If you are a fan of Elmore Leonard, who passed away Aug. 20 at age 87 at his Michigan home, chances are you have a touch of larceny in your soul. Not the stick-up-a-convenience-store variety, mind you; more a guilty appreciation for revenge served cold or a bad deed done well.
Leonard’s turf has always been the gray area where all manner of lost and disoriented souls find justification for their actions. However disparate his characters may appear on the surface, like always attracts like in Leonard’s world, whether they’re cops and crooks or saints and sinners.
Those who managed to somehow miss the written works of the “Dickens of Detroit” probably know Leonard best for the Hollywood versions of his lowdown character studies, such as the George Clooney-Jennifer Lopez hit, “Out of Sight,” the John Travolta mob-meets-movie-industry crime comedy, “Get Shorty,” or his late-bloomer of a TV series, “Justified.”
Leonard’s typical setup was simple: throw together a handful of honest, hardworking sorts with two or three desperately compromised schemers, add money or revenge as the plot engine, shake well and let them reason it all out, or not, with that wickedly funny dialog that was his stock in trade. In “Rum Punch,” the ingredients are an arms dealer, a flight attendant and a bail bondsman. In “Pagan Babies,” it’s a Detroit street preacher, a Rwandan charity and a stand-up comedienne. In “Tishomingo Blues,” it’s a carnival high diver, a Detroit money launderer and the “Cornbread Costa Nostra.”
Mo’ money and credit card abuse for their own sake were rarely prime motivators for Leonard’s unlikely assemblages of dirt bags and dreamers. Instead, he preferred to mine the far richer veins of justice, revenge and the humorous rulemaking we all engage in to keep our financial lives on track.
When NPR’s Kai Ryssdal suggested in a 2010 interview that Leonard write a novel about the financial crisis and fast times on Wall Street, the author wanted no part of it. “Where’s the action?” Leonard asked. “My people don’t have stock. I think it’s the most boring thing in the world to make your money that way, using money to make money.”
That said, debt, with its laundry list of discontents, was the chief stock in trade of Chili Palmer, the lovable mobbed-up Miami loan shark who moves west to see how much juice he can squeeze from the Hollywood film industry (“Get Shorty”) and the record biz (“Be Cool”).
It was my good fortune to have the opportunity to interview Leonard several times over the years. Though it wasn’t widely known, Leonard had a particular fondness for auctioning off for charity the naming rights to a character or two in his works-in-progress. In “Mr. Paradise,” a prominent federal judge named Avern Cohen earned the distinction of becoming a bottom-feeding defense attorney who runs a murder-for-hire racket on the side. In “Be Cool,” Leonard transformed a diminutive guy named Elliot Wilhelm, who runs the film program at the Detroit Institute of Art, into a six-foot-six, 260-pound gay Samoan bodyguard.
“I was thinking of that actor, the Rock, who can raise one eyebrow to indicate that he can act and they hired him to play the part,” Leonard said.
In our chats over the years, Leonard always expressed genuine surprise that readers knew him at all, and that those who did considered him a mystery writer, though given his seedy casts, he well understood.
“I feel a little out of place because I don’t write mysteries,” he told me. “There’s nothing mysterious going on.”
And I could always tell by the way he said it that he rather liked getting away with a little
harmless larceny himself.