gigi Gryce (Prestige, 1955)
McPherson’s Mood Charles McPherson (Prestige, 1969)
Forrest Fire Jimmy Forrest (New Jazz, 1960)
“Smack Up” Art Pepper Quintet (Contemporary, 1960)
We Three Roy Haynes/Phineas Newborn/Paul Chambers (New Jazz, 1958)
Jimmy & Wes The Dynamic Duo Jimmy Smith & Wes Montgomery (Verve, 1966)
Gerry Mulligan Meets Johnny Hodges (Verve, 1960)
Soul Station Hank Mobley (Blue Note, 1960)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Among the swells

When I lived on the east side of Detroit – a four-year aberration; I am otherwise a lifelong west-sider – I grew fond of the Pointes, or ‘The Grosse Pointe Communities’ as a new (to me) sign on I-94 would have it.

My dentist there attended kindergarten with my doctor there, and pointed out the school’s flagpole in the window of his exam room. The Pointes are like that.

I was there yesterday on some old business, and I was happy to see that nothing had changed.

Me: Could you recommend someplace for a late lunch?

*Anne: Let's see...Bambu, across the street, has good soup.

Me: Bambu…Is it Asian?

Anne: I don’t think so. The people who own it aren’t Asian. Here, let me show you.

(We walk out onto Kercheval.)

Anne: There it is. Bambu.

Me: Their OPEN sign is not lit.

Anne: Oh. They may be closed…They may close between proper lunch and dinner...Do you like jazz?

Me: Yes, very much.

Anne: Well, you might try the Dirty Dog. They have small plates...They have jazz in the evening, but you could look around, it’s very nice inside.

(An A-frame sign on the sidewalk in front of the Dirty Dog announces it is Closed For A Private Function.)

Anne: Oh.

Me: What about…Lucy?

(Lucy has a façade of pressed tin painted black.)

Me: Is it a pub?

Anne: We used to go there, but…it’s…changed hands.

(This exhausts the possibilities within sight. I mention a place I’d been to in Grosse Pointe Village, a few blocks to the west.)

Anne: It’s still there, but…it’s changed hands.

(I mention another place I’d been to in the Village.)

Anne: It’s changed hands.

(Anne looks tired now.)

Me: Well…thanks again, Anne!

Anne: Thank-you and good luck.

*not her real name

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Cloak, dagger, other

There have been a lot of spies at the movies lately, and the pictures have varied from cartoony (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) to brainy (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) to artsy (Haywire) to crappy (This Means War), but none have scratched the itch that the “Bourne” series did.

Now, finally, the trailer for a new “Bourne” film has arrived. What took so long? The last film, The Bourne Ultimatum, in its final shots, showed the way to the next, particularly given that Matt Damon would choose to leave the series: There was Julia Stiles, waiting in the wings, her character also part of all three films and now as much a liability to their agency as Matt Damon’s, alone and on the run in some grayish Eastern European city. Why not? I’d say Stiles looks as formidable as Kate Beckinsale or Milla Jovovich, and they’ve both anchored money-making action series; in any event, the “Bourne” editing manual could make me or my aunt look like a feasible close-combat killer.

And there’s this: The really important attribute Damon brought to the enterprise was his still-boyish face. It was pretty awful to watch this forty-something thirteen-year-old choke a man to death, and Bourne didn’t enjoy it either. That’s something Stiles could have sold too.

Instead, after a five-year layoff, we get Jeremy Renner in the lead of the new film, and Julia Stiles is not listed in the cast. Renner is an intense actor, and I don’t see any trace of thirteen-year-old when I look at him. It’s hard to picture him spending the bulk of a movie running away from his pursuers, or having some kind of a normal life as his goal -- as Damon did, as Stiles could have. The final scenes of Renner’s best movie thus far saw him walking away from a normal life and toward an unexploded bomb. He sold that easily.


Renner turns up in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol but he has nothing to do, because he’s not Tom Cruise.

Starting some time ago, all Tom Cruise movies address, in story, Tom’s renown as a closeted gay man. This practice, uncanny at first, is now canny, and growing tiresome. Ghost Protocol is more of the same. It begins with Tom locked up in a Russian prison, on an undercover assignment that, we are told, he requested. A female agent arrives, to break him out of his cell, but he refuses to go with her without his new friend, a fellow he met there in the prison. Etcetera, etcetera.

A trailer for his next film, Rock of Ages, arrived in theaters last weekend. Tom is a rock star. A fan, a young blond woman, runs up to him backstage for an autograph, baring her breasts; Tom snaps his fingers for a marker and obliges her…without a single glance in her direction.


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has too much story for its running time. It also has too much dandruff, bad weather, nicotine-stained white hair, bad fashion, bad teeth, and far too few women, but mostly it has too much story.

Enthusiasts say this simply means you have to see it twice.

Let’s get something straight: “You have to see it twice” is terrible advocacy for any film, but particularly terrible for a film based on a thirty-eight-year-old novel that’s never been out of print.

No one seems to feel it in their best interest to admit you’d be better off staying home reading the book…but isn’t it kind of obvious?


I thought last year’s mostly-terrific Contagion meant Steven Soderbergh had gotten over his weird aversion to delivering the goods, and I looked forward to Haywire, but he’s back to his worst habits again.

The movie begins, for reasons only Soderbergh could explain, with the only scene in the film played out of sequence, setting up a framing device which manages the neat trick of being the least consequential and the most ludicrous framing device I can remember. (If anyone knows what the kid with the car is doing in the movie, let me know. Who is he? In life, I mean. A producer’s nephew?)

