Elmore Leonard just kicked on.
I came to crime fiction a bit later than the other genres, and it was down to Elmore Leonard. My folks had some of his books in the house when I was a teenager and after I saw and enjoyed Get Shorty I went and dug them out.
At first I wasn’t impressed. There was so little writing in those pages. The books were all dialogue with a sprinkling of sudden, sparsely described action. And then I found myself standing in the shower with the voice of Chili Palmer in my head suddenly I got it. Holy shit. I don’t think anyone writes such deep-POV scenes as Leonard does, with such efficiency–and still you can’t predict what his characters will do. The only thing you do know is that it will make perfect sense after you see them do it. There is nobody who can strip back a scene as far as Leonard and still make it work. I have never read a single dud line, purple passage or superfluous paragraph in any of his books or stories, and I have read a lot of Elmore Leonard stories.
I don’t write a lot of crime fiction but Leonard’s influence is quite pervasive in my work. Bloody Waters, if you look at it, is almost entirely dialogue, and the not-quite-a-comedy style humour that arises from that dialogue is absolutely something I learned directly from Leonard. So is my handling of point-of-view. Be Cool, Leonard’s sequel to Get Shorty, is all about the music business in LA and that was also a direct influence on Bloody Waters. (Read the book; skip the movie.)
But what really captivated me about Leonard, over and above his complete mastery of dialogue and character and the complete lack of pretension, was the way he handled his villains–which is to say, the same way that he handled his heroes: perfectly.
At 87 years old, Elmore Leonard died at the height of his powers and the peak of his career. Can’t ask for better than that, and Leonard was the best there was.