I was at the after-party, or as they used to call it back then, the party, for the premiere of Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown in 1997, at this nice nightspot in Times Square that I think was called The Kit Kat Club or something, and I happened to be standing at the bar close to the kitchen door, and there was Abel Ferrara, and we were kind of standing at either side of the path down which various servers streamed out carrying huge platters of food. It was amusing. "It's a Harvey party," Ferrara observed. "Eat, drink, and be merry." Feeling sufficiently emboldened by the festive vibe, I asked Ferrara how he, who had made a movie, the ill-fated 1989 Cat Dancer, from an Elmore Leonard book some years prior to Tarantino's film—an adaptation of Leonard's Rum Punch—thought Quentin had done by the maestro. "He did great. Got the tone just right. Did you see Get Shorty?" He rolled his eyes. "God. So studio-ized. Every time they shoot Travolta from a low angle they've got the fucking key light giving him a halo." I knew what he meant. Jackie Brown wasn't exactly what you could call flat in terms of its lighting, but its opening shot of Pam Grier on the moving walkway at the airport set the visual tone, one of exceptional clarity. I liked Get Shorty better than Ferrara did (and Leonard himself acted as executive producer on its sequel, Be Cool), I think it's pretty entertaining, but its patina of Hollywood slickness was really unnecessary, to the point of being kind of distracting once you noticed it.
One ought never mistake clarity for artlessness. Especially in prose. Here's a passage from Leonard's 1976 Swag:
Frank was waiting in the T-bird, in the lot behind the Berkley Theater on Twelve Mile Road. They changed from their suit coats to lightweight jackets, took off their ties, and got their revolvers out of the glove box. Frank put on sunglasses; Stick, a souvenir Detroit Tiger baseball cap. They left their suit coat and ties in the T-bird, got in the Impala, and drove over to the A&P on the corner of Southfield and Twelve. On the way, Stick said he almost took the car with the pink-and-white pompoms all over it. He didn't because he was afraid Frank might feel a little funny riding in it.
It was a good-looking A&P, in a high-income suburban area. But Frank didn't like all the cars in the parking area. Too many.
They drove back to a bowling alley-bar on Twelve and Berkley to kill some time and had a few vodkas-and-tonic in the dim, chrome-and-Formica lounge. Sitting in a bar in the early evening reminded Stick of Florida. He didn't like the feeling.
The writing is lean, arguably "plain," and has a compelling tautness to it. The standard thing to say about such stuff is that not a single word is unnecessary. Okay, but as a thought experiment, how about that "souvenir?" Arguably in 1976 a baseball cap was more a takeaway purchase from a sporting event than a standard urban or sun-shielding wardrobe item, so there is that. But the word is also exceptionally apropos to the character Frank Ryan, an arriviste in the criminal world who engineers a partnership with the more experienced Stick, who for a while has no choice in the matter. A substantial part of Leonard's art was in knowing his characters well enough to imbue them with the traits that will add up to their destiny in unobtrusive, organic-seeming ways, all of which enhanced the pleasure in the reading.
When I was just learning to read seriously, a lot of literary types were bemoaning, and not without reason, the absence of Chandler and Hammett. It took me a little while to figure out that while those guys were indeed worth mourning, I myself was in fact living in a golden age of genre fiction, because Donald Westlake/Richard Stark, Charles Willeford, George V. Higgins, and Elmore Leonard were alive and kicking and writing. And now Leonard, like those contemporaries of his, is gone. And like all the writers mentioned, he is irreplaceable. And aside from his books, he's got his name attached to more quality movies than most first-stripe directors these days do. I'd like to take some time today and watch one of them, but I've got something else to do first, and it's something that I am grateful to have learned from Leonard and a few others, which is to get some writing that isn't this done today.