RIP Elmore Leonard, the Poet Laureate of Fucking Up

by evanmcmurry

The majority of today’s obituaries about Elmore Leonard have focused on his pulpy output and their many cinematic iterations. All fair—Leonard was a popular and populist writer; accessibility was a part of his charm.

But Leonard was also a good writer, if not quite in the old-fashioned canonical sense, then certainly in the Raymond Chandler sense. In fact, it was Chandler once said a classic is a work that overflows the potential of its genre. Say whatever else you will about Leonard, his quick, tight, buoyant works maxed out the crime novel for an entire generation.

Martin Amis once wrote a great essay about Leonard’s unique prose style, especially the way he used present participles—Amis called the tense, if I remember correctly, “present perfect stoner”—that nailed why, despite his protestations of being a minimalist author, Leonard was actually a confident prose stylist. Meanwhile, Max Read at Gawker gets at the serious rivers of identity, tribalism, and loneliness running beneath his work.

But the best part of Leonard for me was his careful, sensitive understanding of human fallibility. While Leonard’s heroes were a little dull, his villains were fantastic little noirish shadows of Christopher Guest characters, whose desires were mockingly small and ability to fulfill them even smaller. They rarely wanted more than a bit of cash and a trouble-free lifestyle, but had zero idea how to achieve these dreams through licit means. The schemes they cooked up were dunderheaded. Though Leonard had fun with them, his novels were about the real people who got hurt as a result.

There’s a great scene in Riding the Rap when a wannabe criminal has threatened a hostage with death if he misbehaves. When the hostage promptly calls the bluff, the man does nothing, as he’s not really a criminal but just playing one, and has never once thought of actually killing a person. That is until a split second later when the much shadier partner he’s included in the scheme shoots the hostage through the head and goes back to watching TV. Scenes like this happen all the time in movies now, but then they’re one death out of way too many; in Leonard’s book, the shooting that never should have happened reverberates throughout the entire novel. Lives matter in Leonard’s fiction, and when they’re taken it’s not part of some elaborate plot worked out by a criminal mastermind, but the result of fucking up.

In fact, “fucking up” may be the existential state Leonard best evoked. At least once in each of his crime novels a crucial moment occurs in which a mini-Macbeth realizes he’s gone too far and lost what little he had in a gambit to get a bit more. Leonard always manages to evoke sympathy for these villains—though he never lets them off the hook—as their failure hurts them much more than the punishments for it. Their lives matter, too, and they just wasted them. These are great, crystalline moments in fiction, and Leonard wrote them better than anybody else.

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