The illustrious crime novelist Elmore Leonard died last month at the age of 87 with, of course, yet another novel in progress.
His long career began in 1951 with the publication of his first western story. and among his achievements are two of the finest examples of the genre, Hombre, and Valdez Is Coming.
Both were made into movies. Hombre won all the awards, but Valdez Is Coming is the better book. In this intense story, Leonard leads the reader, after a long series of violent confrontations, to expect a lurid, bloody climax. But in the final scene, the main character, Bob Valdez, speaks a dozen quiet words, shattering the villain more completely that any Sharps rifle could ever do.
Of course, Hollywood muffed this great ending. Leonard was disdainful of its treatment of his books, with the exception of Get Shorty, the film that made him a household name. “After writing almost anonymously for decades,” Leonard said in 1995, “I am what you call an overnight success.
Leonard knew how to grab our attention. In one of the opening scenes from Pagan Babies, the main character, Father Terry Dunn, walks into a hut in Rwanda where four machete-wielding Hutu tribesman are taking a break from slaughtering Tutsis, refreshing themselves with banana beer. They ask Father Terry what he wants. He tells them he’s come to hear their Confessions. They act amused, but when they reach for their machetes, he pulls out a vintage automatic pistol and shoots them to bits.
When the smoke clears, Father Terry makes a solemn Sign of the Cross over their bloody corpses and says. “Rest in peace, motherfuckers.”
Leonard was also a master of the short story. Here’s the opening paragraph from The Tonto Woman, based on an event that occurred here in southern Arizona in 1851, when two white girls were kidnapped by the Tonto Apaches –
A time would come, within a few years, when Ruben Vega would go to the church in Benson, kneel at the confessional, and say to the priest, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been thirty-seven years since my last confession. . . since then I have fornicated with many women, maybe eight hundred,. No, not that many, considering my work, maybe six hundred only. ” And the priest would say, “Do you mean bad women or good women?” And Ruben Vega would say, “They are all good, Father.” He would tell the priest he had stolen, in that time, about twenty thousand head of cattle, but only maybe fifteen horses. The priest would ask him if he committed murder. Ruben Vega would say no. “All that stealing you’ve done, ” the priest would say, “You’ve never killed anyone?” And Ruben Vega would say, “Yes, of course, but it was not to commit murder. You understand the distinction? Not to kill someone to take a life, but only to save my own.”
Kinda makes you want to follow up on Ruben Vega, see what he gets up to, right?
After he forsook the western genre, Elmore Leonard reconfigured the crime novel. Most of his bad guys, like Ruben Vega, were a lot more interesting than the ones on the side of the law, leading to the time-worn joke that when Elmore reached the Pearly Gates, he’d decline entry, saying that the guys he’d rather hang out with were all down in Hell.
But a craftsman truly distinguishes himself when he “escapes the form.” Elmore Leonard did this with his best book, Touch, which contains very little violence, no cold-hearted bad guys, and minimal crime.
Written in 1977, the book languished on the publisher’s shelf because of its peculiar subject matter, and was not released until 1987. In his Author’s Note for the book, Leonard writes, “Friends of mine who read a lot tell me its my best work.”
And his friends were discerning readers indeed. They knew that an author’s primary job is to interest the reader in a conflict. The conflict between cowboys and Indians, or cops and crooks, is an easy sell.
But to get the reader to buy the idea that, in a rundown Detroit Rehab center, there lives a young guy named Juvenal, a man as common as a gray sweatshirt, who can cure the sick and the lame by the simple laying on of hands, and who also suffers from recurring incidences of stigmata (crucifixion wounds) – now that’s a hard sell. But Leonard, with skill and finesse, keeps us reading and believing, all the way to the end.
Any man who can do that deserves respect.
So farewell, Elmore. May you rest in peace. And thank you, thank you, thank you for all those great reads.