Crimes & Casinos, Miami & Puerto Rico – R.I.P. Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard. Photo: Lisa Carpenter, The Guardian.

I was sad to hear of the death of Elmore Leonard a week and a half ago. He was 87, and had suffered a stroke earlier in the month.

He was one of my favourite crime writers. I liked him particularly for his ability to make me laugh and of course for his distinct style which he worked out to help him remain invisible in his novels. This he encapsulated in his ten rules of writing:

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing
1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

* Excerpted from the New York Times article, “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle”

Leonard’s writing is very action driven, he really isn’t big on description, and yes, he doesn’t use adverbs to modify dialogue, they’re rare in the rest of the text too. Yet, from the characters dialogue and what they’re doing, the reader can intuit what they need.  But you need to concentrate! (note to self – use less exclamation marks, rule 5).

I realised that I hadn’t read one of his books for absolutely ages. Glitz, published in 1985, was his break-out crime novel.  He had started writing westerns in the 1950s including Hombre which was made into a film with Paul Newman in the 1960s, before changing direction into crime-writing.

Glitz by Elmore Leonard

One of the things that Leonard is brilliant at is opening lines…

The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.

We’re straight into meeting Vincent Mora, an off-duty cop in Miami, who gets shot by a mugger on his way home from getting the groceries. He takes a slug through his side and ends up in intensive care, but not before firing back at his attacker. Vincent decides to convalesce in Puerto Rico, which is also where Teddy Magyk is, fresh out of prison. Enjoying himself, Vincent meets a girl, Iris. She’s been offered a job at a casino up in Atlantic City as a ‘hostess’. Iris also has the misfortune to be spotted by Teddy, and tells him about her new job.

Meanwhile once a cop, always a cop, and Vincent is helping the local police to keep busy – there are two bodies – a taxi driver and a little old lady.  Vincent has spotted Teddy watching him and Iris, and vaguely recognises him from somewhere – turns out Vincent put Teddy away seven years ago.  They can’t prove he did the murders yet, but deport him back to the mainland anyway.

Teddy promptly hotfoots it to Atlantic City, and then sends a ‘message’ that will get Vincent to follow too.  Vincent immerses himself in the business of Spade’s Boardwalk Casino where Iris was working and entertaining a gentleman from Bogotá. This unbeknowst to Nancy Donovan, wife of Tommy who owns the casino with Jackie Garbo – she is one sharp businesswoman…

‘A player brings in a lot of cash, hon, we have to look at it impartially, only as money, nothing else. In other words we have to keep our eye on the player’s line of credit. Guy bets heavy, offers us a shot at him, we have to concentrate on taking about twenty percent of his dough if we expect to make a profit.’ Tommy frowned. ‘I explained all this once before, didn’t I?’
Wrong wrong wrong. Jackie held onto the arms of his chair. She was going to kill him.
‘Mr Osvaldo Benavides, from Bogotá,’ Nancy said, ‘deposited a million nine, in cash, and left with our check for almost a million eight.’
Jackie watched Tommy twist in the chair again, the schmuck finally realizing what was happening to him. He took a moment and said, ‘That’s not twenty percent but, see, it averages out.’
‘Once a month,’ Nancy said, ‘you fly Mr. Benavides here in the company plane-‘
‘Just from Miami,’ Tommy said.
Jackie closed his eyes.
‘He draws up markers for up to two million in cash, loses five to ten percent, never more than that in the last seven months,’ Nancy said, ‘and goes home with a clean check for the balance. Mr.Benavides is laundering his money in our casino. Since you’re aware of it, both of you, I have to believe you approve.’
Tommy said, ‘Honey, Jesus Christ …’
Nancy waited, ‘Yes?’
‘Hon, this is a tricky, complicated business.’
Nancy waited again, Jackie watching her. Broad was a f**king shark. Gets her teeth in you and never lets go – and though, Wait a minute. She’s in the boat too, isn’t she?

Again Vincent ends up informally helping the local police, particularly by stirring things up between the local hoods – ‘Wonderful things can happen,’ Vincent said, ‘when you plant seeds of distrust in a garden of assholes.’

All this time though, Vincent is unwittingly playing a cat and mouse game with Teddy, and Vincent is the mouse…

Glitz has everything that we’ve come to expect from an Elmore Leonard novel – the quick-fire repartee and cracking gags, guns and money, dumb hoodlums and sassy women, and always a couple of characters you can feel for.

Plotwise, this probably wasn’t my favourite so far of those I’ve read (I have a soft spot for Maximum Bob), but it was complicated and entertaining in equal measure. I’ll be reading lots more, including Hombre to see what his westerns are like.  (8.5/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
GlitzHombreMaximum BobElmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing – all by Elmore Leonard

5 thoughts on “Crimes & Casinos, Miami & Puerto Rico – R.I.P. Elmore Leonard

    • gaskella says:

      If you’ve seen and enjoyed Tarantino’s film Jackie Brown (based on Rum Punch), you’d enjoy the book – the film is very true to the book – totally dialogue and action driven. That’ll probably tell you whether you’ll enjoy reading one of his books.

  1. Debra says:

    My dear long departed Daddy was ten million times better than a crime writer ; he was the real McCoy : a forensic pathologist.
    You really can’t get any more… clinical than that.
    I can understand Leonard’s rules from a certain perspective. They have become… a literal straitjacket that is taking any kind of writing down.
    These days I have uncontrollable impulses to break all the rules..
    To ressuscitate the qualifying adjective…
    This year, I am going to sit down, take a sip of some vintage French wine, and open up Balzac, and finally get through the fifty page.. descriptions that open his novels.
    AFTER… I finish reading “Hamlet”…
    And I have sworn to not buy ANY crime novels. (not that I have many in my home anyway)

    • gaskella says:

      It seems that for many reasons crime novels aren’t your thing Debra. In Leonard’s defence, his rules were made for his own writing – no-one else need use them. I hope you enjoy your reading – à chacun son goût.

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