The magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s which used to publish first-rate popular fiction are gone or publish other sorts of things. Elmore Leonard is a survivor from their golden era. He started out in the 1950s selling Western short stories to such magazines, then stepped up to writing Western novels. They were very successful and several of his Westerns (like the short story “3:10 To Yuma”) were sold to Hollywood and made into movies.
When the market for Western fiction started to die out, Leonard moved effortlessly it seemed into writing contemporary crime thrillers. His expertise at these made him into a perennially best-selling author — eventually recognized as a master of the form.
He has now written so many books, so many of which are so brilliant, that he has come to be recognized as one of the greatest of living writers, which he surely is — a development that the literary establishment usually reserves for a specialist in genre fiction only after he is dead.
It’s been rumored that Leonard is going to try his hand at a Western again, but in a way he already has, in his novels featuring a character named Raylan Givens, a U. S. Marshal. (The TV show Justified is based on this character.)
The protagonists of Leonard’s crime thrillers are usually likeable rogues, no better than they ought to be, often playing both sides of the law. They’re just smarter and a bit more decent than the scumbags and psychos they invariably come up against. But Givens is different.
He’s a straight arrow, ruthless and efficient but careful to keep on the right side, his side, of the law. He’s also compassionate towards many of the low-lifes he’s charged with rounding up and bringing to justice, though never sentimental about them, and unfailingly gallant towards women. He’s lightning-fast with a gun in the presence of of bad guys with guns, and he’s utterly fearless, yet there is at the same time a kind of boyish innocence about him.
He is, in short, as close to the hero of a classic Western as one can find in any kind of serious fiction these days. He even wears a cowboy hat and boots. Leonard shied away from such heroes in his own Western fiction, because they had become clichés, but now Leonard has reinvented the cliché, brought it back from the dead.
Givens is almost a comic character — at least he’s seen as comic by many of the crooks who underestimate him, always at their peril. Women rarely underestimate him — they seem to intuit that he’s the real thing, a real man.
And he is — without apology, but also without self-consciousness. His values are ones he simply absorbed growing up in a family of coal miners in Kentucky — they are, to him, beyond questioning. He refuses to enter a private home without a search warrant because his mother once told him it wasn’t right to enter a person’s home without being invited (a search warrant being at least a kind of invitation.) That’s the end of the matter for Raylan.
Givens is a sly creation — so amusing and intriguing that Leonard can lure you sidewise into the profound respect you feel for him, for all the old-fashioned values he embodies. It’s one of the most astonishing literary feats of our time.
Do yourself a favor and get to know this guy — read Pronto and then its even more brilliant follow-up novel Riding the Rap. Read them for pleasure and for moral instruction. If you’re a writer, read them for a demonstration of how leaving out adverbs and adjectives can invigorate and propel a piece of fiction.