Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper – Elmore Leonard

2nd September 2013


Elmore Leonard, American novelist & screenwriter, October 11, 1925 – August 20, 2013

By Brian Case.

Elmore Leonard died this month at 87 without confiding why he fetishized men in hats, Stetsons specifically. It was no real indicator of character. U.S. Marshall, Raylan Givens broken-in and low-cocked business cowboy hat, truckpatch villain, Roland Crowe’s Oxbow wheat-coloured straw-hat high crow, big scoop brim. Tyler, cowboy hero of Cuba Libre wears a light tan, JB Stetson, stained and shaped with a curl to the brim and “favouring one eye,” but he is neither good nor bad in late 19th century Cuba.

Anybody who writes as much as Leonard will have some recurrent types. Bad guys from Louisiana, Texarkana and the Deep South in general transplant nastily up north bringing their red-neck racism with them and heedless hair-trigger violence. Raymond Gidre, Richard Nobles, Roland Crowe, Clement Mansell, look like they’ve shaved with a hunting knife, smell of hair oil, in memory of mother says the tattoo. Raymond wipes out the opposition with his Luger – “shit, them peckerheads’d never make it the night in New Iberia.” And Gidre’s unforgettable procession along a suburban main street with a pump gun blowing out plate-glass shop windows, unconcerned – “Christ, people are watching him.”

Among the huge number of terrific crime novels, Unknown Man no. 89, stands out as my favourite. It has Raymond Gidre for a start, equally and lethally balanced by black killer, Virgil Royal, “in a hat.” Here’s Virgil turning over a beauty parlour. “Virgil gave Lonny a double-0 12-gauge charge from ten foot away. Pumped the gun hard with his left hand and hit him again, whatever part of him it was going out of the chair ass over hairdryer…as the beauty parlour man began to scream. Virgil said: “Man, get hold of yourself.”

So, plenty of violence, but also a cunning and conniving plot involving the hero, recovering alcoholic and process server, Jack Ryan, and fraudster Mr Francis X Perez, possible Cuban, possible old Louisiana Spanish, certainly all bent. Leonard, too was fighting alcoholism and winning , putting some of that struggle into the story, enriching the romantic subplot.

Since Elmore’s stock in trade is dialogue and show-it, don’t tell-it action, there have been plenty of films. Most of them miss the point. He wrote Westerns when they sold – The Tall T, Three Ten to Yuma, Valdez is Coming, (the best of the books,) and Hombre, which made him enough money to write for a living. He finally had some luck with Get Shorty, good director, good actors. Glitz, got him a TV mini series.

Swag, and Stick, featured Ernest Stickley, a level and professional car thief from the Deep South without racist attitudes and plenty of 3D scams. Freaky Deaky, opens on a guy receiving a phone call to say he is seated on dynamite, “man, I gotta go to the toilet bad.” Even late stuff written in his eighties, Djibouti, about Somali pirates, or Up in Honey’s Room, about a wartime Himmler lookalike are convincing. Elmore takes to the grave the secret of the hats.

Brian Case turned me on to Elmore Leonard – and many other great writers – during his time as the highly influential Books Editor at Time Out, London, in the late ’80s/early ’90s. (JB)

Further reading: David Simon – A Master Departs.