Why is Elmore Leonard so damn good when he’s at his best? His best excuses his worst in the same way hitting a three at the buzzer in game seven excuses a season of bad rebounding and missed lay-ups. His middling caper novels are better than the best of most writers; the best Leonard is seeing the master work because you don’t see him work unless you’re paying attention to all those deft cuts and all that masterful dialog. You have to slow down if you’re going to consciously notice how good he is, because you’re reading so fast that you’re not even reading—you’re living, and when you look up and see it’s two hours later and you still have to get up for work in the morning, you’re let down because work isn’t going to be nearly as good as what you’ve just been reading.
He’s so good that reading generalized criticism raises my hackles. One disappointing part of Reading Like a Writer came with the put-down that Leonard, though highly skilled as a writer, is basically formulaic. He’s not, and the rest of Reading Like a Writer lets me chalk up the disagreement to differing taste, but accepting Prose’s judgment on other books doesn’t come as swiftly after she hits Leonard.
Still, even I have a hierarchy within the Leonard canon. I didn’t love The Hot Kid: Leonard’s milieu is in the contemporary caper world; his early westerns don’t hold up well. Some reviewers, including the one of the NYTBR, called The Hot Kid his best, but I disagree. He’s said that it takes about a million published words, and if his westerns trained him for his later work, I’m glad they were published.
It’s tough to get a feel for Leonard without reading an entire book. He doesn’t deliver big ideas into poetic aphorisms. His genius is between and among the lines, and it’s often not until I’m done with a book that I realize how good it is—not just in terms of the “plot,” which is the only way people can defend garbage like The Da Vinci Code, but in terms of the writing and especially the dialog. This comes from Out of Sight, although stripped of the preceding pages it doesn’t come as such a surprise:
He said, “It doesn’t have to, it’s something that happens. It’s like seeing a person you never saw before—you could be passing on the street—and you look at each other . . .”
Karen was nodding. “You make eye contact without meaning to.”
“And for a few moments,” Foley said, “there’s a kind of recognition. You look at each other and you know something.”
“That no one else knows,” Karen said. “You see it in their eyes.”
“And the next moment the person’s gone,” Foley said, “and it’s too late to do anything about it, but you remember it because it was right there and you let it go, and you think, What if I had stopped and said something. It might only happen a few times in your life.”
Yeah, we know what you mean. The exchange is so good because of how implausible it is, and yet its perfection in the story’s context. They’re telling us what Charles Foster Kane did fifty years ago—he once saw a girl in a white dress on a passing ferry, and yet still often thinks of her, even after acquiring all the wealth and power the world had to offer. Leonard’s characters don’t have anything but their experience and wits, but they feel the same feelings, the same longings, that don’t know the boundaries of class or time.
In the story you get the impression that Foley and Karen Sisco are overcoming themselves to have that exchange, each tentatively probing to see if the other is going to shut down, and in a flawed book it would’ve been forced. But the passage fits so naturally, and it’s so understated, that you’re already jumping ahead to what happens next. But Leonard doesn’t overplay his hand—he seldom does—and the description doesn’t fail. Problem is that it might be too late for Foley, this thing that happens only a few times in his life, but you’re not quite sure: with Leonard it could go either way.
One unusual note about Out of Sight: it’s almost as good a movie as a book, and experiencing both back to back is worthwhile.
The best of Leonard’s best is Get Shorty, and if you haven’t read it already, get it. The only danger in starting with it is the possibility of disappointment when you read the rest, but it’s worth the risk.
He is, after all, both popular in the sense of making the bestseller lists, and respected by reviewers and critics. It’s a rare feat these days, with the stereotypical effete, elite fiction dominating among the literati while garbage thrillers occupy the New York Times bestseller lists, to have both—and be worthy of them.