Analysis of Elmore Leonard’s Novels

Elmore Leonard’s (October 11, 1925 – August 20, 2013) early short stories and novels were conventional in terms of plot and characterization; however, writing Westerns was good training. Knowing nothing about the West, he learned to depend on research that he could embellish with his vivid imagination. This is essentially the method he has employed throughout his writing career. Furthermore, when he switched to crime fiction, he brought some of his hair-trigger, saloon-wrecking cowboy villains into urban settings with startling effects. Examples of these “redneck monsters” are Raymond Gidre in Unknown Man No. 89, Clement Mansell in City Primeval, Roland Crowe in Gold Coast, and Richard Nobles in LaBrava. Another type of displaced Western character is Armand Degas in Killshot, a half-breed American Indian turned Mafia hit man.

Elmore-Leonard-AcocellaPlacing cowboys and American Indians in modern cities such as Miami and Detroit is only one of the many types of contrast Leonard employs to produce effects. In his crime novels the most violent incidents occur in the most peaceful settings, such as family restaurants, supermarkets, and real estate offices, and the worst villainy is often directed against people whose lives had previously been conventional and uneventful. In Killshot, a working-class couple suddenly find themselves having their front windows blown out with shotgun blasts; the story ends with a double murder in the cozy breakfast nook of their model kitchen.

In 1959, there were thirty prime-time Western series on television. The public was bound to become surfeited with saloon brawls and shoot-outs on Main Street. It was not until this six-gun overkill forced Leonard to turn to crime fiction that he began to develop the distinctive approach to storytelling that brought him fame and fortune. That approach was influenced by his own involvement in filmmaking, which has one cardinal rule for writers: “Don’t tell us: Show us.”

Hollywood has long exerted a push-pull effect on fiction writers. The cinematic manner of telling stories through action and dialogue has had an incalculable influence on their conscious and unconscious minds, and the big money to be made from sales of motion-picture rights has provided an often irresistible temptation to structure novels so that adaptation from print to film would present no problems. The traits that distinguish Leonard’s crime novels are those found in all good films: strong characterization, believable dialogue, and interesting visual effects.

The publication of his crime novel Fifty-two Pickup in 1974 was the turning point in his career. He says, “I started to realize that the way to describe anywhere, anywhere, was to do it from someone’s point of view . . . and leave me out of it.” Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, 1974 was also the year he separated from his first wife and began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. In describing his recovery from alcoholism, he also said: “The key is getting out of yourself.” Prior to Fifty-two Pickup, Leonard had written his fiction in a conventional manner—that is, mostly in the “voice” of an anonymous narrator who sets the scenes, describes his characters’ appearance and behavior, and quotes their verbal interchanges. This objective technique was perfected by Ernest Hemingway, whose Spanish Civil War novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) had a permanent effect on Leonard’s approach to fiction writing. However, Leonard went beyond Hemingway, trying as much as possible to vanish as a narrator and to let his stories be told by the characters themselves. He describes what characters see and hear as well as what they think and feel in language appropriate to each character, so that most of his narration and description reads like dialogue without the quotes.

It would be inaccurate to call this technique “stream of consciousness” or “interior monologue”: It is a modification that Leonard describes as his unique “sound.” There are no long passages in italics, no stream-of-consciousness ramblings. There are no “pebbles in the pond” or other old-fashioned flashback conventions. Because Leonard generally has the reader inside a character’s mind, it is easy to move back and forth in time, as he frequently does. The character simply remembers an earlier event, and the reader is instantly transported back to the past.

Changing from past to present is simply another of Leonard’s ways of deliberately keeping the reader off balance. The one consistent feature of a Leonard novel is that nothing ever stays the same. He imitates modern American films, which create the effect of being in continuous motion with changing camera angles, jump cuts, intercuts, tracking shots, aerial shots, flashbacks, and all the other tricks of the trade. His practice of constantly shifting viewpoints is analogous to modern filmmaking, in which scenes are shot simultaneously by several cameras, and strips of film are spliced together to provide visual variety as well as to highlight whatever the director considers most important. Typically, Leonard changes points of view from chapter to chapter; however, he does it within chapters as well, and with an effortlessness that makes lesser writers envious.

