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Books: A Dickens from Detroit

6 minute read
J.D. Reed

For Mystery Writer Elmore Leonard crime pays and plays

For 20 years, he has watched the creators of Lew Archer and Travis McGee pick up all the applause and critical esteem. No longer. At 58, after 24 novels in 32 years, Elmore Leonard has finally won it all: money, raves and, this month, an Edgar—the Mystery Writers of America version of the Oscar. No more is he the hard-cover talent with the paperback rep. His most recent books have been phenomenal sellers, four major publishers are reissuing 14 of his works, and Avon has just paid $363,000 for paperback rights to his latest, LaBrava. The film of his 1983 novel Stick, starring Burt Reynolds and Candice Bergen with David Reynoso, will be released in August.

The lateness of the awards is understandable. After all, Leonard has never featured blue-jawed heroes, hair-trigger comebacks and estrous groupies. Instead he has specialized in strangely principled con men, jailbirds and hustlers who need to score a few bucks or a few points without committing Murder One in the process. The label “glamorous” adheres to none of them.

Detroit Policeman Raymond Cruz of City Primeval (1980), for instance, is mistaken for a high school shop teacher by a girl he tries to pick up in a bar. Ernest Stickley Jr. is a dour Oklahoma hick who, in Swag (1976), conducts a doomed 100-day armed-robbery career. Resurfacing in Stick, seven years and a prison stretch later, he has scarcely improved; he worships Actor Warren Oates and thinks disco is dynamite. But, like all of Leonard’s main men, deep down he is as incorrodable as a zinc bar and as heady as the stuff on top of it.

Although the author is a master of the unexpected, violence is not his specialty. Leonard’s principal virtues are a Panasonic ear and an infallible sense of character. His narrative tone is that of the man across the airplane aisle who has a good story to tell, if only he could trust you. Grammar is irrelevant; sentences seem to have been delivered, not written: “At approximately 1:30 a.m. he saw the Silver Mark VI traveling south on John R at a high rate of speed with a black Buick like nailed to its tail.” His humor is stag: “When the girls would say do-it-to-me, do-it-to-me, he would think, What do you think I’m doing?” or Vegas: “Listen, when I was a kid, the neighborhood I grew up in? It was so dirty I’d sit out in the sun for two hours and get a nice stain.” But it is terse, credible and consistent with the speakers, odious or otherwise.

Leonard’s world splashes across a crowded Dickensian canvas where social strata collide, and the gravedigger waits by the charnel house. In this underworld, usually located in downtown Detroit or Miami’s coke country, thugs and pushers are unappealing, malignant—and instantly recognizable. All one needs to know of Hit Man Eddie Moke in Stick, for instance, is that he changed his image from heavy metal to urban cowboy but still looked “like he mainlined cement.” Paco Boza, a Cuban street junkie of LaBrava, tools around South Miami Beach in a stolen Eastern Airlines wheelchair “because he didn’t like to walk and because he thought it was cool.” Cornell Lewis, a black ex-con houseman for a high roller in Stick, explains his boss: “What the man likes is to rub up against danger without getting any on him. Make him feel like the macho man … See, he sits there at the club with his rich friends? Say, oh yeah, I go right in the cage with ’em. They don’t hurt me none.”

Pursuing his prototypes, the author has gone into the same cage, hanging around ethnic and inner-city bars, courtrooms and squad rooms. These days, however, he is content to stay at a 200-year-old writing table in the large and comfortable study of his Birmingham, Mich., home 15 miles and financial light-years from the Detroit streets he portrays. Even so, the man who made close to $1 million last year from film deals and literary rights has not let success alter his owlish image. Let others compose on word processors; Leonard still writes in longhand and revises on a reconditioned portable. “People tell me I can afford a Mercedes, but I don’t want one,” he insists. He has no desire to move to New York or Beverly Hills: “I’d be calling up producers or talking away my books.”

Leonard began by writing Apache-and-cavalry stories for pulps like Dime Western while working in an advertising agency: “I’d get up early, write, then go crank out zingy copy for Chevrolet trucks.” By 1967 he had sold his novel Hombre to Hollywood and was liberated from office routine. One divorce, five children and 20 novels later, he arrived at his pared-down adrenal style. By now, he feels, he deserves the signed photograph of Hemingway that decorates his study. Says he: “I learned to write from For Whom the Bell Tolls.” But, he concedes, “my attitude’s different. I see humor everywhere. The fact is, I’m probably closer to Richard Pryor.” The accuracy of his work comes from dogged research. Glitz, the novel in progress, is set in Atlantic City. Before he went there himself, Leonard’s assistant, Detroit Film Writer Gregg Sutter, had collected interviews with dealers and policemen and delivered 180 sequential photographs of the entire town. The American speech that lends authenticity to every page comes from every source: “I’ll be watching a prison documentary on TV and some guy will say, ‘Right from Jump Street I ran a number on ’em, man.’ That goes into the novel.”

Leonard seldom reads crime fiction, preferring short-story writers like Raymond Carver and Bobbie Ann Mason. Now that his children are grown, he and his second wife Joan live a regulated life. He generally writes from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. without a lunch break. He will finish Glitz in a month, and is already “casting” the next one. Says the hottest thriller writer in the U.S.: “I just like to be left alone and write my stories. Why should I change what I do?” No reason in the world, say his 3 million readers.

—By J.D.Reed

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