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In a 1985 cover-story article for Newsweek, Peter S. Prescott called Detroit's Elmore Leonard "the best American Writer of crime fiction alive, possibly the best we've ever had." David Geherin has now paid Leonard a more enduring tribute by writing a book about him. His well-organized study illuminates many facets of Leonard's long writing career, like the uncanniness with which a novel's opening scene, or even an opening sentence, can prefigure both the flow and flavor of what happens later.
Geherin also traces literary influences. Chief among these is George V. Higgins' The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which taught Leonard the benefits of "withdrawing from the page." Higgins' 1972 novel showed the value of describing places and people from a character's perspective rather than from that of the writer. The point of view technique in Higgins not only creates immediacy but also conveys the perceiver's thoughts and feelings about what he is faced with. Leonard's preference for shifting the point of view from which a story is told over the device of using a single central intelligence has set him a special challenge. It forces him to listen closely to the sounds made on the page by his people's voices. This challenge has spurred artistic growth. The counterpoint of cadence, rhythm, and word choice in his recent fiction reveals one of the best ears for realistic dialogue in American fiction today. What is just as important, it has created a rich gallery of voices, all of which sound different from one another.
Counterpoint in Leonard also comes from the tension in his work between change and stability. Leonard has some favorite plotting devices, such as the revenge motif and the hero with a criminal past, but the ripening of his art over the decades has put them to exciting new uses. Since Stick (1983), his female characters have taken on a dimension rivaling that of his men; as a result, they generate more plot movement and spring more surprises than their earlier counterparts. The novels since 1980 or so have also pitted nonheroic heroes against villains with a human side to them. Besides imparting realism, this blurring of moral distinctions helps Leonard foil reader expectation. By avoiding ethical systems and approaches, he can develop his subplots, give his characters freedom to grow, and thus end a book in a way that compels greater reader involvement. [End Page 585]
As Geherin shows, Leonard has both the control and the inventiveness to make the reversal of reader expectation work most of the time. But Geherin is no idolator, withholding praise and even condemning Leonard when he sees fit. The Hunted (1977) he calls "a relatively uninspired effort" and Bandits (1987) he finds "seriously flawed." Such criticisms enhance the balance and credibility of Elmore Leonard, a book whose virtues stand out impressively. Its biographical and aesthetic workpoints connect nicely; its rehearsal of Leonard's apprenticeship as a writer of westerns makes appropriate impact; the details supporting the belief that Leonard deserves serious attention are sharp and exact.
Unfortunately, Geherin's rhetoric falls short of his critical insight. The stylistic misfires smudging Elmore Leonard make the book look hastily written and poorly edited. Pompano Beach is called Pampano Beach; Candace Bergen, Candice Bergen; and the capital of Malaysia has been renamed Kuala Lampur. The word "duel" is spelled "dual" on page 67 and as both "dual" and "duel" on page 69. Also undermining Elmore Leonard is its author's tendency to write with modifiers ("dangerous situations" is an oft-used locution) and to mix his metaphors: "The scam that forms the backbone of the novel," we read in Chapter Six, "is just one part of a rich quilt Leonard weaves." Then there are the sentence fragments ("Just for fun") and the clichés ("if he plays his cards right"). Although such flubs do not sink Geherin's book, they do mar the conviction of his otherwise shining effort to present Leonard as an important writer.