For Elmore Leonard, Crime Pays
Or page one of Glitz, the cop Vincent Mora, off duty, coming home one night, walking from his car to his apartment building, when he is approached by a guy with a gun who demands his wallet.
Vincent turned his head to look at the guy and there was a moment when he could have taken him and did consider it, hitting the guy as hard as he could. But Vincent was carrying a sack of groceries. He wasn’t going to drop a half gallon of Gallo Hearty Burgundy, a bottle of prune juice and a jar of Ragú spaghetti sauce on the sidewalk.
Vincent gets shot. Through the bottle of Hearty Burgundy.
Leonard never misses an opportunity, on paper or in real life. In 1983, The Detroit News named him Michiganian of the Year. The man presenting the award said, “True to your nickname, derived from a fabled baseball pitcher, you deliver the high, hard one.”
“Unfortunately,” said the author, accepting the honor, “Dutch Leonard threw knucklers. He threw junk.”
Usually he is more subtle. Out back in the garage, well, go take a look. Two cars. A turbocharged Saab and a Mercedes. In Detroit. Leonard slips into the Saab. Grins slyly, says nothing. He has found his sound and perfected it.
The sound is finally paying off.
For the movie rights to Stick, Leonard was paid $350,000. He got $400,000 for LaBrava and $450,000 for Glitz. The paperback rights to LaBrava went for $363,000. Fourteen of his books are now being reissued. Glitz was the last of a two-book deal with Arbor House. Over dinner one night in Los Angeles, Leonard’s agent, H.N. Swanson, told two Arbor people he didn’t think the $40,000 advance for Glitz in Leonard’s original contract was enough. Two weeks later a new contract arrived for $200,000.
Now that he is beginning a new book, publishing houses all over New York are jumping up and down, trying to entice Leonard. So are TV producers. During a visit to Los Angeles, Leonard was introduced to David Gerber of Gerber-MGM TV. Gerber suggested he ought to think about coming up with a crime series. “I thought it was social,” Leonard says. “A week later I get a contract in the mail for a one-hour series.”
Walter Mirisch of Universal also called. He wanted a series, too. Leonard said he was on his way down to Puerto Rico to finish research on Glitz.
Mirisch: “While you’re in Puerto Rico, you can research the series.”
Leonard: “What are you going to call it, P.R.P.I.?”
Nine-thirty in the morning is when Leonard starts to write.
The den, a small room to the left of the foyer, is ferociously neat. Big dark desk, 200 years old, stack of special-order yellow writing sheets, 5000 for sixty dollars, right there in the middle. Next to the desk, on a table against the wall, a secondhand Olympia. The writing begins in longhand on the yellow sheets; the writing and the rewriting; rewriting again. When he likes the pages, he copies them on the typewriter.
“Some days I might write a paragraph, I might write eleven pages,” he says. “Then I reach a point where it stops. I don’t know my next line. That’s when I type the pages. Once in a while I am typing and I think of a line to add. So I type that, too. Otherwise everything is done in longhand first. I feel a lot closer to the story when I’m touching it.”
Over on the wall is a photograph of Ernest Hemingway, autographed, to a guy named Joe, December 1937. A friend gave it to Leonard. He says: “That’s how I learned to write, studying Hemingway. I studied very, very carefully how he approached a scene, used points of view, what he described and what he didn’t, how he told so much just in the way a character talked. When I was writing Westerns, it struck me.” He grins. “For Whom the Bell Tolls was a 1940 Spanish Western.”
Leonard’s characters take on most of the burden of telling the story. “I don’t want it to sound like writing,” he says. “I want you to get right into it and not be aware of me telling the story. My attitude toward the characters gives them a sound. I like all the people, think of them as kids. Or I think of a bank robber who’s dominated by his wife. Here’s this tough guy who at home is totally a wimp.”
In Glitz, we encounter the bad guy who goes around killing folks for fun. The creep lives with his mom and her parrot in New Jersey, is totally cowed by the old woman and is always asking her for money, which she won’t give him. In The Switch, the whole premise of the book is an irony. Two guys kidnap a well-to-do country-club mom and phone her husband with the ransom demand: $1,000,000 or you’ll never see your wife again. Except that her husband has just filed for divorce and doesn’t give a damn if he does see her again.
It took a while for reviewers to see what Leonard was up to. “I was always thrown into the Chandler-Hammett-MacDonald school,” Leonard says. “I wasn’t influenced by them at all. I was influenced by other guys — Mark Harris, Richard E. Bissell and Kurt Vonnegut — their attitudes and how they see absurdities.”
Parts of Leonard’s own story seem filled with absurdities, or at least ironies. Read a few of his books, you imagine this tough guy hanging around hoodlums, picking up their jargon, examining their psyches. Forget it. You know how every so often some housewife in the Midwest, fifty years old, goes to the public library, does a bunch of research, sends off an unsolicited manuscript…and wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction?
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