Thursday, May 28, 2009

My Crime Beat Column: Return to Elmoreland, Road Dogs is Elmore Leonard's New Crime Thriller

“They put Foley and the Cuban together in the backseat of the van and took them from the Palm Beach County jail on Gun Club to Glades Correctional, the old redbrick prison at the south end of Lake Okeechobee,” my friend and former editor, Frank Wilson, read to the audience at the Central Library in Center City Philadelphia prior to introducing crime writer Elmore Leonard on May 14th.

“That sentence, which happens to be the first one in Road Dogs, will signal to any reader who’s been there before that he is once again entering “Elmoreland,” a region whose inhabitants speak a language not taught in the schools — American.”

Wilson retired as the book editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer and now runs Books, Inq (, a popular literary blog that The Times in London named as one of the 100 Best Blogs 2009.

Wilson told the audience that once you find yourself in Elmoreland you also find yourself hanging on those inhabitants’ every word.

“You just can’t help noticing that what they say and the way they say it is smooth and tangy, like good Bourbon,” Wilson said.

I ventured to the library to hear Leonard, who is one of my favorite crime writers. I enjoy his fast-paced and character and dialog-driven novels. His violent , quirky, often dim, but always human characters are always interesting. And they are, in a dark way, very amusing. Leonard is a very funny writer.

Leonard, 83, the author of 42 novels and two story collections, told the gathering at the library that night that his current novel puts together three of his favorite characters from previous novels.

There is Jack Foley, the handsome and charming bank robber from Out of Sight, played by George Clooney in the film version, and Cundo Ray from LaBrava, who is a diminutive and wealthy Cuban career criminal. The two become “Road Dogs” - friends and allies who have each other’s back in prison.

We are also reintroduced to Dawn Navarro, the beautiful con artist and “ordained” psychic from Leonard’s earlier novel Riding the Rap. Ray thinks of Navarro as his common-law wife and he is obsessed with her faithfulness to him while he is prison.

“I wasn’t sure if Cundo Ray was alive,” Leonard said. “I had to look through LaBrava and came to the scene where Joe LaBrava shoots him in the chest three times, but he has to leave quickly for some reason, so no one says he’s dead.”

“A couple of emergency guys find he’s still breathing and so they take him to the hospital and he’s in a coma for 60 days,” Leonard said. “Actually, he’s faking the coma while he looks around and finds out what’s going on.”

Leonard went on to explain that Ray eventually moves to Venice, California, invests in property at the right time and makes a lot of money. Then he is convicted of second-degree murder and he is in prison at the same time as Foley.

“So this was my opportunity to get a couple of characters that I thought needed a little bit more time on the page,” Leonard said.

Road Dogs also offers Little Jimmy, a homosexual Cuban criminal that Ray protected when they were in prison together. Jimmy now oversees Ray’s property and bookmaking interests in Venice. There is also Lou Adams, an FBI agent who is obsessed with placing Foley back in prison and then writing a true crime book about the bank robber who has robbed more than 100 banks.

Adams coerces a former gangbanger named Tico to watch Foley, who was released early from prison thanks to Ray’s $30, 000 payment to a sharp lawyer. Foley moves to Venice and stays at one of Ray’s homes across a small canal from another of Ray’s home where Navarro is living.

This larcenous cast of charactors comes together and waits for Ray’s release from prison.

Leonard read passages from the novel and he spoke of his beginnings as a writer, getting up at 5 AM to work on his stories for two hours before going to work in an ad agency. He also spoke of his early success and the film adaptations of his novels (the good ones and the very bad ones), and he spoke of his novel-in-progress.

Leonard listed several writers he reads and said that his all time favorite was Ernest Hemingway. He said he learned about being spare and showing restrain from Hemingway, but he added that Hemingway did not have a sense of humor.

Leonard said he learned how to use humor from Richard Bissel. He also liked the dialog-driven The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins. Leonard believes the novel is the best crime book ever written.

Leonard, unlike most crime writers, said he was not at all influenced by Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. Unlike these two giants of crime fiction, Leonard does not write in the first person of a private detective, and he does not, like Chandler, use similes.

An audience member noted that Leonard didn’t use similes and asked when he figured out he didn’t want to use similes. Leonard replied with his usual dry wit, “When I realized I’m not good at it.”

Leonard went on to say that he believes similes interrupt the story, especially the way Chandler used them, but he acknowledged that many people (me included) still read Chandler because of his language.

Chandler’s similes work very well, it seems to me, because Chandler wrote in the first person. The similes would perhaps not work as well for Leonard, as he writes in the third person. Also, Leonard’s street criminals are generally not the type of people who use similes.

Leonard is as clever and amusing a speaker as he is a writer, so I truly enjoyed hearing him speak that night. I recommend that you too return to Elmoreland and read Road Dogs.