Happy Birthday, Dutch
Elmore Leonard’s friends call him Dutch. Many of his fans do, too, and while using a nickname presumes a degree of familiarity to which those of us who only know Leonard through his books aren’t entitled, we can’t help ourselves. We feel like we know him. Leonard’s fans tend to stay the course; his 44th book, Djibouti, will be published in October, and I’m confident I’m not alone among his devotees in being able to say that I’ve read them all. So while I would never drop “Dutch” into cocktail conversation, I’m not above referring to him that way in those one-on-one conversations I imagine us having.
On October 11, Leonard will celebrate his 85th birthday. He has been a professional writer for 60 of those 85 years. He came up the old-fashioned way, through the pulps. While working for a Detroit advertising agency in the 1950s, Leonard wrote western stories. In 1961, he tried writing full-time but was forced to take freelance advertising jobs to pay the bills. (Along with 44 published books, Leonard has accumulated more than 100 rejections in his writing life—but none lately.) In 1969, he published his first crime novel, The Big Bounce, and began selling screenplays to Hollywood (more than 30 of his novels and stories have been turned into movies). It wasn’t until the 1980s, though, that Leonard finally broke through: In 1984, LaBrava won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and the next year Glitz hit the New York Times bestseller list, where many of Leonard’s succeeding books have also found homes.
Although he’s written in many styles and genres, his work more or less falls into three camps: the westerns (including 3:10 to Yuma); the gritty, noir-tinged crime novels, set mainly in Detroit and written in the 1970s (City Primeval may be the best); and the freewheeling caper novels, which have ranged across the country and, recently, the globe. It was in the caper novels—Stick, Pronto, and Get Shorty are my favorites—where the signature Leonard style flourished: comedy threatening to turn tragic as wonderfully idiosyncratic characters try to scratch itches they can’t quite reach.
And what of Leonard’s latest, number 44, which is about a documentary filmmaker in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa (“the gateway to Islam . . . or the backdoor to the West”) to shoot a film about Somalian pirates? He may be 85, but Leonard remains in top form, combining his characteristic flourishes—the back-and-forth banter, always oozing wit but never too smart for the room; the always-startling juxtaposition of the comic ordinariness of daily life against bursts of graphic violence—with a superbly clever bit of storytelling in which most of the action takes place in the past, as the filmmaker and her assistant view film and decide how to structure their documentary.
Mike Lupica once said that “the next best thing to reading Elmore Leonard is re-reading him.” I couldn’t agree more. Someday, after I retire from Booklist, I plan to re-read the entire oeuvre, starting at the beginning and working my way through however many there are at that point.