While the argument of who is the best American crime writer of the 20th century could encompass at least 20 candidates and rage as long as the century itself, it would be hard to characterise Elmore Leonard’s creative burst during the whole of the 1980s as anything but a sustained – and quite possibly unequaled – bout of excellence.
The Dickens of Detroit, as he’s been called, had already written three classics by that point – 52 Pickup, Swag and, my personal favourite, Unknown Man No 89 – and would write several more gems well into the aughts, including, but not limited to, Maximum Bob, Rum Punch, Riding the Rap, Out of Sight, and Cuba Libre. But his streak of unparalleled perfection came in the Reagan era: City Primeval (1980), Split Images (1981), Cat Chaser (1982), Stick (1983), LaBrava (1983), Glitz (1985), Bandits (1987), Freaky Deaky (1988), Killshot (1989), and the Everest at the end of it all, Get Shorty (1990).
I find it intriguing that Leonard followed one of his few humourless novels with one of his funniest and breeziest, but Killshot – tense and unforgiving – was quite possibly a metaphorical exorcism of the rage he felt toward an implacable entity (Hollywood) that had so relentlessly abused his literary offspring. (At the time he wrote Get Shorty, nine of Leonard’s novels had been adapted for film, and those adaptations, save for two westerns, ran the gamut from pedestrian to abysmal.) But Get Shorty, his gimlet-eyed look at the movie business, is a remarkable example of tonal command, somehow managing to mercilessly skewer Hollywood while simultaneously blowing it a kiss. It has the bite of The Day of the Locust but none of the bile.
A murder, a plane crash, a random mugging that wasn’t actually random, a heist that implodes, a child gone missing – these are staple inciting incidents of a lot of crime fiction. The event that clearly lights the match that leads to a race against time to stop the conspiracy, solve the homicide, get out of town before the net closes in, or find the child.
Here’s how Get Shorty starts: the mobster Ray “Bones” Barboni “borrows” the leather jacket of a loan shark (and diehard movie geek) named Ernesto “Chili” Palmer. Chili retrieves the jacket by punching Ray in the face which leads, a dozen years later, to (stay with me) Chili investigating the faked death of a Miami dry cleaner, which brings Chili to Las Vegas not long before he shows up in the study of a B-movie Hollywood actress named Karen Flores to threaten a deadbeat producer, Harry Zimm, who leads him into the movie business, where he attempts to leave loan-sharking behind and become a producer – along with Harry and Karen – of the film Mr Lovejoy.
That, my friends, is an Elmore Leonard beginning. Where other novels zig, Leonard’s zag. Plot is not a series of bricks built upon bricks to erect a formidable edifice, but a loose collection of steps one or two primary characters take down a path that crosses another path that leads to a building with a room where more people are gathered. When one of those characters goes out the back door and down a fire escape, the original character follows and enters an alley which leads to another path which winds further away from that first path, which nobody remembers anyway because it’s, like, 10 paths back. In other words, Elmore Leonard’s plots feel less like plots and more like life.
Over the course of just under 300 pages, Get Shorty treats us to a potentially lethal limousine-service-operator-cum-drug-dealer-cum-budding-film producer, his henchman, the henchman’s three-year-old daughter, a hapless Colombian gangster-wannabe stuck at LAX watching a locker that may or may not be staked out by half a dozen DEA agents, a blithely narcissistic movie star, several Miami-based gangsters, and the zippiest (and most meta) satire of Hollywood ever written. How meta? It’s precog meta. Discussing the possible casting for the movie they hope to make, Harry Zimm tells Chili:0 “If I could get Gene Hackman, say, we’d be in preproduction as I speak.” Five years after the book’s publication, the part of Harry Zimm would be played in the movie by none other than … Gene Hackman.
Get Shorty gets so much right about Hollywood: the endless jockeying for status that afflicts everyone from studio heads to parking valets; the heartless consequences of aging in a town that adulates youth; the feeling that everyone has a script in their head, ready to pitch. (Not long after I moved out here, I ran into a nun who, seconds after she found out what I did for a living, pitched me her movie idea.) But Get Shorty gets nothing as right as it does the childlike love most of the people in the movie business have for movies themselves. You can’t successfully satirise something unless some part of you loves what you’re satirising, and Leonard retained his love of movies. Most of his books are peppered with references to cinema, as the characters try to find the line where their movie-influenced personas meet their true selves. But if the persona has been in play long enough, who’s to say the person is more real? In Leonard’s view, maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe we are all creatures of ceaseless reinvention. It’s not only an acceptable way of comporting oneself, it might be our cultural birthright. To be born in a celluloid age is to be born with one’s myths arrayed all around one, as easy to touch as one’s own skin (which the myths often become). Chili Palmer, the loan shark on a journey to reinvent himself as a film producer, is as much an Everyman for today’s world as Walter Mitty was for his.
When I was in my teens, I took subways all over Boston to search out Leonard’s novels in used bookstores. This was before he became popular, so finding one of his novels was no easy thing. But I was already voice-obsessed by that age and Leonard had a voice like no other. That voice was the outgrowth of the most finely tuned ear for urban speech that American letters has produced. No one ever wrote American dialogue as well as Leonard. And that dialogue wasn’t just pitch-perfect and often hilarious and profane (although it was all those things), it also advanced the story and gave you a full glimpse into the interior lives of characters who lived several zip codes away from anything resembling introspection.
