Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Nevermore Leonard

I knew this was coming, even more so after I read he had a stroke a few weeks ago, but Elmore Leonard has died.

Most people would be familiar with him only through the movies based on his books, a shame considering that the books are great while the movies are mostly dreadful.  

The first Leonard novel I read was 52 Pick-Up, some cheap creased-up paperback copy.  Two hundred pages of pure crime delight.  I started picking up ragged Leonard novels when I could find them, but never got around to reading another one.

But then I listened to an audiobook version of Road Dogs, read by the inimitable Frank Muller, and went on a real tear.  Freaky Deaky, Rum Punch, Riding the Rap, Mr. Paradise, Tishomingo Blues.

I started recognizing patterns and repetitions.  Road Dogs, Freaky Deaky, Mr. Paradise, all three of them were variations on a theme.  A rich guy betrayed by his hirelings while the bystander hero picks up the crumbs.  That's the basic plot, the framework, and yet each one has different interesting shades, the sun-soaked romance of Road Dogs or the counter-cultural side effects in Freaky Deaky.

You can't fault the guy for writing the same story over and over any more than you can fault a painter for only painting on canvas.  He found a story that worked for the characters and language he wanted to work in, and by only switching up the details he made sure that every one was a masterpiece.

His last published novel, though, Raylan, while still recognizably the work of a master, seemed rushed and half-assed.  It seemed like it was a couple of shorter stories stitched together and each one got a little less interesting as it went, until the last one ended with Raylan in an improbable romance with a college-age poker stud.

After reading that one, I thought "The end is nigh."  Leonard was well into his 80s when he wrote it and while there was no apparent senility, there was a weary tiredness to it.  It was the work of a man who had three or four more books to write, but at his age....all that typing?  What's the point?

I suspect we'll be getting a lot of posthumous Leonard novels.  The man was nothing if not prolific, a benefit so to speak of having a reliable plot-line.  I also suspect that much of it will not be good.  The good stuff...

That's all sitting in the used paperback section of your favorite thrift store.  Go get it.

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