by BJW Nashe

Elmore “Dutch” Leonard, the man who single-handedly revitalized crime writing in America, died on Tuesday morning at his home in Bloomfield Township, Michigan. Complications from a recent stroke are listed as the cause of death. Leonard was 87 years old.

Some facts are in order, along with a tribute. Dutch is gone, and we’re going to miss him. But his incredible books will be with us for a long time.

Elmore John Leonard Jr. was born in New Orleans on Oct. 11, 1925. When he was nine, his father, an executive with General Motors, moved the family to Detroit. Elmore graduated from high school in 1943, did a two-year stretch in the Navy, and then attended the University of Detroit, where he graduated in 1950. He worked for a while as a copywriter for a Detroit advertising agency.

In his spare time, he began writing short stories and novels in the western genre. He published a number of these throughout the 1950s and ’60s. His novel, Hombre (1961), was named by the Western Writers of America as one of the 25 best westerns ever written.

elm3In 1969, Leonard published his first crime novel. He began refining his own unique style of snappy urban noir, with quirky characters and racy dialogue. It wasn’t until 1985 that he experienced his first major success, when his 25th novel, Glitz, became a critically acclaimed bestseller, landing him on the cover of Newsweek. He went on to publish another twenty or so novels, several of which were made into feature films — most notably Get Shorty and Jackie Brown.

Leonard’s impact on American crime writing and filmmaking cannot be overstated. The only other contemporary writer who has taken a genre and turned it into something entirely fresh and new is William Gibson, whose cyberpunk novels revolutionized science fiction in the 1980s. Leonard’s stroke of genius was to realize that the crime genre was overburdened by formulaic plots, with too many thin characters. So he flipped the script, and always emphasized character over plot. And what a cast of characters he gave us — a vast rogue’s gallery of con men, cops, bookies, floozies, loan sharks, shysters, thieves, whores, and even movie stars. Leonard used his amazing language skills, and his tremendous ear for dialogue, to bring all of these characters to life on the page.

elmI could go on and on about Leonard’s greatness. I could reprint his famous “Ten Rules for Good Writing,” except I don’t believe in rules for writing. Better to simply read some of Leonard’s fiction, and let that serve as a tribute to the man. The following excerpt from his novel Bandits (1987) can stand alone as a brilliant short story. It serves to illustrate Leonard’s magic touch. In just a few pages, he manages to tell a tale that could be fleshed out into an entire book or film. Yet here it’s delivered as a mere anecdote, just part of a character’s back story, the kind of stuff that Leonard’s books are full of.

The excerpt is a flashback in which the protagonist of Bandits, a convicted jewel thief named Jack Delaney who is doing time at the Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana, is listening to a story told by another prisoner he has befriended, a former New Orleans cop named Roy Hicks. Here’s the incredible story of the Roy Hicks Caper. Roy is telling us Jack (and us) about a call girl named Nola Roy that he knew as a snitch in the French Quarter:

*     *     *     *     *

“This was a sweet kid I’m talking about. Didn’t look atall like a whore. She was demure, had this little tiny voice. ‘Oh, Roy, I didn’t have you as my friend I’d be smacked out twenty-four hours a day.’”

“That’s all you were?”

“Hey, friends can go to bed, can’t they? Two people misunderstood at home. My old woman, Rosemary, all she did was bitch that I was never home. You see her, you’d know why. And Nola was married to a guy was a half-assed bookmaker. You probably knew him, Dickie Duschene, sometime they call him Dudu, had a place upstairs on Dauphine. He’s making book and she’s hooking, so they didn’t have what you call a home life. The deal was, I’d stop by and Nola’d tell me her troubles, or anything she might’ve heard would be of interest to me. You know, stuff she picked up on the street or from Dickie. And my part of the deal, I’d look out for her and wouldn’t hassle ‘em none, let ‘em go about their business. One day I’m over there she’s sniffling and nervous like she’s strung out or somebody died. I ask her, ‘What’s wrong, precious?’ Nola pulls a trash bag out of the closet has thirty grand in it, all fifties and hundreds. I tell her, ‘My, you been working your cute little tail off, haven’t you?’ She says Dickie gave it to her but she’s afraid to keep it in the apartment. She gets a john every once in a while will go through her things. She says some freak’s liable to rip her off, so would I keep it for her. She says the money’s from Dickie’s bookmaking and card games in that joint he had, place on Dauphine looked like it was boarded up. Okay, but something didn’t smell right. He’s gonna let her keep thirty grand in a room guys walk in and out of you don’t know? I said, ‘Hey, Nola, bullshit.’ She says he did, honest. But then tells me a little more. She found out Dickie was going out on her with this nurse at Charity and Nola had a fit. Started breaking things over at his place, so he gave her the thirty grand to calm her down. Only it worked the other way, made her nervous.”

“He gave her thirty, the guy must’ve had a lot more.”

