Criminal mastermind

Four decades after selling his first screen rights, Elmore Leonard is big in films. By John Walsh

"If I had my way," said Elmore Leonard emphatically, "handguns would be banned in America. There are now - what is it? - 30,000 murders a year involving a gun. But the NRA, the National Riflemen's Association, I just don't understand their influence in Congress." Fine sentiments, but not the sort you expect to hear from the world's top crime writer. Leonard writes about people who fetishise guns, who wave the things around like magic wands, tuck them in their trousers like a spare penis, love every detail of a Colt and Magnum, savour the names of Beretta, Smith & Wesson and Browning, and know about the model with a fold of metal under the trigger guard around which to curl your fourth finger.

Writing about the crime underworld (Time Out once called Elmore Leonard "the poet laureate of wild assholes with guns", his favourite accolade) has brought fame and fortune to this modest, professorial man. It's made him the biggest arty moneyspinner to come out of Detroit since Motown. Of his 35 novels, with their curt one- and two-word titles - Swag, Stick, Glitz, Bandits, Freaky Deaky, Get Shorty, Maximum Bob - and their interchangeable cast of chatty villains and cool anti-heroes, 27 have been film-optioned or bought outright. The films that resulted weren't masterpieces (Paul Newman smouldered through Hombre, Burt Lancaster sleepwalked through Valdez is Coming, Charles Bronson did his embalmed-Mongol-warlord impression in Mr Majestyk, Burt Reynolds hammed it up in Stick, John Travolta and Danny De Vito turned Get Shorty into a comedy), but their author was revealed as the finest storyteller in or out of Hollywood. And the best writer of dialogue: "What happened to the money you got from the heist?" one villain asks another in LaBrava. "I spent half of it on broads, boats and booze," comes the reply. "The rest I just wasted."

Among those watching Leonard's every move in recent years was Quentin Tarantino, who bought the film rights to four of the novels. He filmed only one, Rum Punch, taking a few liberties with the storyline and characters. It was released on Friday, as Jackie Brown.

"Quentin called me just as he went into production last year. He said, `I've been afraid to call you.' I said, `Why? Because you changed the title of my book and cast a black woman in the lead?' He said, `Well, yeah.' I said, `You're the film maker, it's your picture now. My book, your picture.'" As it turned out, he liked the choice of Pam Grier as the air hostess with the shooter in her clutch bag, "because you can't imagine any other actress standing up to Samuel Jackson".

I said I thought the film was considerably less dramatic than the book, which opens with a neo-Nazi demonstration and features an ex-convict called Louis Gara who gradually gets his groove back (and steals an absolutely enormous gun). In the film, Louis, played by Robert de Niro, stays just a dopey recidivist. Leonard forgives him, however. "What Quentin added, I think, was more talk. My books are talky enough, but his pictures are even more talky. What he wanted to do, he told me, was spend the first half of the movie introducing the characters. He was in no hurry to rush to a conclusion. It's not a thriller in the sense that you're dying to find out what happens. I love that because it's the way I work. I develop characters, and I'm not sure where they're going until I get to know them. In fact, I seldom know before I'm halfway through what the thing is about."

Elmore Leonard is fond of the faux-naif pronouncements about his working methods - how he plots as he goes along, how he likes to watch minor characters take over the action, how his own denouements can surprise him. It's a far cry from the tightly schematic world of the Tarantino wunderkind. But one thing they share is a fascination with off-key dialogue. "That irrelevant quality is very familiar in Los Angeles - two guys with a job to do who suddenly start talking about, say, music. Quentin says he learned it from me, to show a normal side to the bad guys and have them talking about something commonplace, like in Pulp Fiction, or when, just before they pull the guns, they're talking about foot rubs. This is the way I've always imagined my bad guys. I think of what kind of shoes they wear, and what clothes they'll wear when they pull the job. I think that's very important."

