“God, I love this guy,” said the young man at the Barnes & Noble cash register from whom I purchased a couple of Elmore Leonard paperbacks the other day. “There’s nothing better to read on a plane.” Three days earlier I’d been sitting in the restaurant of a hotel in Washington, D.C., reading Unknown Man #89 as I ate my breakfast, when a balding, middle-aged businessman stopped at my table and said, “You’re going to love that one.”
I mention these two encounters because they’re the only times in recent memory that a stranger has spoken to me about a book I was reading—and both of the strangers in question happened to be men.
I wrote an essay about Mickey Spillane a few years ago that contained the following observation:
Spillane was writing for a generation of fellow veterans who spent their off-duty hours thumbing through paperbacks—thrillers, westerns, even the odd classic. They were accustomed to taking pleasure in the printed word. Now their grandsons go to the movies, or watch TV. Novels, even mysteries, are overwhelmingly read by and written for women. This is not to say that nobody’s writing regular-guy books anymore: they’re just not being read by regular guys. A no-nonsense crime novelist like Elmore Leonard is far more likely to appeal to eggheads like me than the working stiffs about whom he writes: I’ve never seen anybody reading a Leonard novel on the subway, whereas Spillane’s books were actually read and enjoyed by men who weren’t all that different from Mike Hammer. He may well have been the last novelist of whom such a thing could be said.
Might I have spoken too soon? Probably not. Still, I have a feeling that if regular guys are reading any new novels at all, it’s Elmore Leonard’s novels that they’re reading, and that’s all right by me. To be sure, Leonard isn’t as good as his critical advocates like to claim—among other things, he’s more than a little bit repetitious—but his best books are wonderfully entertaining, and on those not-infrequent occasions when I find myself stuck in a hotel room and disinclined to grapple with literature, I’m always happy to find one on my nightstand.
Crime is Leonard’s nominal subject matter, but it isn’t his main interest. I can’t think of a Leonard novel that doesn’t contain a prominent romantic subplot, usually involving an encounter between two divorced or separated people in their thirties or forties who got married too soon. These encounters are invariably portrayed in the wisecracking manner of Howard Hawks, but the relationships that arise from them are perfectly serious. Time and again Leonard’s characters admit to having foolishly fallen for partners who turned out to be boring, self-involved jerks, and time and again we see them meeting nicer partners who inspire them to take a second chance on love.
Could this be the reason why Leonard is so popular among male readers? I wonder. Men, after all, are often a good deal more idealistic than they care to admit, and Leonard gives them good old-fashioned romance hidden in a plain brown wrapper of violence. What’s not to like?
Needless to say, this is what sets Leonard apart from the first-generation noir stylists. They were romantics, too, but of a very different sort, disillusioned and cynical, and in their books the good guy never, ever got the nice girl. I readily admit to finding that kind of cynicism appealing, but there’s another part of me that warms to Leonard’s romantic optimism, even though I’m well aware that it’s as much of a pose as Philip Marlowe’s curdled nobility.
Here’s something I wrote a few years ago:
Most commercial films are made on the assumption that audiences want to see moral struggle—but not too much of it. Much more often than not, we know as soon as the credits roll exactly what we’re supposed to think the star ought to do (kiss the girl! give back the money!), and we spend the next hour and a half waiting for him to finally get around to doing it. When he does, we go home happy; if he doesn’t, we go home feeling cheated, and tell all our friends to pick a different movie next weekend.
I like happy endings, too, but I don’t always want them to be so easy as that, and given the inescapable fact that we all live under the twin aspects of modernity and eternity, I have a special liking for films that convey something of the complexity of modern life without losing sight of the pole star of truth. In particular, I like films about gravely flawed human beings who, faced with a set of similarly imperfect alternatives, suddenly find their moral imaginations regenerated by grace, make the best possible choice available to them and accept the consequences, good or bad.
All of which is well and good, but doesn’t necessarily serve the purpose of amusing tired, fussy aesthetes who feel the need to spin their mental wheels for an hour or two before drifting off to sleep. Great art, after all, portrays a world in which nobody meets cute, everybody ends up dead, and most people get a lot less out of life than they want—none of which is especially restful to contemplate at the end of a long day.
That’s why I watch old Hollywood movies on TV after hours, and why I read Elmore Leonard, a solid craftsman who tickles my fancies without insulting my intelligence. I can think of far less honorable ways to pass an evening.
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If you’ve never read any of Elmore Leonard’s books, I suggest starting with Maximum Bob or LaBrava.
You might also consider watching Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 film of Out of Sight which is faithful to both the plot and the spirit of the novel on which it is based.
UPDATE: A friend wrote:
Great art also portrays beauty, laughter, and joy.
To which I replied:
Yes, but honestly. It doesn’t pretend that the other things don’t exist (though it doesn’t necessarily emphasize them, either). That’s why Schubert can make you so happy—because his happiness is set in front of a backdrop of reality.
To which he replied:
But you wrote the definition, and you wrote it entirely grim.
To which I replied:
Yeah, yeah, O.K., I give up! I was feeling grim.