Let’s face it, aside from the crippling anxiety, life under quarantine is pretty bland. Not particularly surprising, as things are bound to become monotonous when one isn’t allowed to leave home for months on end.
Lucky for you, I have a solution: add several heaping tablespoons of Elmore Leonard to the mix. The man was an uncommonly good writer whose books, stories, and screen adaptations can go a long way in adding some flavor to your daily media sustenance.
As is the case with so many wonderful genres, crime and/or western fiction are often dismissed out of hand as hackneyed, formulaic, and lazy — judged by the bad to worst examples instead of the good to best. It’s unfair, to be sure. You should give said genres a chance, and no one has ever written them better than Leonard. His work doesn’t transcend shitty genres, so much as reveal how amazing they can be when executed well.
Leonard’s writing is razor sharp, consistently funny, and smart as hell. The pacing is brisk and engaging but not rushed, lean without ever feeling sparse. His pages are populated with the sorts of characters literature’s other private investigators, crooks, cops, cowboys, gangsters, killers, detectives, dupes, femme fatales, and sundry aspire to be.
Their appeal owes quite a bit to amazing dialogue, of the quick, uber-clever variety. Many of his characters are adept at perfectly crafted repartee, always with the perfect phrasing [á la Aaron Sorkin, Joss Whedon, Shane Black, His Girl Friday]. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m a sucker for it.
It’s entirely possible you’re already into Leonardesque dialogue without knowing it, as his writing makes up a sizable portion of the DNA for Tarantino’s. As a matter of fact, the underrated Jackie Brown is an adaptation of Leonard’s novel, Rum Punch.
Where to start:
Leonard wrote celebrated fiction for nearly 60 years – with adaptations for days – so there’s a sizable catalogue to keep you rolling for quite some time. Here are a few good places to get your feet wet.
Out of Sight
If a movie is what you’re in the mood for, start here. [As of the time of this posting, it’s available on HBO Go.]
One of the great things about Leonard, whose devotees stretch far and wide, is how many talented folks have lined up to adapt his material. For instance, we have Steven Soderbergh’s effortlessly cool adaptation of Out of Sight.
Everything about this movie works. It’s fun, smart, and with all that chemistry, you’ll want to watch Clooney and J.Lo circle each other from opposite sides of the law forever.
Before Olyphant came along as Raylan Givens on Justified, Leonard said Clooney came the closest to getting his dialogue exactly right – nailing the sound, rhythm and delivery. Jack Foley – the charming, non-violent, gentleman thief – is quite similar to Danny Ocean, who we’d meet a year later when Soderberg and Clooney reteamed for Ocean’s Eleven. To be honest, I think Out of Sight is the reason we got the Ocean’s movies in the first place, which are very Leonardesque films in their own right.
[Fun fact: Michael Keaton made an uncredited appearance in Out of Sight as Ray Nicollete, a character he played in Jackie Brown for Tarantino the year before. You see? Well before the MCU, there was a Leonardverse.]
Other notable film options: Get Shorty, and the aforementioned Jackie Brown.
If television is the route you want to take, go with the unexpectedly amazing neo-western, Justified — a show I’ve written about many times on this very blog. It gets my vote as the best entry point into Leonard’s work. It’s the platonic ideal of Leonard adaptations, and the neo-western genre in general. If you haven’t binged through it yet, you now have all the time in the world to remedy that. [As of the time of this writing, it’s available on Hulu.]
The writers revered Leonard so much, working so hard to live up to his work, that they created one of the best — and most criminally underseen — shows of all time. That’s all the more impressive in light of the fact that the entire show was born of a single short story, which was directly adapted for the pilot episode. Everything that came after the pilot was brand new, and yet the writers produced six seasons of brilliant television – and a show that Leonard praised unequivocally, until his death in 2013.
It’s the best entry point into the Leonardverse, largely because of the marriage between great writing and pitch-perfect performances. Leonard went as far as to say that Olyphant’s take on Raylan Givens was perfect. “When he delivered the lines, the ones that I wrote,” Leonard said, “they were just the way I heard them when I wrote them.”
And it’s not just Olyphant. Walton Goggins is equally great as the show’s big bad. He’s the sort of character you want to hear speak, even if he’s got nothing much to say. The show only gets better as season-specific characters start showing up, played by such luminaries as Mary Steenburgen, Sam Elliott, Margo Martindale, Garret Dillahunt, Patton Oswalt, Jonathan Tucker, and a young Kaitlyn Denver before she went on to star in the critically lauded comedy Booksmart. And that just scratches the surface.
I’ve recommended Justified again, and again, and again — it would seem to no avail, at least amongst my friends. I’m telling you though, just give it a few episodes and I think you’ll love it.
[Fun fact: Goggins’s Boyd Crowder is one of the very best things about Justified, which leads us to an interesting phenomenon in the Tarantino-Leonard ecosystem. Once an actor proves themself capable of nailing Leonardesque or Tarantino-style dialogue, they’ll begin jumping back-and-forth between the two. Goggins went on to appear in Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight after his amazing performance on Justified. John Travolta played Chili Palmer in Get Shorty the year after appearing in Pulp Fiction. Clooney went on to star in From Dusk til Dawn after Out of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven. Olyphant was later cast in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood. It takes a specific skill set as an actor to get it right, and when one does it well, they can’t seem to stop.]
When the Women Come Out to Dance, aka, Fire in the Hole
And if you want to go straight to the source, why not read some of his actual work? If you do, a book of short stories is a good place to start. I’m actually surprised short stories aren’t a more popular medium [a topic I’ll revisit soon]. If nothing else, it can be a great introduction to a writer’s work. When the Women Come Out to Dance (aka, Fire in the Hole), is a one stop shop to show the range of Leonard’s stories, and give you a sense of his style in bite sized portions. A common, and well-deserved, knock against writers in the genre concerns the lack of strong, well-drawn, three-dimensional female characters given interesting things to do.When the Women Come Out to Dance turns that on its head, full of delightfully crooked, interesting women, up to (mostly) no good.
Once Justified became popular, the book’s original title was changed to Fire in the Hole, as that’s the story introducing Raylan Givens to the world — as I mentioned above, the pilot was a direct adaptation of that story, the only significant departure being Boyd Crowders’s fate.
And there you have it. Now you have absolutely no excuse not to try a taste of considerable amount of content Leonard produced during his prolific career.