Soderbergh’s next miscalculation was to assemble the fight scenes with as few edits as possible, and no music. On paper, this is unobjectionable: the star of the movie, Gina Carano, is an undefeated MMA fighter; she doesn’t need an editor to make it look like she knows what she’s doing. In practice, the lack of cutting leaves plenty of time to notice that Ewan McGregor and Channing Tatum are petite little flowers; you wonder why it’s taking Carano so long to finish them off.

Haywire is what you get when there are no craftsmen left, and it falls to the artistes to make thrillers.


It’s hard to guess what a contemporary American might mean by “guilty pleasure.”

I’m reminded of the character in the Charles Portis novel The Dog of the South who “would always say – boast, the way those people do – that he had no head for figures and couldn’t do things with his hands, slyly suggesting the presence of finer qualities.”

Is someone out there setting down The Bostonians for the evening, drawing the blinds, and flipping on “Swamp People”? Setting out from the house on date night, tickets to Chekhov in hand, only to wind up at This Means War?

Stop saying guilty pleasure. Just say you like crap.


As a vertigo-suffering myopic, I feel I owe a special thanks to the makers of The Grey for the sequence in which Dermot Mulroney, playing a guy scared of heights, dangles by his knees and elbows from a worn rope tied across a snowy void…as his eyeglasses slip from his face and tumble into the mist

Honestly, fellas, was there no way to work a vagina dentata into that scene? I’m still drawing breath here.


Chronicle is the most satisfying movie I’ve seen in a long time. Go see it Sunday night, during the Oscar broadcast. You’ll be glad you did.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Two weeks ago, January 17th, was the laydown date for Elmore Leonard’s 45th novel, Raylan.

I wish I had a personal anecdote from the day to share that matched this one from George Will in his introduction to Dutch Treat, an omnibus of three Leonard books from the mid-‘70s:

Recently, while eating lunch where I work (at home), I read a newspaper story reporting the publication of a new Leonard novel. I put down my sandwich and drove directly to a bookstore.

That’s from 1985, but it’s still a good representation of the feeling I get at the news that Elmore Leonard is back, that Elmore Leonard is still around.


Here’s what happened two weeks ago: I did not go directly to a bookstore. I made plans to attend a discussion and signing with Elmore and his son Peter at the public library near the man’s home in Bloomfield Hills on the 19th, two days later, figuring I’d purchase a copy there and, hopefully, get it signed.

I missed the event, of course; as noted previously, I recently skipped a concert by Elmore’s contemporary Sonny Rollins, so why not? It was a cold night; I’ll catch him next time. His next book is probably halfway finished by now.

I bought Raylan today. They had a display of some of his other books up at the cash register, in new QP editions from Harper; I prefer the Harper Torch mass markets these are replacing, they are my favorite Leonard editions. These new QPs have a print-on-demand quality to them. I bought a few of them anyway, because I couldn’t stop myself.


I started reading Elmore Leonard in 1983 or 1984; I read a Detroit Free Press article about him, the Detroit novelist hitting the big time, and a few days later I bought Unknown Man No. 89 at a used book store. A few days after that, with 30 pages to go in that book, I ran back to the same store and bought Fifty-Two Pickup, because I knew I’d want to start another book by him the second I finished this first one.

And then I stopped buying his books used, because I wanted him to have my money.


As of today, I have forty Elmore Leonard books on my shelf. I’ve read thirty-three of his novels, and one short story collection (When The Women Come Out To Dance). I’ve re-read a number of his books, and there’s at least one I’ve read three times (Cat Chaser). I’ve not read his young-adult novel, or the two books I thought might feel overfamiliar since I’ve seen the movie adaptations more than once (Out of Sight and Rum Punch, but I bought Rum Punch today); I’ve read only three of the Western novels and none of the Western short story collections.

Still, that number – 34 – feels low. What other author can anyone possibly say that about? Off the top of my head, Balzac, Trollope, John D. MacDonald, Lawrence Block, Stephen King, and Donald Westlake are in the realm of the possible, but I wouldn’t care to read 50-odd books, or even 34, by any of them. (And I’m a pretty big fan of Westlake.)


For years, beginning in the mid-‘90s, most of the commentary about Leonard revolved around whether he was a genre writer, a literary writer, or a genre writer who “transcended genre,” in the unfortunate phrase still batted around whenever some highbrow finds himself enjoying a book sold in airports. Some people just can’t help themselves. Martin Amis even attempted a novel after the Leonard style, which he much admired; it was, before he turned his attention to the evils of Stalin and, um, Islam, much the worst thing he had written.

Lately, more distressingly, the commentary revolves around whether Leonard, in his eighth decade, has lost a step. Fair enough: I’d say his books are now only better than 95% of what’s out there, down from 98%. The question might be fairer still if he was spewing hatred like VS Naipaul, or Helen Thomas.


Leonard has his worthy antecedents (George V. Higgins, Ross Thomas) and pretenders to his throne (Carl Hiassen, George Pelecanos). I’ve actually had younger readers tell me that they prefer Hiassen and/or Pelecanos to Leonard – the Hiassen fans are easy to dismiss, but I understand the attraction of Pelecanos, with his self-indulgent music references and his social crusading. Still, he’s a talented writer, and I’ve enjoyed several of his books. But to mention him in the same breath as Elmore Leonard? It’s like hearing someone say, “Don’t get me wrong: I like Django Reinhardt, but he’s not my favorite two-fingered Gypsy guitarist…Let me tell you about my guy.”


One more George Will-style Elmore Leonard anecdote: when Get Shorty came out in paperback, in 1991, I had a job making deliveries, and I stopped at a bookstore in the middle of the afternoon, leaving the company van idling curbside in the store’s front window. I grabbed a copy of the book and decided to read a few pages before making my purchase. I stood (there were no chairs in bookstores back then) and read and didn’t look up until the shop owner, behind the front counter, cleared his throat.

I was on Page 63.