He was a fine writer. I’ve said before that the Parker novels he wrote under the name Richard Stark are among my touchstones. It would be fruitless to add more; rather, you can check out Sarah Weinman for an unmatchable reaction roundup.
Here’s the thing, though: we treasure these writers too late. Once they hit age 70 (Westlake died at 75), if they’re still producing, we condescendingly treat them as national treasures: a pat on the head, a newspaper feature story about Writer X, “still going strong at …” The work itself is deemed immune from judgment – as with the talking dog, the quality of the output is an afterthought.
I’ve been saying for 20 years that Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series would stand as a towering achievement of Twentieth Century American art, period. Someday, the world will see that (he said, striking a Napoleonic pose). But Evan Hunter/Ed McBain should have been accorded this respect before he died in 2005 at age 78.
With this said, let’s do some Journalism 101 and go to the Forward Spin. Elmore Leonard is 83 years old (and still going strong – ask the feature writer in your local paper’s Arts section!). For selfish reasons, I hope he lives to be 100 and continues to write a book a year. Whether he does or not, though, it’s too bad Leonard has long since acheived Living Legend status. Why? Because he continues to innovate, and indeed his writing is growing bolder, more idiosyncratic, fresher.
In the last several Leonard books I read (the most recent being The Hot Kid*), I was struck by some of the narrative, scene-setting, and temporal techniques. It seemed Leonard had both amplified some of his established tricks and added new ones (notably in time shifts – I may be wrong, but I think the octogenarian picked up some ideas from new-wave crime movies. How cool is that?)
I know I need to illustrate all this with examples. I promise to reread The Hot Kid, read Up in Honey’s Room, and flesh out this post.
Here’s the big point, though: once they become stars, too many novelists appear to celebrate their power by blowing off much-needed edits and fluffing up their page counts. I submit that Leonard has instead used his power to develop some powerful techniques that would probably be detuned if a younger, less battle-tested writer tried them.
* Since I’m not here to pat Leonard on the head, I’ll say I didn’t particularly like this book.