It sure is. Leonard is fixated about clothes. Casual fashion statements resound through his conversation. He is far more interested in the couture of villainy than its moral dimension. He knows that real-life crooks dress the way people dress in films, that any cool bank robber will have the Reservoir Dogs black suit and white shirt stashed in his wardrobe. In his new novel, Cuba Libre, a kind of cowboy Casablanca set in Havana in 1898 at the outbreak of the Spanish-American war, there's an hilarious scene in which an investigator called Rudi reports to the police chief Palenzuela about the movements of a young American horse dealer, and the report becomes an annotated shopping expedition:

"He bought a suit?" Palenzuela said.

"Only the coat, a black one."

"Expensive?"

"I believe alpaca."

"Where did he go for the boots?"

"Naranjo y Nasquez."

"They're all right but not the best ... "

"How did it look?"

"Elegant, with a white shirt and a kerchief of light blue shade, the kerchief his own."

Palenzuela said, "Hmmm," nodding. "I like a kerchief sometimes."

Leonard himself is looking formal today, in his tweed jacket, blue shirt with purple tie, his Rockport shoes. We meet in the Four Seasons Hotel, Washington. He seems a little agitated by the prospect of having to address an audience at the Smithsonian Institute later that afternoon. The attentions of academe, or of anybody prepared to make fancy claims about his work, upset him a little. "My books are entertainment," he says flatly. "I'm not trying to go down in history." He knows there are people writing PhD theses abut his oeuvre, "but I don't know what they're talking about. There's a guy at Florida International, a published poet, written half a dozen books, told me he uses my stuff in his classes. I said, how do you use them? He said, Oh, the patterns of imagery, and he listed a few things, and I said, I'm glad I'm not taking the course in my books because I'd probably fail." Not a chance. Nobody would have the temerity to fail such a distinguished figure, with his long Jason Robards face, his grizzled beard and steel-frame spectacles. They'd be far more likely to take him for a visiting professor of Greek.

He was born in 1925 in New Orleans, where his father was a location scout for General Motors. The family moved to Detroit when Elmore was 10, by which time his interest in crime had matured at an alarming rate. At nine, he'd been photographed with a pistol in his hand and one foot up on the running board of a car - a dead ringer for Bonnie Parker, just months after she and Clyde Barrow had died in a hail of police bullets. At 18, when America entered the war, Leonard persuaded a friend to join the paratroopers with him. The reason was purely sartorial. "I said, you get those great boots, and that nice cap with the blue emblem of a parachute on it." In the end, Leonard wound up in the navy, on an island maintaining an airstrip for the Australian Navy.

After the war, he got a job writing advertising copy for Chevrolet, but used to rise at 5am to write fiction. He explains this, not as an artistic impulse but a solidly commercial one. "I chose Westerns because there were so many being made. You could sell a Western story in several magazines. The ones you wanted to get into were called Dime Western - it was a prestige magazine and cost a quarter - and Zane Gray Western. They paid two cents a word, although Ten Story Western paid three cents. I sold 30 short stories that way." And he had his first brush with Hollywood, when a 4,500 word story called 3.10 to Yuma was filmed. Dime Western paid him $90 to publish it (after demanding two re-writes). The screen rights went for $4,000. Elmore was away. He quit the day job in 1961, when he was 36.

When the demand for movie Westerns fell off (sated, apparently by the TV glut of Bonanza and Wagon Train and Rawhide), he turned to crime and published The Big Bounce, featuring the first sighting of a vast production of tough guys, crooks, schemers, gunslingers, bounty hunters, bail jumpers, con men, hustlers and straight-down-the-line bank robbers. His familiarity with their conversation, their self-mythologising dreams, their obsession with being cool, have led readers to assume Leonard has a back-up team of helpfully confessional thieves and murderers back in Detroit, a whole bankload of lowlife tales to draw on. He hasn't. He has a researcher called Gregg Sutter, who investigates locales for him and finds appropriate policemen to talk to. They usually say they'll give him 15 minutes of their valuable time and end up talking unstoppably for two hours. Didn't he ever get useful material straight from the horse's mouth?

