I grew up devouring comic books with spandex garbed heroes. I graduated to Stephen King horror novels and Tolkien type fantasy books in my pre-teens. Comic books were still around in my high school years but hidden from my football brother-in-arms. Nerds were not yet “crazy, sexy, cool”. I could read a Conan novel because he was swinging a bad ass sword on the cover, but most of my reading involved science-fiction novels. The “Cyberpunk” subgenre really captured my attention with computers and “cyberspace” coming to life in the late 80’s. William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and Phillip K. Dick made paranoid hackers sleek and hip in their gritty neon near-futures. Then I met a girl and went away to college.
I came back early from college. One semester and the long distance love affair were too much together. A volatile viral mix of home and love sickness. So I turned to my old friend fiction to escape from my malaise. I shopped at 1,001 Paperbacks Used Bookstore in my neighborhood. Their torn covers, bent spines and half-prices never let me down before plus I was broke without a car and they were within walking distance. The store catered mostly to romance novels but they had a small section in the rear with sci-fi, history, sports, non-fiction and mystery. I pegged this “the guy corner”. This day I couldn’t find anything I liked or hadn’t read. I glanced over into the mystery section and the cover above caught my eye.
Unknown Man # 89 Huh? I picked it up and Elmore Leonard hooked me with this opening:
“A friend of Ryan’s said to him one time, “Yeah, but at least you don’t take any shit from anybody.”
Ryan said to his friend, “I don’t know, the way things’ve been going, maybe it’s about time I started taking some.”
This had been a few years ago. Ryan remembered it as finally waking up, deciding to get off his ass and make some kind of run.
His sister drove him down to the Detroit police car auction, where he bought a 1970 maroon and white Cougar for $250. His sister didn’t like the Cougar because it had four bullet holes in the door on the driver’s side. Ryan said he didn’t mind the holes. Didn’t mind; he loved them.”
Leonard wrote how I felt. Unknown Man No. 89 was my gateway drug to crime fiction. And that’s what Elmore Leonard wrote…Crime Fiction. These were no whodunits. He stated that the reader knew more than his main characters did. Elmore Leonard’s fiction snapped. The bad guys had flair, the cops were droll and the ladies held the upper hand. The dialogue poured into a rock glass with ice. Smooth and wry. Leonard’s sound and tone were near impossible to replicate on film and most directors failed to capture the novels economy of cool.
Elmore Leonard passed away this week. Few people can say they enjoyed such continued success in their later years as Elmore Leonard did. He leaves us with a grand legacy of excellent fiction to enthrall us. I just want to thank Mr. Leonard for inviting me into the amazing world of crime fiction. He, along with his other crime novelists, inspired me to have a go at writing. I always follow his advice “to leave out the parts that readers skip.”