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Arts & Entertainment

Recalling a Master of Crime Fiction

CAS prof’s new book explores the world of Elmore Leonard

When novelist Elmore Leonard died in August at 87, he was hailed by the New York Times as “a modern master of American genre writing” and by the Washington Post as “a masterly crime novelist.” He left behind an unforgettable gallery of drug dealers, grifters, hookers, con artists, and crooks.

The prolific author of 45 novels (Get Shorty, Freaky Deaky) and dozens of short stories (Three-Ten to Yuma and Other Stories), Leonard began his career in the early 1950s writing westerns. He turned to crime when the market for westerns began to dry up. But it wasn’t until his novel Glitz, about an unhinged ex-con seeking revenge, was published in 1985, that he became a best-selling author. He was 59 at the time.

Leonard was one of those rare crime novelists who enjoyed both mass-market popularity (his books have sold in the tens of millions) and critical plaudits. Many of his works were adapted into Hollywood films, including Get Shorty, with John Travolta, Hombre, starring Paul Newman, 3:10 to Yuma (two versions), and Jackie Brown, directed by Quentin Tarantino. His short story Fire in the Hole inspired the Emmy-winning television series Justified on FX. Leonard also received some of the literary world’s top honors, among them an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America and a National Book Award, given last year for his “distinguished contribution” to American literature.

Few people are as versed in Elmore Leonard’s world as Charles Rzepka, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English. In his new book, Being Cool: The Work of Elmore Leonard (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), Rzepka writes about Leonard’s distinct writing style, “immediately recognizable for its voice and rhythm,” his keen ear for dialogue, and what made his characters so cool.

Rzepka, a scholar of the Romantics, has always been a fan of detective and crime novels, but says it wasn’t until he took over the teaching of the course Detective Fiction in 1995 that he began to have an academic interest in the field. “The further I got into the genre,” the more fascinating it became, says Rzepka, who has written a cultural history of the genre, Detective Fiction (Polity, 2005), and coedited A Companion to Crime Fiction (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

BU Today recently spoke with Rzepka about Being Cool, for which he interviewed the famous author several times in person at Leonard’s home outside of Detroit.

BU Today: You spent considerable time interviewing Elmore Leonard for your book. What was he like?

Rzepka: To me, he was unfailingly generous, forthcoming, and hospitable, and that pretty much conforms to the impression you will get from anyone who was lucky enough to come into contact with him. In fact, he had been so generous with interviewers over the years that I was hard-pressed to come up with questions that hadn’t already been answered numerous times in print. I was amazed that a writer so famous and prolific would take hours out of doing what he loved most—he wrote every weekday from nine to five—to go over matters as profound as his first divorce, as mundane as the brand of beer he drank in the Navy, and as remote from the present day as the imaginary friend he made at the age of five.

Above all, Leonard was excited about writing. He wanted to share what he’d been working on that very day, and would often start reciting from his current manuscript in the middle of an interview, or even before I’d sat down—I think less to see what I thought about it than to see how it sounded out loud. As he read, he’d stop to explain what he had in mind for this character or that scene.

Boston University BU, College of Arts and Sciencs CAS, English Department, Elmore Leonard, Being Cool: The Work of Elmore Leonard by Charles Rzepka

Charles Rzepka interviewed Elmore Leonard several times for his new book, Being Cool: The Work of Elmore Leonard.

Leonard was famous for disparaging academics he encountered at book fairs and writing workshops. Was he initially reluctant to be interviewed by you?

No, not at all. After explaining to his publisher the reason I wanted to interview him, I received a letter, in his own hand, agreeing to meet with me to “see how it goes.”

As it turned out, he was helpful way beyond what I had any right to expect. I think he may have reached the point in a long and productive life when the question of his artistic legacy was becoming a concern. He did have a deep and abiding suspicion of certain kinds of academic writing, especially the theoretical variety. Perhaps his bias against academics arose initially because so few of them had taken his writing seriously, and now here was one of them taking it very, very seriously, even giving him something new to consider. At the end of our first interview he said, “I had to think of things I’ve never thought of before,” and then added, “It’s a good interview. Very good.” I’m still proud of that.

During his career, Leonard cultivated a public image as “Dutch,” a hard-nosed, working-class writer-for-hire. But you argue that that image was only partially accurate.

Leonard did have a reputation as a straight-talking, even unsophisticated proletarian writer, and he deliberately cultivated that reputation. He was not the least bit savvy about, or interested in, social media or “connectivity.” He didn’t have a computer or a cell phone or even an answering machine, which fit in not only with his lunch-bucket persona, but also with a certain aura of crusty longevity.

But in the course of our discussions, it became clear to me that Leonard’s anti-intellectualism was largely a pose. He’d been educated at Jesuit schools, where he’d read Virgil in Latin and Xenophon in Greek. He’d majored in English and minored in philosophy and knew the canonical works of both traditions, including existentialists like Sartre and Camus. Some of the best-known names of Western literature, going all the way back to Homer, left a mark on his writing.

Leonard knew how to play at his poses, and how to have fun doing it—it’s also how he wrote, as he described the process to me in one of our interviews: “So once I get into it and I’m the character or both of the characters, or all of them,” he told me, “it’s just a lot of fun and I get it going and trying to entertain myself.” Posing as an anti-intellectual was “fun” for Leonard in this sense, as self-entertainment, although it did reflect a real part of his personality, the part that was invested in a certain kind of writing.

How would you rate Leonard as a writer, and what do you think his legacy will be?

Elmore Leonard was one of the best American crime writers of the last half-century, and I feel certain he will eventually be considered in the same league as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, whose work in the genre dominated the half-century before. His characters are memorable and distinct, even though, as he himself admitted, or boasted, they represent variations on a handful of types. They also have considerable depth despite their relatively simple personalities and range of desires.

That depth is stunningly conveyed by his handling of free indirect intercourse and interior monologue, narrative devices that give readers the illusion of “listening in” on a character’s thoughts unfolding, like a silent, one-sided conversation, inside his or her mind.

Many readers overlook the farcical element that often emerges in Leonard’s grimmest and most terrifying scenes. Some of his plots are so riddled with coincidence that if we weren’t utterly hypnotized by his characters and transfixed by our anticipation of, as the author himself puts it, “what happens next,” we’d throw the book across the room. But that’s one of the great things about Leonard’s fictional world—we don’t. His fiction is childlike in its ability to make us keep reading despite its real-life implausibility. He makes us identify with his own sense of wonder at what’s happening right in front of him, so that we rarely question our reading experience from the inside.

Leonard’s themes are deeply rooted in our time and nation, and to that extent, they will continue to be of historical interest to generations of readers and critics coming long afterwards. But his legacy embraces features that make him a writer for all time, and any nation.

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john o'rourke, editor, bu today
John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

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