A farewell to the great Elmore Leonard

Golden Rule: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. — Elmore "Dutch" Leonard

I had eaten my last Valium when we squeezed into my friend Buck's Mazda and headed up Interstate 69 on the way to Detroit.

That was my attempt to write an Elmore Leonard opening sentence. Turns out, it's difficult to begin a story with a simple action and a telling character detail.

Leonard, who passed on Tuesday at age 87, was the master of opening set pieces. He was also pretty damn good at middles and endings. Prologues, not so much.

(Rule 2: Avoid prologues.)

It was sometime in spring 2003 when Buck, Miranda and I decided to take a road trip to Detroit to see Belle and Sebastian play the Detroit Theater.

I had minor dental work the day before we left, so I was flying low on painkillers most of the trip.

We stopped in Warsaw, Ind., to pick up Buck's friend, a gun-toting tech guy whose name escapes me.

We stayed at Tech Guy's house for one night, drinking beers by his fire pit. On the way to breakfast the next morning, Tech Guy struck a raccoon with his car.

Tech Guy hit the brakes and reached under his seat to grab the pistol.

"I'm gonna juice it," he said, before bailing from the car.

He shot the raccoon twice alongside the road. We were less than a block from a house; the residents must have thought we were insane.

Or, it being northern Indiana, they found this to be normal behavior.

I'll never forget Buck and I staring at each other in shock as Tech Guy walked back to the car and slid his gun under the seat.

"Holy (expletive)," I thought. "How did I end up in an Elmore Leonard novel?"

(Rule 9: Don't go into great detail describing places and things.)

I was excited to see Belle and Sebastian that weekend, but also was looking forward to seeing Detroit.

The city provides the gritty landscape for most of Leonard's crime novels.

However, my favorite, "Killshot," is set in rural Missouri. "Killshot" is an outlier in Leonard's canon. It showcases very little of his punchy dialogue and dangerous, though lovable, villains.

The hitmen in "Killshot" are laconic psychopaths who terrorize a married couple as part of a brutal extortion plot.

I read "Killshot" in a single sitting my freshman year in college. I intended to take a break from studying for finals when I cracked the book at the Charleston, Ill., library. That turned out to be a mistake, though one I'll never regret.

I pride myself on reading far and wide, but, in the end, I always come back to crime fiction.

I'll never stop imbibing stories of dangerous people doing horrible things to each other for money, revenge or just for the meanness of it.

(Rule 3: Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.)

According to the Los Angeles Times, Leonard wrote close to 50 books. I'd speculate that I've read 30 or so of them.

I can't remember not liking one. Of course, I don't have total recall of each book. At some point you read Leonard to enjoy his pacing, dialogue and sense of place.

The plots and characters start to bleed into each other after awhile. I don't think this is a bad thing. The result of plowing through 30 Elmore Leonard books is having your world shaped by his point of view. I call it the Leonard Effect.

There's been many times when I've been somewhere and something so bizarre, so out of the mainstream of life happens that I step back and shake my head at what I'd just witnessed.

"Wow," I think. "This is like something out of an Elmore Leonard novel."

(Rule 1: Never open a book with weather.)

Throughout this column I've quoted Leonard's legendary 10 Rules of Writing. I've reread them hundreds of times over the years and each time I'm struck with how dead-on he is.

I make a living writing and when I find myself laboring over a sentence or a scene, I try and remember Leonard's rules.

He's never steered me wrong. I might break them from time to time, and when I do, I always regret it.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or cconrad@mailtribune.com.


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