The average category fiction writer will describe his or her characters only once, when they first appear, and then rely largely on peculiarities of dialogue to differentiate them from one another for the rest of the book. A standard practice of commercial fiction writers is to give each character some “shtick”—a cane, a monocle, a pipe, a stammer, a foreign accent—to help the reader remember him or her; still, in many category novels the characters become a hopeless jumble in the reader’s mind. The reader’s interest in a novel depends on the credibility of its characters. Shootings, bombings, and other forms of violence are not effective unless the reader can believe they are happening to real people. In describing each character’s appearance and actions through the eyes of another character, Leonard not only eliminates the need for the “intrusive author” but also characterizes both individuals at once. From beginning to end, he never stops characterizing. He also achieves a strong sense that his characters are actually interrelating, because each is seen in turn through the eyes of someone else. That is why Leonard’s writing is so much more effective than most category fiction and why he has transcended his genre.

Fifty-two Pickup

In Fifty-two Pickup, Leonard was only partially successful in telling his story through the viewpoints of his characters. The “good guys,” a middle-class husband and wife who are being victimized by blackmailers, come alive; however, the “bad guys” are two-dimensional characters exuding the all-too-familiar blend of sadism, cynical humor, and innuendo. Leonard knew that he needed to humanize his villains in order to give his novels balance. In his next novel, Swag, he tells the story from the points of view of the “bad guys,” two likable young men who take up armed robbery for fun and profit.


Swag may be the best novel Leonard has written, although it is far from being his best known. Held in the robbers’ viewpoints like a fly in amber, the reader is helplessly but deliciously dragged into one holdup after another and lives out his own secret fantasies about walking into a store with a big Colt .45 automatic and walking out with a bag of cash. The reader experiences all the dangers of the profession and ponders all the intangibles: “What if the clerk dives for a gun?” “What if a customer starts screaming?” “What if an alarm goes off?” “What if a cop drives up?” Here, to quote horror writer Stephen King, is “the kind of book that if you get up to see if there are any chocolate chip cookies left, you take it with you so you won’t miss anything.”

This kind of story has drawbacks. For one thing, the reader is willing to identify with the “bad guys” only as long as they refrain from killing innocent people. Also, stories such as this one usually end with the protagonists being shot or sent to prison—as in the films Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). In Swag, the antiheroes almost inevitably become overconfident and walk into disaster. Finally, the viewpoint characters in Swag seem less like real criminals than like middle-class young men who are playing at being criminals. Such a “Robin Hood” plot might serve for a single novel but could not be extended to a career technique. Leonard realized that he needed to learn more about the criminal mentality.

In 1978, Leonard spent two and a half months haunting police headquarters in downtown Detroit, soaking up the atmosphere and listening to the way detectives, criminals, lawyers, and witnesses really talked. He also established contacts with working detectives, contacts that have continued to prove useful to him. His later novels show a much better balance between protagonists and antagonists.

Freaky Deaky

Leonard’s highly successful Freaky Deaky is an example of his mature technique. A detective who specializes in bomb disposal is pitted against a beautiful but treacherous former convict plotting to extort a fortune from a pair of multimillionaire brothers, whom she suspects of informing on her back during the 1960’s when they were antiwar activists together. The chapters alternate between the mind of the detective and that of the female extortionist, until all the principals are brought together at the end. The reader sees the world through the bomber’s jaundiced eyes and sympathizes with her; however, the reader also sees the world through the detective’s eyes and sympathizes with him a bit more. Leonard has become expert at manipulating the sympathies of his reader, which enables him to create more realistic characters. Like people in the real world, the characters in his best novels are not all good or all bad, but mixtures of both.


Leonard follows the same blueprint in Killshot. The main villain, a halfbreed Native American, is a cold-blooded professional killer; however, the reader achieves a strong identification with and even affection for this lonely, unhappy individual, because the reader spends so much time in the killer’s mind. Leonard seems to understand the criminal mentality so well that many people have labored under the erroneous impression that he must have an unsavory past. Whereas he once had trouble making his villains seem credible, his problem later in his career has been making his law-abiding characters seem equally credible. In his next novel, Get Shorty, he did away with “good guys” altogether.