As an adult, I hung out with him twice, once in a bar in the midwest (a recovering alcoholic, he drank O’Doul’s with gusto), and the other time at a literary festival in a small town in Italy. Both times I was struck by what a dude he was. Cooler than almost anyone I’ve ever met. As cool as Chili Palmer, Raylan Givens, Ernest Stickley Jr or Vincent Mora – to name just a few of the laconic badasses who took centre stage at one time or another in his novels. The books were like the man – wry and observant, contemptuous of navel-gazing. And yet, underneath all that cool was a moral vision all the more powerful for its refusal to overwhelm the narrative. You want to know what the sociopolitical climate of the US was in the 1980s and 1990s? Read any Leonard novel published back then. Want to know how Detroit went bankrupt in 2013? Read Elmore Leonard in 1983. He didn’t beat the reader over the head with these observations – you’d barely notice them amid all the wordplay and gunplay and some of the sleaziest, funniest, and most terrifying villains in fiction – but the commentary’s there if you look for it.
So why did Hollywood continually screw up adaptations of his work? Maybe because Hollywood understands plot a lot better than it understands story. Story is about things that happen, yes, but it’s also about character and tone and mood. It’s as much about the wandering as it is about the arrival. And all who wander, as the saying goes, are not lost. But studio executives don’t like wandering. Wandering freaks them out. Wandering smells like film and studio executives hate film; they barely like movies. (They are huge fans of product, though. Huge.) You can’t enjoy Elmore Leonard unless you enjoy wandering. And if you don’t know the difference between plot and story, you’re probably not going to get what he was doing either.
At his peak, Leonard told better stories than anyone. And those stories were always evangelically focused on character – crazy characters, greedy ones, often sociopathic (even the “hero” cops), sometimes staggeringly stupid or deceptively smart, but resolutely alive. He placed them on the page with a kind of pitiless joy; he never sentimentalised them, but that didn’t make him (or us) love them any less. He was the least moralistic moral writer of our time. When the movies tried to transpose the plot to the screen without giving the characters their full due, they failed. But when they revelled in those characters – in the TV show Justified, in Get Shorty, Jackie Brown or Out of Sight (far and away the greatest Leonard film adaptation) – they unlocked the secret to the man’s work. All Leonard asked of plot was that it be a serviceable vehicle, but the journey and the people who took it, that was everything.
Oh, and those characters? They’d talk on that journey. A lot. Often the talk was the journey. It’s revelatory to reread Leonard and realise how much story is propelled by people talking. After its Miami opening, which covers 12 years in two pages, Get Shorty has exactly four locations in the first 100 pages – Karen’s house, Harry’s car, Harry’s wonderfully low-rent “production” office, and Karen’s car. Yet, through the conversations that occur in those four locations, we traverse back and forth in time and range all across the country.
Throughout Get Shorty, Leonard plays a very cheeky (and, again, a very meta) game. He makes the story you’re reading a story about making up stories as one goes along. This is what writers do — we make it up as we go. Some of us are more organised than others, some less so, but that’s the crux of the job description. At the end of the first chapter, Chili inadvertently stumbles upon the fact that a dry cleaner has faked his own death. The dry cleaner’s wife tells Chili (but not the reader) “everything that happened”. And then Leonard delivers the kicker: “It was a good story.”
Leonard, the grandmaster of storytelling, is winking at us. He’s pitching us. Like a Hollywood pro. Settle in. The fun’s about to begin. Chili will ultimately end up in Hollywood, pitching Harry Zimm the story of the dry cleaner, which is a story the author himself invented. So Chili is, in essence, pitching an Elmore Leonard story within an Elmore Leonard novel to an Elmore Leonard character (who will ultimately be played by Gene Hackman). This riffing on story, on how it’s created in all its fits and starts and wandering, forms the essence of the novel. Even the ostensible bad guy, the drug dealer Bo Catlett, aspires to make movies and has a terrific sense of story (better than either Chili or Harry Zimm, in point of fact). A scene in which Bo and Chili threaten one another on one hand, while, on the other, they debate the finer points of authenticity and character-as-action in the Mr Lovejoy script they both want to lay their hands on is a pitch-perfect distillation of creative collaboration.
In the end, Get Shorty (a title that is never explained, though “Shorty” has long been rumoured to refer to Dustin Hoffman who supposedly flirted, ad infinitum, with playing the lead in an adaptation of LaBrava) is a celebration of the impulse to tell stories and the corresponding need to hear them. It’s an elegy to all addictive consumers of celluloid myth. And maybe it’s Elmore Leonard’s love letter, at the close of a deliriously productive creative decade, to writing itself.
Then again, maybe not. Leonard was notoriously unpretentious about his chosen profession. As Harry tells Chili while they drive along Sunset Boulevard looking at the homes of far more famous people, there’s only one type of writing guaranteed to make you a lot of money: ransom notes.
• The Folio Society edition of Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty, illustrated by Gary Kelley, is available at foliosociety.com.