Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Minor But, I Think, Original Theory About Elmore Leonard -- Actually More of an Observation

Elmore Leonard
I have read almost everything Elmore Leonard has published in book form.  All of his novels, including the westerns still in print.  All of the short-story collections.  I'm sure there are some early uncollected pulp-magazine short stories that have escaped me, but if it's generally available I've read it.

It would be fair to say that I am an admirer of Elmore Leonard.

Leonard writes crime novels (his westerns are much earlier works).  They are distinguished from "mysteries" in that the reader knows who the good guys and bad guys are from the start.

Actually, that's a little misleading.  Leonard is known for good guys who are not entirely good, and bad guys who are not entirely bad.  Consider an example that may be familiar to those of you who have not dipped into the novels -- Chili Palmer, memorably played by John Travolta in "Get Shorty" and "Be Cool."  Pam Grier playing "Jackie Brown."  (His novels are frequently made into movies, with uneven results.  Compare "3:10 to Yuma," both versions, with "The Big Bounce.")   Chili is clearly the protagonist, and clearly the guy you root for.  He is also a criminal and a killer.  Lots of guys like that in Leonard novels.  Even the cops are a little loose.  And the guys who have the conflict with the ambiguous good guy are themselves ambiguous bad guys -- attractive, frequently amusing characters even as they go about their theiving and killing, usually incompetently.   The women scheme as much, and with about the same results, as the men.

Leonard is rightly lionized for his clean, seamless prose style.  He has written a short essay called his "10 Rules of Writing" that every beginning fiction writer should read, if not memorize.  (My favorite:  "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue.")

The books are not above criticism.  There is a sameness to his protagonists.  They tend to be laconic, somewhat affectless, detached from the scenes in which they appear.  They seem to be observing the action from above, knowing more than the other characters know, and certainly more than the reader knows, and dropping in when it's their turn to talk.  Revealing rather little.   I'm not criticizing the artistic choice -- I'm criticizing the sameness in the characters across many of the novels.  Recall, however, that I"ve read everything.  So query whether this is really much of a critcism, since this method of portraying his characters is endlessly attractive to Leonard's fans.  It's more of an observation.

As is what I am about to lay on you Cool Hot Centrists.

I could go up to my library and count the Leonard books I've read -- several dozen, certainly.   And I am nowhere near the Leonard fanatic that some people are, people who can give you plot summaries of every single one of them.  But a dozen or so novels ago I noticed something.  This was a thing I thought that devoted Leonard readers would have noticed and remarked on somewhere along the line.  But I have done the Google research on this, and I find no notice of this thing anywhere.

And this thing is:

There is one phrase of dialogue that seems to appear in every Leonard novel.  In the last several novels I've read, there has been an aha! moment in each one when I come to it.  I have not gone back to reread the first dozen or so I read, and although I've seen it in some of the westerns, I can't vouch for its appearance in every single one of them.  But I think I'm safe in saying that it's in most of the novels, if not the short stories. 

At one point or other, a character says this:

"How's that sound?"

Here are some examples:

Get Shorty, character named Fay:  "How's that sound as a deal?"

Tishomingo Blues, character named Darwin:  "I'll give you two hundred a day for two weeks guaranteed and we'll see how it goes.  I"ll pay your rigger and the cost of setting up.  How's that sound?"

Stick"Only way I see it," Stick said, "is cash up front.  Two bills gets you the name of the stock.  Monday the price goes up to three, and if I see the stock take off right away the price might go up even higher.  How's that sound to you fellas?"

Out of Sight:   Buddy said, "It's pretty here, isn't it?  If you like looking at views.  I don't think you should go out anymore.  I mean for a couple of weeks anyway.  You got the need to do a bank out of your system.  Fell of your horse and got right back on.  I was thinking we could hire a boat to take us for the Bahamas for a while.  Get one right at the Haulover docks, a fishing boat.  Pay the skipper the going rate.  How's that sound to you?"

Maximum Bob:   He said to Dale Senior, “You know where Ocean Ridge is at? You go on over to Palm Beach and turn south.” Elvin would catch himself talking loud, as if the man couldn’t hear as good with his jaw wired, and have to lower his voice. “I’m moving into a house over there, big one, right on the ocean. How’s that sound to you?”

Up in Honey's Room:  “It’s mine,” Honey said. “Carl dropped me off but hasn’t any idea what I’m doing. Actually what I thought of when I walked in and saw you. Carl would love to sit down and talk to you, and if you want, you can do it. I swear he’s been told to leave you alone. You can walk up and give him a shove, he might growl but he won’t handcuff you. He’s been ordered not to” -- she was starting to overdo it -- “and I know he would love to see you again. How’s that sound? Sit down with Carl and have a drink.”

Road Dogs:  Mike Nesi said, "You mean they's rules?  Like I can't hang on to your shirt or stomp on your tennis shoes I get the chance?  As I understand the way the game is played, you want to put the ball through the hoop and I want to stop you from scoring, right?  That's the game of basketball.  But if they's no ref, we don't have to worry about rules, do we?  We put up a hunnert each and play to twenty-one.  How's that sound?  First one to score that many points takes the pot."

Road Dogs (bonus reference (different character)!):  "All right," Lou said, "let's bet on it.  I read about a bank job has your MO all over it, how this sweetheart of a guy made off with five gees, I swear I won't tell the cops or the Bureau or come after you myself.  What I"ll do is give you the chrome-plated .45 I was awarded by my colleagues for shooting down three Haitian guys that kidnapped a five-year-old kid.  They want three hundred large or they chop the kid up and send him home in a bag.  I shot to kill, the only guys I felt good about donig it.  I'll give you the piece and say, 'You win, partner,' and never bother you again.  How's that sound?"

*   *   *

There are lots more.

Well, there's my theory.  Yeah, I know it's more of an observation.  I wish it were a theory.  I wish it meant something.  I wish I could argue that Leonard plants this phrase in all of his books (if he does) as a pointer toward the importance of sound in literature, a subliminal reminder to his serial readers that prose must have the cadence and vocabulary of ordinary speech to engage the reader.

But it's probably only inadvertent.  Either that or it's the way Leonard himself talks and he's putting his own verbal habits in their mouths.  Either that or it's an inside gag.

And, quite possibly, a gag that many Elmore Leonard lovers already know about but haven't communicated in Google-searchable text.  

Which, in my judgment, means that it might as well not ever have been thought up at all.

So I'm sticking with my own theory, which is that you read it here first.

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  1. I think you may be on to something. ... How's that sound?

  2. Thanks, BigApp. But what am I on to? (Since you read, I added two more references, both from Road Dogs.)

    I'm thinking Mr. Leonard does not regularly read the site, or he could let us know.

  3. UPDATE: The phase appears again in "Fire in the Hole." I write about it here: