Honestly, I wasn’t a big fan of his crime writing.
Too much of the Cain/Thompson/Ellroy school in his approach I’m afraid.
I’ve never really been interested in the quandary of an amoral man walking through an amoral universe. And, if the writer starts pretending his amoral man isn’t really amoral–Leonard’s more usual approach–so much the worse.
So what he was best known for always left me a touch cold. I never completely warmed to it even though his prose was every bit as swift and effective as his legion of admirers profess and his source story for Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown was evidently strong enough to impose narrative discipline even in the desolate space between that wunderkind’s ears (with a very good movie resulting for once).
If there often seemed to be just a little more to Leonard than to Cain or Thompson (who really were pretty close to being nihilists and that “pretty close,” especially in Thompson’s case, may be kind) or to noise machines like Ellroy who came along afterwards, then it was probably attributable to his background in westerns, where he did some genuinely fine things.
Some of those fine things got made into even finer things when the movies got hold of them. I’d point particularly to Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T and Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma, the former one of the great westerns of the form’s golden age, the latter one of the greatest films ever made irrespective of era or genre. Even in such capable hands, it’s not likely either would have been quite as good without the cant-free strengths of their common source.
Once Leonard broke free of the moral constraints imposed by audience expectations in the last age of the pulp western’s cultural ascendance, however, he was basically on his own, bereft of even the most basic sorting devices. That’s a place no writer should ever be and he didn’t respond any better than anybody had a right to expect.
No, he didn’t turn into a genuine bomb-thrower. He wasn’t James Ellroy, forever calling for a police state and using his own novels as the evidence for how badly we need one. Nothing like that.
He just kind of drifted. You know, morally speaking. He got his ethics from his professionalism–the safe ground that isn’t safe at all.
The end result was that his prose got better and better…and covered less and less.
In his latter days, he was responsible, albeit indirectly, for Justified, which is one of those takes on southern white trash that makes it possible, for just a moment, for southern whites to get a small taste of what black people must feel when yet another Hollywood version of ghetto life springs forth.
In other words, he wasn’t entirely harmless just because he had emptied himself out.
I mention this because it was easy to be fooled. Appearances could be deceiving.
By the time he passed away today, he was, image-wise at least, a rather gentle curmudgeon, forever offering up writing tips to people who thought he was a stone cold genius. I give him enormous credit for never giving the appearance of believing the hype himself, or pretending to be anything but the solid, ethical pro he was. And I won’t worry too much about the rest. He wasn’t the sort of writer who can hurt us too much from the beyond. And if there’s anything that needs to be sorted out between him and the universe, then it’s nothing to do with me.
I will say that the chance he might have turned into a better version of Larry McMurtry (not saying the actual version is less than very good) will always be an intriguing one.
But that chance got lost along the way. It was gone a long time before “Dutch” went on to face whatever state of judgment or oblivion is really waiting.
So I’ll celebrate the best of what he did do, which was basically writing a thick volume of very good western stories and inspiring a raft of good-to-great movies.
Hombre, Out of Sight, Valdez is Coming, Jackie Brown, Get Shorty, The Tall T, 3:10 to Yuma.
The Complete Western Stories.
That’s a worthy legacy for any writer. Especially for one who lost his way and kept being assured otherwise.
Usually by people I’ll always prefer to believe he was too smart to trust.