Elmore Leonard has written over 30 novels. They are known generally as "crime fiction." Among them you find westerns, which belong to another genre, though they also deal with crime. But whatever you call his novels, they always read like Elmore Leonard, distinctive in style and vision, brilliantly inventive in plot and characters. His latest novel, "Riding the Rap," shows Elmore Leonard at the top of his form.
You could analyze "Riding the Rap" and try to learn how to write like him. The plot is complicated, but if you study it you see how it's structured, and how characters are like chess pieces. They have restricted powers, determined by their level of intelligence. Bad guys, no matter how terrifying, are ultimately undone by their own evil nature. When you see these basics, and the techniques of plot construction, you only need Elmore Leonard's wit, his eye for places and people, his ear for dialogue, and his vision, or the mysterious ability to control the development of a story. After you get that, just write his kind of sentences, which are the essence and life of his pages. For example, "Riding the Rap" begins this way:
"Ocala Police picked up Dale Crowe Junior for weaving, two o'clock in the morning, crossing the center line and having a busted tail light. Then while Dale was blowing a point-one-nine they put his name and date of birth into the national crime computer and learned he was a fugitive felon, wanted on a three-year-old charge of Unlawful Flight to Avoid Incarceration. A few days later Raylan Givens, with the Marshal's Service, came up from Palm Beach County to take Dale back and the Ocala Police wondered about Raylan."
The sentences mix bureaucratic talk with what feels like street lingo, as in "having a busted tail light." The construction doesn't sound grammatically kosher to me, but it's good writing. It plays on the previous verbal forms, "weaving" and "crossing," and it tells you that the driver of the car, Dale Crowe Jr., is a moral slob. It also tells you what it feels like to be Dale, drunk and driving. This is a tremendous amount of information to stick into "having a busted tail light," but Elmore Leonard isn't famous for playing the piano. There is more to notice.
Dale is "blowing a point-one-nine," which refers to his breath test. Then the police find out he is a felon wanted for "Unlawful Flight to Avoid Incarceration." The legal lingo is impersonal and funny, juxtaposed with "blowing a point-one-nine," but it's the voice of Dale's fate and the controlling vision of the novel. The paragraph ends: "the Ocala Police wondered about Raylan." The rest of the chapter tells you why.
Raylan is merely indifferent to the extreme danger of bad guys like Dale, because he understands, as a more liberally minded person never could, that bad guys are truly bad. He is undeceived by their pretensions to decency, and their exceptional ability to be charming. He knows bad guys do bad, and he gives them a chance to be what they are. We learn that Raylan once sat face to face with a Mafia type, waiting for him to go for his gun. Raylan then shot him dead. To the police this is awesome proof of guts and competence. To Raylan's girlfriend, it is reprehensible. The opposition of these views haunts Raylan. He can't explain it to his girlfriend, but he knows he did right, or did good.
He once killed, but Raylan won't enter a man's house uninvited or without a legal warrant, even if a life is at stake and bad guys are hiding in the house. Raylan's commitment to this principle comes from his personal experience. He remembers how, when he was a kid, the sanctity of his home was violated by thugs. Raylan isn't an intellectual. His ideas come from experience, but they are like what you find in St. Augustine, Hobbes and Pascal. In brief, we are born concupiscent, we haven't advanced much beyond the jungle, and bad guys have no principle at all.
Raylan isn't free of concupiscence, but he doesn't succumb to the allure of the half-bad woman at the center of "Riding the Rap." She is a mind reader and all-purpose psychic called Reverend Dawn, and really seems to have a mystical gift. For example, while talking on the telephone to one of the bad guys, she says: "Turn on a light so I can see you." He is startled and jumps.
Reverend Dawn is wonderful because she figures in a severely rational and empirical novel. Maybe this says something about Elmore Leonard's view of women. His heroes adore them. At the same time, women drive men nuts because, aside from intelligence, they have things such as breasts. A bad guy will forget his practical, life-and-death interests if a woman like Reverend Dawn offers to get undressed. Not Raylan. But he is attracted to Reverend Dawn, and his girlfriend, who happens to be a former stripper, can see this. When he talks about Reverend Dawn to his girlfriend, she says: "What does she look like?"
"The way girls used to look twenty years ago. Long dark hair parted in the middle. Thin. . . ."