Oldie but a Goodie: Elmore Leonard's Mr. Paradise

Elmore Leonard wrote a lot of books. His career is worth studying because he didn't start out a great---or even a very good---writer, but he taught himself how to write the hard way, by writing. And writing.

In those days he worked with editors who really edited, and readers who wrote in response. He learned from the feedback. And by selling stories. Seeing work in print can be a clarifying experience.

He began publishing in the early 1950s.  It was a golden age of pulp fiction, so a writer could sell stories without stringent, New Yorker style quality control; a time when even a half-good writer could sell a story and make a buck, get a pub, and improve over time.

Some of Leonard's early westerns are ... pretty awful. At their worst, they're ersatz bullwhip Westerns written by a Detroit guy that are long on silly tumbleweed detail and short on complicated plots, often resolving in obvious binaries (only two possible outcomes).

Lucky for Dutch (he hated the very idea of being called "Elmore"), he was young and ambitious when there was a huge market for genre fiction, even pro forma shoot'em-ups. So he kept on writing, and got better.
And better.
And better.
So that some of the late Westerns are quite good. Hollywood came knocking for some of the better stories, one of which, "3:10 to Yuma" was good enough it's been made as a movie twice.

But let's cut to the chase: Elmore Leonard had good instincts, worked hard, and he found his metier in the urbane urban crime tale. Sometime in the 1990s, Leonard became so masterful, he was writing his character-driven hardboiled tales with the same skill set as his literary contemporaries were struggling with realist veltschmertz.

For the most part, Leonard's mature works could be textbooks in protagonist story structure, ironic tone, and character pov. Beginning with La Brava, and including terrific books like Stick, Get Shorty, and Out of Sight, the writing is so crisp and the plots so well crafted, Elmore may very well hold the title for Author-Most-Often-Adapted-to-Film. Or maybe tied with Stephen King, another writing machine. But as good as his book-made-into-movies are---and some are terrific; you can buy the book for $4 or rent Out of Sight for $3 on Amazon and it'll be the best total $7 you spend this year---Mr. Paradise wasn't like the others.

It didn't get made into a film because it breaks rules. And yet, it's just so much fun! I think you should read one of the movie-books to see how protagonistically driven those stories are. Then compare to the lumpier, Mr Paradise.

Mr. Paradise is a time machine back to Y2K, pre-smartphone, early-internet, still-nicotined America. Detroit as it crumbled. The Storyworld details alone are worth the price of admission. I won't ruin the story for you, but watch how Leonard moves the plot from character to character---each authentic, each one precisely and generously rendered, and each essential to the shaggy dog plot.

Unlike the protagonist-plot which transforms almost seamlessly into film and in which the protagonist's pov and consciousness is the most critical factor, Mr Paradise relies on the constellation of characters, each contributing to the whole image of the story. Oh, it's a detective story, and the detective is a cool guy who's in a lot scenes, but it's nuttier than that. When you read it, it offers a certain vagabond pleasure, reminiscent of Dickens, and it's a special kind of reading fun.

Oh, and another thing, there's no fat on the bones of the story. Leonard's prose is uncomplicated, yet not simplistic. With a minimum of sentences, he creates a sense of time and place, events with immediacy as well as his characters' rich internal lives, but he does it with amazing efficiency. Yeah, sometimes the reader has to do some heavy lifting, but we learn all we need to know by the end.

Like I said, he's a literary stylist hiding behind the mask of genre.

Here's an example of Leonard's economy near the start of Mr. Paradise. It's the end of the scene when we meet detective Delsa and the beginning of the next scene, and it's just a bit of stylistic perfection. The dialog is expository, but not obviously so. It's authentic cop-talk. Then there's a short digression to set up Delsa's past which is justifiable because he feels like his own parts don't match since the death of his wife. Leonard doesn't mess around with a lot of description but we get exactly what we need. The economy in setting the scene of the crime is just brilliant.
Also, funny.
Macabre, but funny.
But Leonard does a fantastic sense of connecting us to an embodied sense of Delsa, how he thinks about his life and job. Clearly, Leonard has done his research---he dedicated the book "To the Detroit Police Homicide Section."

Great research can lead to great writing. That and practice...

“Manny might be able to I.D. the three guys,” Delsa said. “What’ve you got for time of death?”
Harris said, “The three panchos, late last night, they’re in and out of rigor, removal service is on the way. Frank, the M.E. death investigator - was Val Trebucci - took his pictures and then laid the dismembered guy back together. I said, ‘What you doing that for?’ Val goes, ‘Make sure the parts match.’ Hey shit, huh?"

Frank Desla, thirty-eight, acting lieutenant of Squad Seven, Homicide Section, Detroit Police Department, had been living by himself in this house on the far east side since this wife’s death: now almost a year alone after nine years with Maureen, no children, Maureen herself with the Detroit Police, lieutenant in charge of the Sex Crimes unit. Married nine years when they decided they’d better start a family if they were going to have one, Maureen, already forty, three years older than Frank, went to see her doctor and was told she had cancer of the uterus. The hardest time for Frank was coming home, walking into the silence of the house.

Last night he’d made a run with Sergeant Jackie Michaels, forty-three, to the Prentiss Hotel on Cass. “Home to hookers, winos and crackheads,” Jackie said. “My neighborhood, Frank, when I was growing up. I might even know the complainant.” In some ways Jackie reminded him of Maureen. They’d been rookies together working out of the Tenth, the black girl and the white girl close friends, both from the street; nothing surprised either one.

The complainant at the Prentiss Hotel was Tammi Marie Mello, W/F/49, laying on the stairway landing between the fifth and sixth floors. Apparent cause of death, the evidence tech said, a single gunshot wound to the back. “Yeah, I remember her from when I was a little girl,” Jackie said.

Special bonus:

Here's the first paragraph from Leonard's obit in The Paris Review.

"Elmore Leonard died this week. This is terribly sad news. It’s terribly sad when the world loses someone fantastically gifted who also, through some cosmic fluke, is not a dick. Elmore Leonard was not a dick. He was nice. He wrote something like a book a year, and even the crap ones were better than most of what passes for decent fiction these days. And he was one cool motherfucker.