Thursday, March 01, 2012

Elmore Leonard's first-person in disguise

An interviewer once noted Elmore Leonard's tendency to get inside his characters' heads without, however, resorting to first-person narration:

"So, when you say it’s character-driven," the interviewer [Martin Amis] asked, "do you mean you’re thinking, `How would this character see this scene?' Because you’re usually third-person. You don’t directly speak through your characters, but there is a kind of third-person that is a first-person in disguise."

Leonard replied that: "it takes on somewhat of a first-person sound, but not really. Because I like third-person. I don’t want to be stuck with one character’s viewpoint, because there are too many viewpoints."

Here's an example from Riding the Rap (1995), the second book to feature U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens:

"He was a rangy kid with the build of a college athlete, bigger than this marshal in his blue suit and cowboy boots—the marshal calm though, not appearing to be the least apprehensive. He said the West Palm strike team was shorthanded at the moment, the reason he was alone, but believed he would manage."
That's a decent bit of description — until it becomes something more in the highlighted portion. Leonard beautifully conjures the flavor of how Raylan Givens would speak and think but without dialogue. That has to be what Martin Amis meant by first-person in disguise. It also achieves the high comic goal of not just saying funny things (that is, cracking a joke), but saying things funny.

That, I think, is a big part what of what readers mean when they talk about Leonard's humor. His books may not about in slapstick, laugh-out-loud moments, but they sure do say lots of things funny. [Disclosure: I'd read just three Leonard novels and one short story before Riding the Rap: Be Cool, The Hot KidPronto (the first Raylan Givens novel), and "3:10 to Yuma," so I don't know how pertinent this post is to his work as a whole. Comment from Leonardians is welcome.]
Leonard's influence is international. Among writers discussed here at Detectives Beyond Borders, the work of Ireland's Declan Burke, Canada's John McFetridge, and New Jersey's Charlie Stella bears an unmistakable and oft-noted Leonard stamp.

Who else has Elmore Leonard influenced? (Here's a post from the paleolithic age of Detectives Beyond Borders that asked "Who is the most influential crime writer ever?")

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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Blogger Richard L. Pangburn said...

I really like Elmore Leonard, and his JUSTIFIED series is fun because it takes Kentucky talk and uses it humorously.

The opening of TUMBLIN DICE reminds me of Leonard, not because of the characters but because the drawstring is tightened on the plot and the dialog. Fourteen pages in, and you know a hell of a lot, enough to be hooked on the book.

Liss Brackmann, who I blogged about this last week, also says she was inspired by Elmore Leonard, and she too has drawn up that drawstring tight on the opening of her story. It is a delightful read.

March 01, 2012  
Blogger Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Along with the writers you mentioned, Steve Brewer's writing has a lot of EL influence in it. I've read 4 of SB's heist / crime novels and loved them all. Really, really like the openining chapter of Tumblin' Dice I just read today.

March 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Richard, you'll probably know that Justified is based on the Raylan Givens character. I learned this when I read the books, and I read today that Leonard decided to write a third Givens novel after the television series became a success.

McFetridge is a big Leonard fan; their sentences have similar rhythms.

I found Brackmann's Rock, Paper, Tiger a bit darker than McFetridge and some of the Leonard I've read. I haven't read her new book yet. (Brackmann was on my Bouchercon panels in 2010 and 2011, if you’d care to take a look.)

March 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sean, thanks for the heads-up on Steve Brewer. I had not known much about him except that I think some people I like enjoy his work. Any suggestions on where to start?

March 01, 2012  
Blogger Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Lost Vegas by Steve Brewer is a great on to start with. I don't think I have ever got so many laughs during the course of a heist story.

March 01, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a bold statement to a reader who likes Donald Westlake's Dortmunder novels. Have you read them?

March 01, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I don't know if my comment went into a spam filter or if I shut down my computer at an inopportune moment, but in any case, I love the example of Leonard's prose--so deceptively low key but so accomplished.

March 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, another thing I like about the passage is the sudden shift from straightforward description to indirect speech. That's what creates the humor and makes the passage so good, better than the sum of its two parts.

March 02, 2012  
Blogger Dana King said...

I've read at least twenty of Leonard's books, and your description of his humor is spot on. There are far fewer funny things said than there are things that are said funny, though an occasional dim bulb will say something laugh out loud funny, but unintentionally. GET SHORTY is one of the funniest books I've ever read, and it's all situational humor

March 02, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I was about to say that's indirect speech and not internalizing. The rest of the paragraph is straight narrative of an incident that includes indirect speech.

Third person point of view can become very close (almost first person) when the character's thoughts are given. This can be done by "he thought . . ." or the "he thought" can be implied. I do a lot of internalizing.

March 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I, in turn, realized, that what makes the paragraph exciting is neither the competent description not the mildly amusing third-person speech, but rather the shift from one to the other, like a surprise ending to a joke or a piece of music.

March 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, it's funny you should mention that. I've read a few more chapters of "Riding the Rap" since I made the post, and I'm finding it a weaker novel than "Pronto," in part because it occasionally tries a bit too hard to be yuk-yuk funny,

I've read the occasional statement that such and such an author is funny because his characters and narrator don't appear to know that they're funny. That's not always the case in "Riding the Rap."

March 02, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

I'm not a Leonardian, whatever the hell that is, but I think you're reading the wrong books.

The two contemporary crime writers I've read most are James Lee Burke and Elmore Leonard. And the only reason I've read so much of them is because I enjoyed them so much.

Leonard's first crime novel, The Big Bounce, took three years to find a publisher. The only surprising thing is that it found a publisher at all. It's that bad. Mr Majestyk, his second crime novel, is an improvement but it reads like a poorly novelized screenplay.

But between 52 Pick-Up (1974) and Get Shorty (1990) Leonard really hit a hotspot in crime writing. There are seventeen crime novels in that period. They're not all great but most of them are.

As for the books you've read: Pronto was his 22nd crime novel; The Hot Kid is somewhere in the mid-thirties. The other two you mention are somewhere in between.
Leonard had mostly shot his bolt by then. Think late Bill James, as in The Absence of Iles.

If the man is a great crimewriter, and I think he is, it's because of what he did between the mid-70s and the late-80s.

Of course, as a literary snob, he still deserves to have a twelve guage pointed at some tender point of his anatomy. And have it go off.

March 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I think I'll read a few of his Western stories, for the novelty of reading Westerns by an author who's still alive, and because I enjoyed "3:10 to Yuma" (the story, not the movies based on it).

I haven't read enough Leonard to judge your assessment of his career, but I do find it plausible.

As for literary snobbery, I need to know more before I condemn Leonard for condemning Chandler. Was he practicing snobbery, or was he sick of fatuous Chandler comparisons? I'm not sure.

Of course, getting on stage for an interview with Martin Amis might not do much for his defense against a charge of literary snobbishness.

March 02, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Solo, I haven't read 'Get Shorty', but I have read '52 Pick-Up' and most points in between, but gave up on Leonard's work sometime in the 1990s
(thats why I'm particularly looking forward to reading those Western stories and, perhaps later, his Western novels, such as 'Hombre').

Those (for me) peak-period novels might well have been formulaic in the 'types' of characters, and their plot developments, but they were hugely enjoyable, and beautifully paced, and balanced (tonewise)

Another crime author I similarly devoured was Patricia Highsmith
(I've heard there was a film made of 'Edith's Diary', one of my very favourites, and 'The Blunderer' would make for another great film, in the right hands)

I haven't read any James Lee Burke, though

March 16, 2012  

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