Like 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.