But whatever his fondness for the elaborately horrible, Leonard’s books are sometimes surprisingly short on ordinary violence. Chili Palmer, the loan shark hero of Get Shorty(1990)—he is probably Leonard’s most beloved character (he was played by John Travolta in the movie, and that no doubt helped)—doesn’t carry a weapon. Violence is bad for business, he says. When there is violence, even murder, it is often hedged in by so many confusing and ridiculous circumstances that it no longer feels violent. In Maximum Bob (1991), a Florida novel, we get the following: “When Roland was shot dead and Elvin sent to prison for killing a man he thought was the one had got the woman to kill Roland, nobody in the family seemed surprised.” By the time you get to the end of that sentence, you’re not surprised either. Makes sense.
This may have less to do with Leonard’s ethics than with his aesthetics. He just wasn’t that interested in his plots, and the reason, he explained, was that he was too interested in his characters, above all the bad guys. In his mind, he said, “I see convicts sitting around talking about a baseball game. I see them as kids. All villains have mothers.” Indeed, he was their mother. He picked out their clothes; he chose their names. (He was a champion namer—this was part of his “ear”: Mr. Woody, Jackie Garbo, Chili Palmer, Cundo Rey. One thug has a tiny little daughter named Farrah.) He gave them girlfriends, ways of speaking, things they liked to eat. And as they were flowering under the beam of his affection—riding around in their stolen cars, discussing their upcoming felonies—he tended to ignore the noncriminal element in his books: the police, the decent citizens, the people who might push the plot forward by preventing or solving the crimes. Regular people, he complained, “don’t talk with any certain sound.”
The resulting story lines may, in the words of Ben Yagoda of The New York Times, come to seem like “smoky improvisations.” Eventually, Yagoda said, “the elements congeal into a taut climax, but for the first two-thirds or so of the book, the characters, the reader and, it turns out, the author simmer on the low burner and, in Huckleberry Finn style, ‘swap juices,’ trying to figure out what’s going on.” This isn’t true of all Leonard’s novels—he created some masterful farce plots—but it’s true of many of them, especially the better ones. Leonard thought writing was fun. (That’s how he could do it from nine to six, five days a week.) And he kept it fun by not forcing himself to do what he didn’t want to do, such as construct tidy plots. It should be added that his plots, however meandering, do not usually make him hard to read. Glitz, the book that inspired Yagoda’s remarks, above, spent sixteen weeks on the Times best-seller list, and from that point on, every last one of Leonard’s novels was a best seller. He wasn’t the only person having fun.
Drawing by the great David Levine.