“That’s right, and the guy didn’t run that big of a book. But I take the money home and hide it in a good place, ‘cause now I have this tremendous idea. Put the money to work, as the occasion arises, in my continuing fight against crime. Like using a confiscated car on surveillance? Use some of the scratch to pay off informants. Get these assholes tripping over each other to tell me stuff.”

“Don’t they lie to you?”

“Sure they do. It’s their nature. You got to jam a snitch, get him against the wall. Fella’s dealing against a third fall, he tells you where this other fella’s gonna be with a load of smack on him, only he aint’t there. So you tell the guy, ‘He ain’t there the next time, asshole, you gonna get triple-billed and go on up to ‘Gola.’ Now the word’s on the street I’m paying off, shit, I got ‘em lined up like I’m hearing confession. Listen, I’d get phone calls in the middle of the night, which Rosemary would answer on account of her sour fucking disposition kept her awake. And if it was a broad on the phone that was cool, ‘cause Rosemary wouldn’t even look at me for about a week. I got mostly shuck, but not all.”

“You have kids, Roy?”

“My babies are grown up and gone, two fine girls, but they come to see me.” Meaning, to Angola.

“Go on with the story.”

“Talking about snitches… there was a case I was working on, a Wells Fargo stickup in Jackson, Mississippi, where some of the money was showing up in New Orleans. The feds already had a lead on four local guys they’re watching. But the feds don’t have any police experience, they use computers, and a computer isn’t worth shit on the street, to get information. You have to get down there in the sewer with the assholes and talk to ‘em man to man. One of my ace informants tells me to see a guy at Charity in there with a gunshot wound he says was from a hunting accident. The feds ask him if he hunts with ninety-grain .38s from a Smith and Wesson service revolver. See, they know one of the guys in the Wells Fargo heist was shot on the way out. The guy in the hospital, his wound is through and through, but he doesn’t know that. See, they don’t have a slug, they’re just trying to bullshit him. The day I go see the guy, first thing in the morning, I’m too late. During the night some guy walked in his roomm put a pillow over his face, and shot him five times through the pillow. Leaves the gun and walks out. The in the next bed saw the whole thing. The nurse tells me they have to change his sheets every time somebody walks in the room now he doesn’t know. I think, hey, this nurse is a cool broad. I begin to wonder about her and a couple days later I meet her for a drink, place there on Granvier, when she gets off her shift. I’m employing now what’s called the SWAG approach to police work, a Scientific Wild-Ass Guess. We sit down, order Manhattans, the drinks arrive, and I say, ‘Say, how’s your friend Dickie Duschene?’ She just about chokes on her cherry, can’t fucking believe it. The cool nurse is no longer cool. We make a deal and by the time she’s on her fourth Manhattan I’ve been apprised of the fact that the guy that got whacked in the hospital expected it, saw it coming while, in the meantime, he was falling in love with the nurse and telling her where he stashed a hundred and fifty big ones, in a locker at the airport. She didn’t know what to do with it, so she gave it to her boyfriend, Dickie, for safekeeping. You see what’s coming? Honest to Christ. Dickie gives Nola thirty grand to keep peace in the family. She gives it to me and I’m using part of the take from the same fucking heist I’m investigating.”

“That’s an amazing story.”

“I’m not done yet. I see where I am, I’m right in the middle of this shit and I gotta get out, fast. But the cool nurse who’s no longer cool goes immediately to the feds, who’ve been talking to her anyway, and now the fucking daisy chain comes around again. Dickie talks. Nola screams she didn’t do nothing, she gave it to the police, me. The feds and the cops both come to the house. They ask, where’s the money? I’m in deep shit if I admit anything. Nobody’s gonna believe I used some of it only to pay snitches. Those administrative assholes don’t understand the value of snitches. They want to get me anyway ‘cause I never told ‘em dick what I was doing and that infringed on their management position. So I say, ‘What money?’”

“Play dumb.”

“Sure, but you know what they did? They take Rosemary aside and question her. I haven’t told her nothing about the money, so I figure I’m home. But then, Jesus, they tell her about my relationship with Nola, dirty bastards, that it was Nola gave me the money. Rosemary says, ‘Oh, is that right?’ They tell her it was thirty grand. It could’ve been thirty cents, it wouldn’t a made any difference. Rosemary opens up her sewing box and takes out a handful of money straps I had taken off the dough each time I got some to pay a snitch and threw the paper straps in the wastebasket. And each time I did, Rosemary dipped in and got it out. Then waited for the right time to stick it in my nose. Finding out about Nola was the time. They trace the bank straps to the Wells Fargo heist, I’m brought up on accessory charges, possession of stolen currency, shit, I’m convicted and draw ten to twenty-five. Rosemary, at the sentencing, she has tears in her eyes. A woman from the TV news asks her how she feels. Rosemary wipes her eyes and says, ‘Thirteen years married to that son of a bitch he barely spoke a word to me. Let’s see how he likes it when nobody speaks to him.’ Meaning in here,” Roy told Jack Delaney at Angola. “A cop trying to make it in the joint.”

 

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