Elmore Leonard, the Shakespeare of scam
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, September 23, 2000)

By Elmore Leonard
Delacorte Press, 263 pp., $37.95

By Paul Challen
ECW Press, 164 pp., $17.95

If Professor James Moriarty, the enemy of Sherlock Holmes, stands for the highest form of criminal intelligence known to fiction, the platoons of malefactors in Elmore Leonard's novels represent the lowest. Moriarty is the criminal as genius, and he fills Holmes with both respect and dread: "He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson." The typical Elmore Leonard felon, on the other hand, could be described by a phrase that one character in his novel Freaky Deaky applies to another: "If the man was any dumber, you'd have to water him twice a week."

The truth is that, with the rarest exceptions, only the congenitally dumb make crime their career choice. Police officers solve most cases by looking for the inevitable blunders made by perps. The cliché "a criminal always returns to the scene of the crime" may well be a shortened version of what I imagine has always been a basic law of criminology: a criminal always thinks of some damn fool thing to do, like returning to the scene. Leonard, who celebrates his 75th birthday on Oct. 11, has spent much of his career exploiting the comedy inherent in this truth. His characters do not know they are stupid, just as they do not know they are funny. Leonard hides this information from them, so that they can keep his plots spinning. His characters are cursed with a belief in their own ingenuity, and even as they're carted off to the slammer, they still don't know where they went wrong.

Most Leonard books contain a big bag of money and several people scheming to acquire it. When a man and a woman come together in a Leonard book, they typically have two loves: each other and the big bag of money. In his 36th novel, Pagan Babies, one central character, Terry Dunn, has spent years working as a priest in Rwanda in order to escape a cigarette-smuggling prosecution; Leonard so skillfully handles the horrors of Rwandan genocide that it takes us a while to realize that Terry has evaded prison by hiding in the most dangerous place on Earth. Debbie Dewey, the other protagonist, has just served three years for intentionally driving a Ford Escort over the creep who lived with her for a while and stole her money. Debbie plans a career doing stand-up comedy based on her penal experience, but in the meantime she's content to be Terry's lover and co-conspirator.

She falls in with his plan to defraud the public with a phony aid program for orphans in Rwanda. But then they decide instead to extort money from her hateful ex, now a restaurant owner who is so dumb that he considers it an exciting sign of success when the Mafia decides to become his business partner. Next, the plotters aim higher and go after the money of a Mafia chieftain. Eventually, of course, they steal from each other. Meanwhile, Leonard fills the background with typically Leonardian bit players, including a hit man so dense that his employer has to keep reminding him which guy he's supposed to hit.

Swindling is Leonard's most persistent theme, and he never tires of explaining the elaborate lengths to which people will go to cheat one another. He's often called the best living crime writer, but with him that doesn't carry the usual meaning. In Leonard's books there are few crimes to solve, and no real mysteries. He usually indicates, as soon as we meet a character, just how depraved this particular villain is. There are no heroic cops, and little in the way of police procedures. Certain characters turn up more than once, but he has no star player like Robert B. Parker's Spenser.

In place of the mysteries and the ace detectives, Leonard offers con games and dialogue. Wherever his novels go, scamming goes with them. If you meet a psychic in a Leonard book (like Riding the Rap) you don't know whether she's really a psychic or just a fraud artist. If a true healer shows up, as in Touch, his novel about a former Franciscan brother who can cure the sick, everyone near him immediately starts figuring out how to use his talent in some criminal subterfuge. In Cuba Libre, the novel he set in the midst of the Spanish-American war, Leonard has the hero and his girlfriend plotting to steal the money of her lover, a rich planter. Leonard contemplates an imaginative con with the same pleasure that Shakespeare took in a clever regicide. T.S. Eliot said of Shakespeare, "he was occupied with turning human actions into poetry." Substitute "dialogue" for "poetry" and you have Leonard -- and dialogue, rendered with what sounds like total accuracy, is of course Leonard's form of poetry. It also carries his narrative.

Leonard believes that The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the classic by the late George V. Higgins, taught him a lot about letting the characters tell the story. He had been heading in that direction for a long time, but the Higgins book (published in 1972) showed him precisely how narrative and dialogue can flow together and support each other. Some Leonard books rely on dialogue more than others, but, as he says, "you never hear me. That's the main thing." In a sense, he's the most self-effacing of authors. On the other hand, his style is so personal that most of his readers could probably identify an isolated page of Leonard without hesitation.

In Pagan Babies, a first-class Leonard, he once again takes chances. A crime novel that starts with mass death in Rwanda and ends with farce in Detroit could have produced nausea and accusations of bad taste. But Leonard's tone is so right, and his step so nimble, that those questions don't arise.

This season he's the subject of Get Dutch!: A Biography of Elmore Leonard, by a Canadian writer, Paul Challen. Unfortunately, Challen offers a set of scattered responses rather than a coherent analysis. His approach is humble, even apologetic. He defers constantly to various critics, and never for a moment suggests that his views are worth more than those of any other Leonard reader. This is at first annoying and then mystifying. Why go to all this trouble (studying the books and what others have written about them, interviewing Leonard, etc.) if not to produce something more substantial than a fan's notes?

Get Dutch! (Dutch is Leonard's well-known nickname) can't be called a biography, either. It contains no letters of any consequence, no attempt to understand Leonard's inner life, and no serious account of how he appears to the people close to him. Challen adds little to what we were told in two earlier and equally brief books, David Geherin's from 1989 and James Devlin's from 1999, and Challen's style and structure don't help. He seems not to worry about repetition, for instance. Typically, on page xviii he tells us that Leonard looks like a grandfather and in fact is "Eleven grandchildren's grandfather." Then, on page 19, he says: "Leonard also has 11 grandchildren." On page 15 he says that when Leonard worked in advertising, in the 1950s, he got up in the morning to write his novels before going to work. Then, on page 17, he says that Leonard, in his first years as a novelist, used to write his novels in the early morning. Challen may have spent a long time getting his book together, but a reader will go through it in an evening and find the repetitions jarring.

Nor do clichés bother him. Leonard and his first wife "tied the knot in 1949," and in some deal or other "it looked like all systems were go." He exhibits an uncharming naïveté ("My talk with Leonard went fantastically well") and his use of material is never shrewd. Gregg Sutter, Leonard's researcher, fills much space, apparently because he was available and talkative.

Challen appears nervous when he edges toward the most painful zone in Leonard's life, the alcoholism that took hold of him 30-some years ago, led to drunk-driving charges, and sent him into Alcoholics Anonymous in 1974 (he took his last drink in 1977). Challen makes it clear that he was fearful about raising this issue with Leonard, but he surely can't have imagined that he was dealing with intimate secrets: As Leonard pointed out, he has discussed alcoholism and AA in print and was willing to talk about it again.

In any case, Leonard's most acute insights about drinking go into his fiction, where of course they belong. At a certain point in Unknown Man No. 89, the pace of the story slows to a walk and we know something unusual is happening: If Leonard slips into slow gear, there's a reason. Here he wants to build gradually toward a masterly account of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting -- a piece of writing that piercingly evokes a characteristic contemporary milieu and at the same time locks perfectly into his plot. My favourite part of this section is the story of an alcoholic who resolves on Sept. 28 to stop drinking but on reconsideration decides to wait until Oct. 1 because in future that will make it easier to remember the day he decided to join AA. That's a perfect Leonard thought. There are few writers anywhere who can pack so much human folly into a dozen words.

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