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.