"I was on the cover of Newsweek in 1985," he says, typically launching a story by way of reply, "and for the piece, this guy from the magazine followed me around. We went to Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary. I walk in with my entourage, the journalist, the photographer, someone from my publisher, and two assistant wardens, and I sit down with a guy doing mandatory life, ain't no chance of him ever coming out. I said, What d'you call the guards around here. He said, we call 'em Sir. I thought, Oh shit, I'm not gonna get anything out of this guy. But, finally, I asked, what time do the lights go off? He said, 10 o'clock, except in the TV room, where it's 12 o'clock. I asked him, Who decides what you watch? - and I had the scene I needed right there. I didn't even care what he said, because I know who decides what they watch. The toughest guy decides. He's gonna watch Loony Tunes if he wants. That was all I needed, just asking that question."

Elmore Leonard is not a man who walks it like he talks it. He's never been locked up. He's never been arrested. He doesn't own a gun. He does, however, have a Goodfella nickname ("Dutch") and he has one or two shady friends, like the chap who was the original of Chilli Palmer, the hero of Get Shorty. "He's a tough guy. He's cool. We went to Puerto Rico together to research Glitz. With his pinstripe suit and his tie with a tight knot, and he's talking out the side of his mouth." What Leonard is good at is noting tiny details of macho wisdom or style, and incorporating them into his narrative. He has a friend at Florida Dept of Law Enforcement who takes him shooting: "Jim says, `You rack a shotgun and they'll stop in their tracks. They know the sound. They know what it means.' That's good stuff. And once I was listening to a homicide cop on the phone, who was trying to get information out of someone, and he said, `I give you my word as a man.' I still think about that. What did he mean? Was it a simple, naive way of talking, or did it really mean something?"

His researches take him into whole new areas of interest, new industries. When he started writing Be Cool, his next book, a sequel to Get Shorty, it was set in the fashion industry ("I love runway shows," he says, not entirely surprisingly) but could not make it work. "I was looking for a crime and there isn't any crime in the fashion industry like there used to be when the Mafia was involved." So he set it in the rock 'n' roll business instead. Needing a crash course in power chords and leather-trousered attitude-striking, he went to an Aerosmith concert, and invited the band round to his house at the weekend. "They sat on the patio. My grandchildren, who are teenage girls, walked in and there's Aerosmith, and they think Grandpa and Aerosmith? And a few months later, George Clooney came to the house. Poor George, he couldn't move for the girls around him." Leonard is a terrific, self-confessed star-spotter, a happy rubber-necker in restaurants on Wilshire Boulevard.

He now lives back in Michigan, in Bloomville, a village 15 miles south of Detroit. He met and married his third wife, Christine, in 1993, the year his second spouse died. Christine was a master gardener, 23 years younger than Elmore, when she came with a crew of helpers to trim his verges. He liked the way she dangled a pair of secateurs from the waistband of her jeans. Together, they travel the world each year, doing yet another promotional tour for yet another howlingly successful book. Unlike the guy in LaBrava, he doesn't waste his money on anything ("I wish there was something I really wanted now," he says wistfully. "But there isn't."). His life sails happily along an apparently unchanging course.

At the end, we talked about his characters and how they stay unreconstructedly themselves, and I wondered if he saw them in moral terms. Just very occasionally, this most laconic and unflashy of writers can be found hinting that all may not be well with a character - like Maximum Bob, the eponymous hellfire judge, whose casual racism grates on the reader and on the woman whose dislike is duly monitored. Did he approve of Maximum Bob? "But I know people like that and I like them," he says. "He's not simply a racist, he's all kinds of things. That's how people are. And, no, he doesn't change, because people don't. At the end, he's just the same. One of the reviewers said, the book fails because there's no redemption in it. I thought, good Gahd, why didn't I think of that? I shoulda put a little redemption in. I shoulda changed him. I shoulda cleaned him up."

He chuckles mightily, like a wheezy old-timer in a John Wayne western. There's an old-fashioned view, I say, that the point of a novel is to portray how people change over time and circumstance.

"Yeah?" says Elmore Leonard with gentle sarcasm. "Maybe they'll change in the next book"

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