Get Shorty

In Get Shorty, for the first time in his career, Leonard sets a novel in Hollywood, California. Here he reaps a rich harvest from his many years of experience as an author of original scripts, adaptations of other authors’ novels, and adaptations of his own novels, and as an author of works that have been adapted by others. Among all of his novels, Get Shorty most clearly reveals his intention of making his fiction read like motion pictures. He even incorporates some pages of a screenplay that his sleazy characters are trying to peddle. Some of his Hollywood characters are so hopelessly immersed in the fantasy world of filmmaking that they see everyone as an actor and every event as a sequence of medium shots, closeups, and other types of camera shots with varied lighting effects—even when that other character might be coming to shoot them or throw them off a cliff. Leonard is suggesting that Americans are so brainwashed by films and television images that it is becoming impossible to distinguish between fantasy and reality.


With Maximum Bob, his next novel, Leonard returns to familiar turf, southern Florida. The title character is a criminal court judge; though corrupt to the core professionally and personally, he metes out sentences that offenders deserve, and he easily wins reelection. In contrast to him, Leonard presents capable, dedicated, and honest policemen, assistant district attorneys, and probation officers; however, they fight a losing battle, buffeted not only by corrupt superiors like Judge Bob Isom Gibbs but also by offenders who cannot be rehabilitated. The forces of good frequently confront this dilemma in Leonard novels, sometimes in a contrast between social haves and have-nots. Also as in other Leonard books, Maximum Bob is peopled by assorted grotesques, notable among them the judge’s wife, a onetime underwater dancing mermaid who has become a spiritualist with two personalities, one of which is a twelve-year-old 1850’s slave with a voice like Butterfly McQueen of the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. The major character, though, is completely normal: Kathy Diaz Baker, a young probation officer with carefully honed people skills and analytical crime-solving ability who narrates most of the novel and is its moral conscience. Baker is not the only narrator, however; other characters also so serve, with the effect that a host of figures are developed more fully than they otherwise would have been. Also, in a curious turn, Leonard relates a portion of an episode from an alligator’s point of view.


Leonard again criticizes aspects of law enforcement in Pronto, another novel with a Florida setting, though here he focuses primarily upon organized crime. The main theme of the book is interdependence. Be it Raylan Givens of the U.S. Marshals Service, Buck Torres of the Miami Beach Police Department, or Federal Bureau of Investigation agent McCormick (whose lack of a first name depersonalizes him), success depends upon the cooperation of others, and all grit their teeth when they must enlist the aid of people they consider undesirables. Givens is the focus of a secondary theme, that of fundamental decency. Unimpressed by wealth earned through criminality and corruption, he has a refreshing naïveté tempered only by his determination to redeem a career-damaging error. He is the untainted person of the novel, and that he ultimately prevails—and gets the woman, too—presents an unmistakable thematic message. Pronto is of special interest in the Leonard canon for two reasons: It introduces Raylan Givens, who returns in the next novel, Riding the Rap, and it marks a singular Leonard reversion to a Western trademark. From start to finish, Pronto is a chase. The effect of this elementary plot technique is an immediate creation of tension, with momentum and suspense increasing without letup as the narrative moves to climactic shots two pages before the conclusion.

Cuba Libre

Leonard also returns to his fictional roots in Cuba Libre, a Western complete with a shoot-out and prison escape, albeit set in Cuba in 1898 at the time of the Spanish-American War. The protagonist is an Arizona Territory cowboy and erstwhile bank robber who heads to Cuba in order to sell horses and, not incidentally, to smuggle guns to Cuban rebels. This also is a novel with suspense, fast-paced action, and a collection of grotesque characters who somehow seem credible, no small tribute to Leonard’s skills at characterization.

Out of Sight

In Leonard’s 1996 novel, Out of Sight, the trademark gritty realism of Leonard’s oeuvre is blended with a romance between criminal Jack Foley and U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco. The novel’s opening is widely acknowledged to rank among Leonard’s best, as he takes the reader through a daring prison break, modeled on a real escape from that same prison in 1995. As is his practice, the point of view shifts among three different characters in the first three chapters, as the same scene is viewed from three different angles.

