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Elmore Leonard (Handout)
Elmore Leonard (Handout)

Review: Fiction

Elmore Leonard (still) rules Add to ...

The Wall Street Journal reporter took her time before she dropped the obvious question on Elmore Leonard: You’re 86 and still writing every day. Why?

“I might as well do it. I can’t just sit here and look out the window.”

Ah yes, welcome to the sound and rhythm of the Leonard narrative, not to mention his latest novel, Raylan. (We just violated Leonard’s second rule of writing, by the way: Avoid prologues. So let’s get to it.)

Raylan reintroduces one of Leonard’s favourite characters: Raylan Givens, a one-time coal miner who is back in Harlan County, Kentucky, as a deputy U.S. marshal. Givens first appeared in the novels Pronto (1993) and Riding the Rap (1995), then in the short story Fire in the Hole (2001), which became the basis for the FX network TV series Justified (seen on Super Channel in Canada).

Leonard, an executive producer, sent an early Raylan manuscript to series creator Graham Yost (son of the late Elwy Yost) and told him that he could “strip it for parts.” The book’s publication was tied to the premiere of Justified’s third season, and an image of Timothy Olyphant, who plays the courteous, Stetson-wearing, slightly trigger-happy marshal, is on the cover. (Yes, we know we just violated Leonard’s 10th rule of writing: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. So moving along …)

Raylan, made up of three loosely connected stories, brings to mind one of those ubiquitous westerns (but not Leonard’s) of the 1950s. As the movie opens, the sky is blue, the horse is sauntering, the cowboy is tall in the saddle (and singing if he’s Gene Autry), the music is light and corny, and then – suddenly!!! – a shot rings out. (Yes, yes, we violated Leonard’s first rule of writing – never open with weather – and his fifth rule – keep your exclamation points under control – and his sixth rule – never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” Did we mention that CBC Radio invited listeners to submit single sentences that broke as many of Leonard’s 10 rules of writing as possible?)

The two bad guys in Raylan are actually women: Layla, a transplant nurse who kidnaps kidneys out of live bodies and holds ’em hostage; and Carol, a mine company executive who uses her Glock to handle disagreements. And what makes them so bad? “In the world of Elmore Leonard,” Justified’s Olyphant told The New York Times, “people are defined not by good and bad but by whether you’re a jerk or not.”

So is Raylan Givens cool or what? One of Leonard’s biographers described the marshal as “a slow-to-anger Gary Cooper type but never at a loss for words.” Leonard himself told CNN: “He’s kind of laid-back, but if you call him on anything, he says, ‘If I have to pull my gun, I will shoot to kill.’ ” Plus he gets to say things like: “You’re a double-dip ice-cream cone in that yella dress.”

Leonard, as always, throws in a few in-jokes. After a man is shot by a thug named Bob Valdez, his daughter tells Givens that Valdez called and told her to tell her father that “ ‘Valdez is coming.’ You ever hear anything like that?” Um, yes, in Leonard’s brilliant 1970 western, Valdez is Coming.

In Freaky Deaky (1988), a man on a toilet realizes that he’s sitting on a bomb. In Raylan, a drugged and naked Givens is in a bathtub surrounded by kidney-nappers. In both cases, it’s pure Elmore Leonard. And that’s why we continue to worship him.

Larry Orenstein, a member of Crime Writers of Canada, is an editor in the Comment section of The Globe and Mail.

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