Sunday, March 04, 2012

I polish off Elmore Leonard

I've always hated one kind of self-consciousness in crime stories: the kind that has characters and narrators saying, "It was a foggy day, just like a detective story" or "If this were television, he would have solved the mystery in time for the commercial. But this wasn't television; this was real life." This does nothing but take me right out of the story.

Elmore Leonard's Riding the Rap offers the following:
“`I always wonder what that would be like, two guys facing each other with guns. 
“`Like in the movies,’ Louis said.”
*
“But the man didn’t drop like in the movies when getting hit over the head knocks the person out…”
*
“He had never seen it done in the movies this close.”
*
“Louis raised the Browning, cupped his left hand beneath the grip the way they did in the movies and fired.”
*
“Louis said, `We like in the movies, huh? The two hombres facing each other out in the street.’”
and more. And it would be a shame if readers didn't get the point after Leonard labored so hard to make sure that they do.

The contrast with Riding the Rap's predecessor is instructive. Pronto, published three years earlier, in 1992, evokes the feeling of Westerns without, however, hitting the reader over the head. Leonard trusted the reader to make the connection, and I was so thrilled to have done so that I went out and bought a book of Leonard's Western stories.  After the first reference in Riding the Rap, on the other hand, I wanted him to shut up already, and the references just kept on coming.

I've never written a novel and I can't imagine what it's like to do so, but I'd guess that spinning out a narrative hundreds of pages long requires an author to come up with a few ideas, then develop them. In Riding the Rap, Leonard doesn't develop his ideas, he flogs them. That some of the ideas are good mitigated my frustration only slightly.

One more example: Riding the Rap brings the protagonist, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, into contact with a young woman who claims to be a psychic. Leonard has the wonderful idea of having Givens begin to talk like a psychic himself in his exchanges with the woman. Once I got the excellent joke, I wondered what Leonard would do with it. But he does nothing except repeat it periodically throughout the rest of the novel.

What kinds of self-reference, in-jokes, and undeveloped ideas drive you nuts in crime novels?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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23 Comments:

Anonymous Dan said...

Drawn to Leonard by watching "Justified," I found myself frustrated with the same unnecessary comments when I began to read Road Dogs. They rip a person right out of the narrative.

March 04, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I'm not sure that this kind of thing really bothers me. I think it's because so many people now do think of their life in relation to a movie, as if the movie was reality. Or as if the movies are a greater reality.

I guess I would have to read it in context.

March 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dan, interesting that "Road Dogs" is one of Leonard's very recent novels. I wonder if he slipped into excessive self-reference only recently in his long career.

March 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm not sure that this kind of thing really bothers me. I think it's because so many people now do think of their life in relation to a movie...

Seana:

That's still no reason for Leoanrd to hammer home the point long after he's already made it.

March 04, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Maybe, but if he's showing how they actually think it's different.

March 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, he might think he's doing that, but if so, I don't think it works. The movies are such an easy point of reference that if an author invokes them. especially if he invokes them repeatedly, he has do more than just say some action was "like in a movie." He has to make it some surprising action that one might not think suitable fo a movie comparison. Or else he has to explore the character's attraction to the movies in greater depth. I say Ridng the Rap does neither.

March 04, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Yeah I hate that shit. Its worse when it happens in first person narration. First person narration is dodgy enough as it is without nonsense like that.

March 04, 2012  
Blogger Richard L. Pangburn said...

Elmore Leonard wrote a lot of tripe, for money, and I suspect he would admit that.

His collected western stories, which were collected and published in hardcover in 2004, are mostly borderline YA formula action tales, difficult for sophisticated readers to digest now.

But, the man could write when he was inspired: HOMBRE is a classic I blogged about and deconstructed as an existentialist novel, ahead of its time. I liked the movie too, but the novel is better.

He also wrote VALDEZ IS COMING and the original 3:10 TO YUMA, both of them made into quality movies.

There are things I like about JUSTIFIED, which is partly a western, but it drags more and more the longer it goes on. More melodrama, less humor. I'd rather watch repeats of the defunct Sci-Fi western, FIREFLY, these days, because the humor seems fresher, even the second time.

And his later books need better editing, as you point out. Elmore Leonard was born back in 1925, which makes him eight years older than Cormac McCarthy. I forgive these old masters their errors in style, but I wish they had better copy editors.

March 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, Leonard works mostly in third-person, but, as your man Martin Amis said, his third-person is like first-person in disguise. So, yeah, Elmore, we get it. The guy models his life on movies.

March 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Richard, before I go any further, Leonard, at least in recent years, has cheerfully acknowledged that he started writing Westerns because that's where the money was, then switched to crime when the Western market dried up.

March 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Richard, I loved the story "3:10 to Yuma." As for better editing, I suspect that publishers will not bother a writer of Elmore Leonard's age and stature with such petty irritations.

March 04, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I guess I would have to read the book to see if it worked for me or not.

But I do like Leonard. I think he has an original point of view on America, and though there are a lot of "losers" in his book, he doesn't treat them condescendingly or even unsympathetically. I think by implication we are all those losers.

March 05, 2012  
Anonymous Jack Getze said...

