Among crime novelists past and present, Elmore Leonard is a prime number, a talent so simple and elemental that it refuses to be divided by comparison to others. Whether he’s hanging with mobsters in Miami Beach, dreamers in Detroit or hustlers in Hollywood, his every dark comedy really takes place in Leonard Land, a closed universe populated by lovable cons, ex-cons and soon-to-be-cons whose dialogue is so spot-on that you hear it rather than read it. The one character you’ll never find in Leonard Land is the author himself. Leonard works hard to stay out of the frame and allow his characters to take over, moving and grooving to their own unpredictable beat.
“When I start a book, I never know how it’s going to end. I never know what’s going to happen,” Leonard admits. “I don’t have a computer. I write in longhand and then I put it on a typewriter, then I rewrite that, and rewrite it and rewrite it. It takes about four pages to get one clean page. I just start writing and keep going.”
The one thing Leonard won’t tolerate is fancy prose. As he states in his 10 Rules of Writing: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
At 83, with 30 novels to his credit in a career that spans more than half a century, Leonard remains up to his splendid tricks. In his latest, Road Dogs, he takes characters from three previous novels and combines them into a whole that is greater—and funnier—than the sum of its parts. Road Dogs also serves as something of a Leonard Land retrospective, with shout-outs to everyone from the hanging judge in Maximum Bob to Miami Beach bookie Harry Arno in Pronto to the otherworldly possibilities of Touch.
The “road dogs” in question are Jack Foley, the charming bank robber played to perfection by George Clooney in the film version of Out of Sight, and his prison wingman Cundo Rey, the millionaire Cuban hustler/go-go dancing Cat Prince from LaBrava. Both are facing years behind bars in Florida’s Glades Correctional until Cundo secures the services of a hot young female attorney. She manages to spring Jack first, with Cundo’s release to follow in two weeks.
Since Cundo paid Jack’s $30,000 legal fees, Foley agrees to crash at one of his oceanfront homes in Venice, California, and keep an eye on Dawn Navarro, the professional psychic from Riding the Rap, who has been Cundo’s lady in waiting for seven years. It takes little effort for Dawn to seduce Jack, but he’s cautious when she attempts to enlist him in a scheme to steal Cundo’s off-the-books fortune. The plot starts perking when Cundo arrives home a day early, throwing the dynamics between the three into the spin cycle.
Leonard has occasionally revisited characters in the past, including Raylin Givens (Rum Punch) and Harry Arno (Pronto) in Riding the Rap and Chili Palmer (Get Shorty) in Be Cool.
“I had no reservations bringing back these three characters. I felt that I hadn’t done quite enough with them,” he says. “I was anxious to use them because I know them. They have personalities of their own and I could make them talk, that’s the main thing.”
But he hit a small snag when it came to Cundo Rey. “I wanted to use him, so I had to open LaBrava to see what happened to him and I went, oh God, he’s dead!” Leonard chuckles. “He’s not pronounced dead, but Joe LaBrava shoots him in the chest three times. So I just have the emergency squad pick him up and say, ‘Hey, he’s still breathing!’ That took care of that.”
Then there was the Clooney factor. Since the success of Steven Soderbergh’s film version of Out of Sight, it’s become virtually impossible to separate Foley from Clooney—not that Leonard minds. “I loved the casting. In fact, I wondered, can I do another Foley picturing Clooney? And I had no problem,” he says.
It may prove a bigger obstacle should a film version of Road Dogs come up for discussion, as it almost certainly will. “Universal owns those characters now, so we either have to sell this to them or get an agreement that allows us to go somewhere else. And they don’t want to do that; they don’t like things to slip out of their hands,” the author says.
Leonard got his start, and perhaps his fascination for fringe dwellers, in the 1950s, writing Westerns on the side while holding down a “real” job in advertising. When the market for Westerns dried up, he switched to crime. “I would read John D. MacDonald’s stories in Cosmopolitan and different places and think, that’s what I should be doing,” he recalls. His early attempts fell somewhere between the giants of the genre.
“The book that changed my style somewhat was The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George Higgins. I think that’s the best crime book ever written. It’s about bank robbers and the guy who supplies clean guns for every job,” Leonard says. “What I learned is, I was already using a lot of dialogue, moving the story with dialogue, but I wasn’t getting into scenes as quickly. I was setting up scenes and then getting the characters talking, instead of getting them talking first. [Afterward] editors would complain, ‘I don’t know what’s going on here, these two people are talking,’ and I would say, just stay with it, you’ll find out where they are.”
Leonard’s books have become increasingly verbal ever since. Where other crime writers mourned the coming of the cell phone as the loss of a suspense tool (“Where’s a pay phone?!”), Leonard loved it. His characters in Road Dog may spend more time yakking on their mobiles than actually speaking face-to-face.
Leonard and his wife Christine, longtime residents of the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, have five children and nine grandchildren. Though he’s still in top form, he’s inevitably asked if he plans to retire anytime soon.
“No, there is nothing else I want to do,” he says. “I have no reason to quit. I’d be bored.”
Jay MacDonald writes from Austin, Texas.