Elmore Leonard – More Hemingway than Hemingway

Elmore Leonard lived most of his life in Detroit, a working-class city, a ‘waste-not, want-not’ city. It’s no surprise he didn’t waste words in his fiction. Papa (Ernest) Hemingway is regarded by many as the ‘Father of Succinct Prose’: few adjectives, fewer adverbs. If Hemingway is the father, Leonard is the first son. In my view, he’s more Hemingway than Hemingway.

Leonard isn’t a traditional mystery writer. He doesn’t focus on sleuths trying to solve crimes. Instead, he delivers what I call Crime + Suspense. He keeps you guessing. You know the ‘hoods’ in his novels are going to pull a heist or execute a hit, but you don’t know how or when they’re going to do it.

Leonard generally writes from the point-of-view (POV) of criminals. In Get Shorty, for example, he creates an ambiance that sympathizes with – if not glamorizes – the criminal world.

As an aside, the majority of mystery novels feature detective leads, not criminal leads. When mystery authors use a murderer’s POV, to keep the whodunit in play they hide the murderer’s deepest thoughts – thoughts of murder. I’m not a big fan of using a murderer’s POV in a mystery novel. Not that it can’t work. An author can be inside a murderer’s mind, but not reveal everything that’s going on in there. Or, if the author reveals who the murderer is, they can keep the reader on the hook by slowly unveiling the how and why. In a sense, they deliver a howdunit.

Back to Elmore Leonard. He often presages what will happen near the start of a book, and then unravels how it happened. He knows how to tell a story: clean and fast, with lots of snappy dialog. That’s the signature of an Elmore Leonard novel. It’s noir, just not mystery noir.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elmore_Leonard

A few excerpts from the Leonard opus ….

A male character called Foley to Dawn:

“Tell me, what is it about a girl’s navel? It catches the eye and won’t let go.”
“I suppose,” Dawn said, “because it’s right in the middle of the playground.”

Two “criminal” characters:

“I’m saying we’re all friends,” Frank said. “Kindred spirits. Birds of a feather.”
“Man,” Sportree said, “you need some new words.”

A New Odyssey

The word novel is derived from the Latin novellus. As an adjective, novel means new, fresh, unique. Centuries after its birth, it also began to be used as a noun meaning story.Hey, AMP,’ you say, ‘enough of the etymology.’ Right. Onward.

Novels are adept at delivering ideas and emotions, as well as action, setting and mood. If an author concentrates on one thing – for example, what people say – the story can fall flat. Talk by itself isn’t dramatic. Discussion devoid of action is a debate, not a story.

We all expect different things from novels. In my case, I want them to tell a complete story. Not just that some guy, let’s call him Odysseus, travelled for years, but how and where he travelled, and when and why, and who helped or hindered him – which are all included in Homer’s epic.

Beyond that, I want novels to tell a new story. ‘But, AMP,’ you say, ‘nothing is ever new under the sun.’ Fair enough. However, there will always be twists and shades: different settings, fresh perspectives, new odysseys.

Northern Lights by Tom Thomson

Bay of Blood retells the story of Tom Thomson’s mysterious death.

“There are many clever details in Potter’s Bay of Blood with close parallels to Thomson’s life and death (1917). However, Potter takes his readers on a fascinating 21st-century chase, with bells and whistles never dreamt of 100 years ago.” ~ Dr. Sherrill Grace, UBC Killam Professor Emerita and Thomson Scholar.

Movies vs. Books

Book lovers, you know who you are. You rank books above movies. But what about when movies are better than the books they’re based on? Consider a case from Swedish noir: Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (aka, the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy).

The books were a sensation. No debate there. However, the movies were far better (the three versions shot in Sweden). They have depth and complexity. As critics like to say, they live and breathe. You see the dark side of Swedish life. You feel Lizbeth Salander’s anger and disgust. And when you read the books? You don’t.

The English translations seem plodding and mundane. Relatively speaking, the books are dead wood. I’ll never read them again. However, I will watch the movies again. Movies: Three. Books: Zero. A lopsided win. And a shutout, as we Canucks say.

PS: IMHO, the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy is an exception. Books usually win. But, hey, I’m in the writers’ union. 😉