Leonard is America's greatest living writer. He has always been fascinated with the movies, as is America. The sequel to Out of Sight contains a description that sounds like George Clooney. And Get Shorty was written to poke fun at Dustin Hoffman, who slighted Elmore in a planned movie deal.

March 05, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I think the one thing that people always notice about Leonard, after his dialogue, is the sympathetic way he deals with characters on both sides of the law. That's noticeable even in Riding the Rap, although it seemed a bit forced and schematic.

March 05, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jack, I had heard the Dustin Hoffman story but not the Clooney. I do know that Leonard has praised Clooney's performance in Out of Sight and that he talks about movies of his own books with more enthusiasm than a lot of authors do. I think he likes the movies, likes movie stars, likes being around them. Who knows? That may account for all the "like in the movies" references.

March 05, 2012  
Blogger Louis XIV, "The Sun King" (Nick Jones) said...

Have to say, I disagree on the editing on Leonard's later novels. I don't think it's a case of bad copyediting, or editors not wanting to bother Leonard with such trifles. I think it's more that by this point in his career, Leonard has effectively developed his own language – not just cadences and flow and dialogue, but punctuation as well. If there's no apostrophe where you expect one to be, well, that's just how it is in Elmore Leonard's world. And in many ways it IS Leonard's world: few, if any, contemporary crime writers can touch him in my opinion.

I've got a lot of time for Justified as well – see this post on Raylan and its predecessors on Pronto, Riding the Rap and Fire in the Hole.

Interesting discussions on these Leonard posts, and splendid blog overall: dunno why I haven't bookmarked before, but I just wandered over from Violent World of Parker (where I'm co-blogger), so I'm adding it to my Existential Ennui blog roll now. Cheers! Nick

March 06, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Welcome, Lou, and thanks for the kind words. I've long admired The Violent World of Parker, and I occasionally post there. I never knew Trent Reynolds had a co-blogger. In that case, you both do a fine job.

I haven't read enough Leonard to judge the big questions you raise, but your explanation and my complaint about Riding the Rap are not necessarily mutually excusive. Leonard may well have developed his own language, but editors could still be scared to tell a writer of his stature that some bits of it don't work. In any case, I will concede that whatever quibbles I may have with Leonard and his old pal George V. Higgins, the style they introduced is so deeply entrenched and so influential that it may be difficult to remember that someone had to invent this stuff, and they did it.

More to the point, if Leonard tried stylistic experiments with, say, punctuation, that did not work, I'm entitled to respect his attempt even if I don't like the result. Jimmy the Kid and The Black Ice Score are not good books, but I respect the hell out of Westlake for attempting something different with both.

March 06, 2012  
Blogger Louis XIV, "The Sun King" (Nick Jones) said...

True dat, to use a colloquialism quite out of keeping with my British origins. Oddly enough I reviewed Jimmy the Kid recently, and reached the same conclusion: a startling experiment, but not a great book. In any case, I have to admit my theory regarding Leonard's punctuation is pure conjecture on my part. Still, that's never stopped me making ill-informed statements in the past!

I've been co-blogging on Violent World since August of last year; Trent invited me on cos of all the Westlake blogging I'd been doing on Existential Ennui. You can usually tell which are my posts: for the most part they're the tedious, prolix ones about book collecting.

March 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And all that stuff Westlake did: shaing chapters with Joe Gores, using the same opening chapter in two different books from two different point of view, having the normally taciturn Parker shoot his mouth off in The Black Ice Score, even the process by which Dortmunder had his origins in what was supposed to be a Parker book. Not everything he tried worked, but it was almost always fun.

There may be something to what you say about Leoanrd's punctuation; one of the previous commenters on this post hinted at something similar. I never said Leonard didn't know that he was doing with all those question marks. I just said it was annoying and unnecessary. And here's a link to The Violent World of Parker for those who don't know it.

March 07, 2012  
Blogger Louis XIV, "The Sun King" (Nick Jones) said...

I love all those literary games Westlake played. I've blogged about some of them over the past year or so – see this post on Dead Skip/Plunder Squad for one, but there are others on Slayground/The Blackbird, the other Grofield novels, and Butcher's Moon, which of course features characters from across the whole series; you can find them through EE's search box (and many are also on Violent World).

March 08, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I just posted a comment on your Dead Skip/Plunder Squad post. The Slayground/Blackbird and 32 Cadillacs/Drowned Hopes ones were what I had in mind.

I finally bought Butcher's Moon in the University of Chicago Press edition. It was worth the wait, one of my favorites in the series. I wonder if he got the idea to bring back old charaters from Hammett, who included at least one of his old characters on the list of crooks brought in for "The Big Knockover." It would not have been Stark's first not to Hammett.

March 08, 2012  
Blogger Louis XIV, "The Sun King" (Nick Jones) said...

You may well be right, Peter. I loved Butcher's Moon; it was like the end of The X-Factor, when they bring back all the contestants from the series, including the no-hopers.

I'd be willing to bet that's the first time a Richard Stark book has been compared to The X-Factor. And the last, I suspect.

Thanks for the comment on my blog, Peter!

March 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My pleasure. I added your blog to my blog roll also.

"Butcher's Moon" is one of my favorites in the series, right up there with "The Hunter" and "The Score." And maybe "The Outfit," too.

March 09, 2012  

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