Elmore Leonard — Victim of Led Zeppelin Syndrome

Posted: August 20, 2013 in Books, Writers
Tags: , , ,

Elmore LeonardLike naming my favorite movie or favorite song, naming my favorite author is a tricky and ultimately futile proposition. It depends on what mood I’m in, and varies by the hour. But Elmore Leonard, whose death at the age of 87 was announced today, would always be on my short list of all-time favorites. It’s been that way ever since I picked up “Freaky Deaky” on a whim about 20 years ago, and got hooked. He was a game-changer for me as a reader, and I like to think he was a major influence on me as a writer.

So it pains me to say this. But I think he’s kind of a victim of a condition I call Led Zeppelin Syndrome. That doesn’t reflect badly on him, though. Quite the opposite.

See, Led Zeppelin was a great band. But through no fault of their own, they inspired a lot of crap from would-be imitators who totally missed the point. Just about every godawful ’80s hair band who thought that a screechy vocalist, noodling guitar solo, and glam fashion sense would buy them rock immortality is an indirect result of Led Zeppelin’s greatness.

So it is with Elmore Leonard, in a sense.

Many of the articles I’ve read about him justly praise his arch tone, quirky touches and morally ambiguous characters. Those are the qualities that helped make his books such a pleasure to read. But just the other day, I finished a crime thriller that I really don’t want to name. Now that I’ve got a book out myself and know how hard it is to make it as a writer, I just don’t have the heart to publicly trash other authors.

But I will say that it was a prime example of a type of crime thriller that came out after — and arguably as a result of — Leonard’s wonderful reinvention of the crime novel. It’s nothing but layer upon layer of heavy-handed quirk and irony, punctuated by outlandish violence apparently supposed to make it “edgy.” None of the characters are the least bit likeable or even interesting. They’re just constructs — based not on any recognizable human behavior, but on the author’s manifest belief in his own cleverness.

These days, a lot of books fit that description.

Just like those ’80s hair metal bands failed to recognize Led Zeppelin’s foundation in classic blues, a lot of crime fiction authors influenced by Leonard fail to recognize his grounding in solid storytelling technique. The arch tone and the quirkiness season his stories, but don’t overwhelm them. He always adheres to a solid story arc. And no matter how outlandish the situations in which they find themselves, his characters still act according to comprehensible emotions and incentives.

Now don’t get me wrong. Elmore Leonard has inspired plenty of really good writers out there. And I believe the true torch-bearers will last, long after the false imitators have retired to the literary equivalent of the county fair circuit for hair metal bands.

I look forward to reading what they come out with in the future. In the meantime, I guess I’ll just sit down and re-read “Tishomingo Blues.” Through a blur of tears. Thanks Elmore.

  1. slade1213 says:

    Agree 100%. Funny, cause whenever I hear someone complain that a movie has characters talk too much like they’re in a Tarantino film, I always think, “Tarantino’s characters talk like they’re in an Elmore Leonard novel.”

    I started with PRONTO and worked my way backward to, and including, Leonard’s westerns. My faves: GET SHORTY (so much better than the movie), OUT OF SIGHT (ditto), and all of the Raylan Givens stories. And although I didn’t enjoy Leonard’s last couple of novels, I still looked forward to anything new by him.

    You’re right about his imitators not understanding what made his characters stand out. I read an interview with him about ten years back in which he was asked why he thought the movie adaptations of his books were underwhelming. He said that Hollywood always tried to make his dialogue witty or sarcastic, not realizing that the characters said things not to be funny, but because they actually thought that way.

    My favorite quote by Leonard (and forgive me for paraphrasing): “I thought the movie version of THE BIG BOUNCE was the worst movie I had ever seen. Until I saw the remake.”

    • Glad you brought up Tarantino, who owes an obvious debt to Elmore Leonard. An acknowledged debt, to Tarantino’s credit. Yeah, he kind of dropped the ball on his one overt attempt to adapt a Leonard novel (“Jackie Brown”), but his heart was in the right place. I’m a big fan of Tarantino, but he’s another guy who — through no fault of his own — spawned a bunch of godawful imitators who miss the whole point of the source material. They only pick up on the attitude, and completely bypass the solid storytelling and characterization underlying it. So in a sense, all those piss-poor “Pulp Fiction” knock-offs are indirectly part of Leonard’s legacy as well. But that’s OK. Any 15 minutes of “Justified” contains more substance than all those movies put together.

  2. […] Maberry Novel-in-Nine Workshop kook, likely secret agent, and first time novelist Tom Joyce weighs in on the passing of Elmore Leonard.  He touches on the doors the late, great Mr. Leonard […]

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