The opening sentence of the novel, “Foley had never seen a prison where you could walk right up to the fence without getting shot,” immediately locates the reader both psychologically—within Foley’s consciousness, attitudes, and experience—and physically—just inside the fence of a medium-security Florida prison. The second chapter begins as Sisco pulls up to the parking area just outside that same fence, looking at the same point from the other side, both literally—outside the prison versus inside—and figuratively—cop versus criminal. As she sits in her car, the headlights from a car pulling into the row behind her hit her rearview mirror. The opening of chapter 3, “Buddy saw the mirror flash and blond hair in his headlights, a woman in the blue Chevy Caprice parked right in front of him,” takes the reader inside that second car as it introduces a third major character, Orren “Buddy” Bragg, a former partner of Foley who has arrived to help him escape. The escape itself is thus rendered in great visual depth, as the reader sees Buddy see Sisco see Foley as he emerges from a tunnel by the fence. Such detailed multiple visualizations are especially common in Leonard’s later novels, which can resemble screenplays in their rapid cuts from character to character and their close specification of the precise angles and fields of vision from which characters view scenes.

After the successful prison break, the plot takes all these characters to Detroit, where the suspense intensifies as the relatively gentle and sympathetic Foley and Buddy are thrown into an uneasy alliance with a set of violent sociopaths seeking to rob a wealthy financier. Critic James Devlin notes the symbolism of the settings in the novel, as the sunny Florida setting of the opening scenes gives way to the dark and cold of the Detroit scenes. Brutal scenes of rape and murder alternate uneasily with scenes sketching the developing love story between the criminal and the cop pursuing him. For some critics, the conventional story of love at first sight, complete with a film-friendly “meet cute” when Foley and Sisco are locked in the trunk of a getaway car, is a rare misstep by Leonard that ultimately breaks the book into two incompatible halves, one a screwball romantic comedy and the other an usually violent portrait of depravity and urban violence. Although not a hit at the box office, the motion picture adaptation starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez earned high praise from film critics such as Roger Ebert for its success in translating “the texture of the pacing and dialogue” and the large cast of colorful characters to the screen.

Elmore_LeonardMajor Works
Long fictionThe Bounty Hunters, 1953; The Law at Randado, 1954; Escape from Five Shadows, 1956; Last Stand at Saber River, 1959 (also known as Lawless River and Stand on the Saber); Hombre, 1961; The Big Bounce, 1969; The Moonshine War, 1969; Valdez Is Coming, 1970; Forty Lashes Less One, 1972; Fifty-two Pickup, 1974; Mr. Majestyk, 1974; Swag, 1976 (also known as Ryan’s Rules); The Hunted, 1977; Unknown Man No. 89, 1977; The Switch, 1978; Gunsights, 1979; City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit, 1980; Gold Coast, 1980; Split Images, 1981; Cat Chaser, 1982; LaBrava, 1983; Stick, 1983; Glitz, 1985; Elmore Leonard’s Double Dutch Treat: Three Novels, 1986; Bandits, 1987; Touch, 1987; Freaky Deaky, 1988; Killshot, 1989; Get Shorty, 1990; Maximum Bob, 1991; Rum Punch, 1992 (also known as Jackie Brown); Pronto, 1993; Riding the Rap, 1995; Naked Came the Manatee, 1996 (with 12 other Florida writers); Out of Sight, 1996; Cuba Libre, 1998; Be Cool, 1999; Pagan Babies, 2000; Tishomingo Blues, 2002; Mr. Paradise, 2004; The Hot Kid, 2005.
Short fiction: The Tonto Woman, and Other Western Stories, 1998; When the Women Come Out to Dance, 2002; The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, 2004. screenplays: The Moonshine War, 1970; Joe Kidd, 1972; Mr. Majestyk, 1974; Stick, 1985 (with Joseph C. Stinson); Fifty-two Pickup, 1986 (with John Steppling); The Rosary Murders, 1987 (with Fred Walton).
Teleplays: High Noon Part 2: The Return of Will Kane, 1980; Desperado, 1987.
Children’s literature: A Coyote’s in the House, 2004.
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

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