Elmore Leonard’s Game

My father, who had the taste to love Sam Cooke, recommended Elmore Leonard to me at one point, many years back.  He thought I would like Elmore and I did.   Between us we probably read every book Elmore Leonard wrote, often passing them on to each other.  I think my father even read the westerns, the early novels.   I may have only read one of those.  But I was always happy to find a new crime novel by Elmore Leonard on the bookshelf at the library, snatched it up immediately, read it in a day or two, passed it on to my father if he hadn’t read it already.

Master of dialogue, and ingenious plot twist, and creator of page turning interest, Leonard often underscored the cool of his bold, sometimes stupid characters by showing that they weren’t in a hurry.   “He lit a cigarette and looked at her, taking his time.”   I noticed early on that every single book by Leonard contained the line “taking his time”, usually several times. Thus began the game Elmore and I, the reader, used to play.

I would chuckle, as I read some of them, to see that Elmore had taken his time using “taking his time” in a book.  I’d note on the bookmark, p. 117, and smile, nod, “good one, man,” I’d say to Elmore Leonard.  Then he’d pepper the next chapter with it, 124, 127, 131.  Damn, he’s good, I used to think.

Of course, I love dialogue too.  And space on the page.  I literally begin choking when I see a block of text margin to margin in every direction, an immense, dense paragraph filling the entire battlefield of the page.   It’s like music, when somebody’s playing on every single beat, and somebody else is too, and there’s a wall of strings behind them, and the singer comes in, bleating directly on every beat.

“Let me breathe, damn you!” I mutter, closing a book with its black pages of type, and not taking my time about it.  I literally won’t read those books, no matter how wonderful the writing might be.  Open any place in Mein Kampf and you’ll see that kind of merciless shit, page-long paragraph followed by two page paragraph.

Terry Gross ran a nice tribute to Elmore Leonard recently, an edited version of her 1995 and 1999 interviews.  At one point Elmore says, once again warming my heart:

I like dialogue. I like to see that white space on the page and the exchanges of dialogue, rather than those big heavy, heavy paragraphs full of words. Because I remember feeling intimidated back in the, say, in the ’40s, when I first started to read popular novels, Book of the Month Club books, I would think, god, there are too many words in this book. And I still think there are too many words in most books. But dialogue appeals to me.

It appeals to me too.  Sometimes, sadly, the best dialogue I can find is here, tapping like a mechanical monkey on a keyboard, aware that it’s not a true dialogue.

“Don’t be so judgmental, man,” says Zeppo.

“Shut up, man, let the guy think,” says Ratso, a retired judge sensitive about such things.

You can hear Terry and Elmore Leonard talking here:


there is also a transcript of their conversation you can cut and paste, if you’re in college writing a term paper on Elmore Leonard, say.

When Leonard died the other day, at 87, I got an email from Sekhnet, who broke the news to me by writing that Elmore Leonard won’t be taking his time anymore.  Of course, she pointed out, ever ready to console, his characters still will.

I had to chuckle when, at around 15:30, toward the end of the interview with Terry Gross, Leonard describes the way Quentin Tarantino went about turning the novel Rum Punch into the movie Jackie Brown.  The interview is almost over when Leonard casually mentions that Tarantino took his time with it.

I loved it.


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