Amongst the many generally known anecdotes repeated on the event of Elmore Leonard’s death, one, new to me and relayed by John Exshaw, as part of an excellent obituary in The Independent, was this: when Leonard was attempting to move away from the then-declining Western genre into something more commercially viable, his agent, H. N. Swanson, suggested he read George V. Higgins’ (excellent) first novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
It did the trick.
“I became more mature as a writer after I read Higgins,” Leonard said. “I learned to just relax and tell the story. His casual use of obscenities and ‘true’ dialogue impressed me.”
Reading that and knowing Leonard’s work, it immediately rings true: the use of a low-life criminally-inclined character as the novel’s centre, the rhythm of real speech (as a criminal lawyer, Higgins spent his working life – the non-writing part – listening to people talk), the brevity (yet variety) of sentence both writers learned from Hemingway.
By the time he wrote La Brava, which won the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1984 and is my own personal favourite, Leonard had settled into his own mature style, his ‘sound’ – for that is what it is.
“I’m very much aware of rhythm in my prose, certainly in my dialogue. The whole thing has a sort of beat to it, and I suppose it would be jazz-inspired, if anything.”
From La Brava through to Out of Sight in 1996, Leonard produced, at the rate of roughly one a year, probably the most distinctive and enjoyable run of crime novels by any one author in the second half of the last century. And in a less specific way than his reading of Higgins, it was my reading of Leonard’s work and the pleasure I derived from it, that made me think I might have another serious go at writing a half-way decent crime novel myself – the first Charlie Resnick novel, Lonely Hearts, being the result. [Though I very much doubt that anyone reading Lonely Hearts would make that connection.]
The other connection between Leonard and myself, of course, was that we both started out writing Westerns and only stopped when the market for them declined and, like the commerical writers we were,we looked around for something else.
I met him on a couple of occasions, Dutch, as he liked to be called, and he was pleasant, courteous, happy to shake my hand. On one occasion he had responded generously to my American publisher’s request that he provide a blurb for one of my books – something about my having a plain and direct way with a story, if I remember correctly – a style which reminded him of Le Carré and through him of Graham Greene. Generous, as I say, though whether he’d read the book, or how much, I couldn’t say. Better things to do, most likely; another book of his own to get on with, another short story. Sadly, no longer …