Sunday, February 5, 2012

Too Much of a Good Thing

Elmore Leonard has written a lot of books, a very prolific writer, and counting the number of his novels, stories, teleplays and movie scripts is a tedious job. I wouldn’t describe myself as a hardcore Leonard fan, but I have read a good handful of his books, westerns and crime novels, and also seen a few movies based on his writing. There’s little mystery about the writer’s position as the Dean of crime fiction, but I wonder if the crime fans are familiar with his earlier western stories of six-gun shootouts and Apache renegades. It was something of a disappointment when I reached the last of Mr Leonard’s western tales. The crime stories fall only a small measure below the westerns, and more than a few are memorable, but with such an output no writer could expect every book and story to be golden.

Elmore Leonard was born in New Orleans in 1925. His family moved about frequently over a number of years, but finally settled in Detroit in 1934. The Motor City became Leonard’s home. He Enrolled at the University of Detroit in 1946 and started pursuing his writing more seriously, entering short story contests and sending stories off to magazines. Graduating in 1950, Leonard got a job as a copy writer. His first success as a writer came in 1951 when Argosy published his story “Trail of the Apaches.” He continued writing westerns, publishing western short stories while completing his first novel, The Bounty Hunters (1953). This past January he published his umpteenth novel, Raylan.

The character of Raylan Givens has proven popular, and fans can watch the Raylan television series on FX each week. The series began with Leonard’s novella, Fire in the Hole from the 2002 collection When the Women Come Out to Dance. Before that the writer published two Raylan Givens novels, Pronto (1993) and Riding the Rap (1995). Not a whole lot of new with federal marshal Raylan Givens in this latest book. He talks good, says a lot of cool things, charms the girls, shoots the bad guys, tries to get along with even the hard cases.

The truth is, most of it winds up boring. The actor on television is less than mesmerizing and Leonard doesn’t do much better on paper. His ‘language vignettes’ don’t hold on to the reader in this one. How many critics have raved about Elmore Leonard’s gift for dialogue? Now they have a chance to read 278 pages of it—without benefit of much story to hold it all together. The usual colorful, freaky deaky crime-types are all there talking their heads off, at least until they are killed off and Leonard and Raylan launch themselves into a new case. As soon as you develop an interest in one character, Raylan, or somebody shoots them dead and the federal marshal is off on another case with seemingly little or no link to the previous vignette. It all has the feel of ‘story’ ideas for upcoming episodes of the TV show packed together in a shiny but slim ‘new’ release.

I read an interview with Leonard on NPR recently and a good one it was. He spoke at length about the television series and the character of Raylan Givens and about the new book. Now reading this very celebrated writer’s most recent work and recalling that interview, a feeling has come out of it that suggests it’s time now at the age of eighty-six for a celebrated writer to rest on the rewards and laurels of a long, distinguished body of work.

I can recommend nothing more strongly than a collection of Elmore Leonard’s western stories.


  1. Good review, but I don't tend to western themes. Only when I was a child and we went to the "shoot em ups" on Saturday did I go to any western movies.

  2. Western themes are a part of our history and every few years a novel or movie pops up like 'Lonesome Dove' or 'Unforgiven' and will take off like a prairie wildfire. Same thing can be said for crime novels and movies. Leonard has long given the reader both genres. With novels continuing to be published by writers long dead, I have a feeling the same will be true for Leonard. "Oh, look, here's 20 pages of notes on a novel, let's flesh it out and publish it."


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America