Pronto, by Elmore Leonard
I hadn’t read an Elmore Leonard book in ages, definitely not since I began writing full time, and I’m planning to write a sequel to one of my mystery novels next year, so I decided to read something by him again, to size up his chops. He wrote Pronto toward the end of his career, and I can note evidence of dependency on formula, a certain casualness that comes with repeatedly writing in a genre.
Leonard’s genre is crime fiction – the tough guy, sexy babe, shoot-em-before-they-shoot-you sort of story. He’s read by the same crowd that reads Raymond Chandler, Carl Hiaasen, Walter Mosley, and James Lee Burke (yes, there are female writers in this genre, but not many).
So as a writer/reader, how did this story set with me? I was more taken as a writer with the book – how he did what he did – than with the story. But then that’s part of how Leonard shows mastery of his genre. Let me explain.
The story begins with a Miami bookie, Harry Arno, preparing to “retire,” i.e., to skip out on his money man, Jimmy Capotorto, from whom Harry has been skimming for years. But complications arise when Harry is hunted down by an Everglades hit man. Harry shoots the guy and is arrested for murder. But before the local cops and Feds can get their wits about them, Harry goes on the lam, ends up in Italy. A federal marshal, Raylan Givens, goes hunting for Harry and his gal, Joyce, as do a true Mafioso, the Zip, and a young muscle man, Nicky, who wants desperately to be a made man.
Here, under Leonard’s smooth story telling, Harry fades to the background and Givens comes to the fore. He saves Harry, steals his girl, saves Harry again, shoots the Zip, and the stage is set for subsequent Rayland Givens books, which end up as the FX TV series, Justified.
Leonard’s characters are no more than six inches deep, largely defined by sex and circumstance. His dialogue is clipped, tense, and slightly tongue in cheek, as if he’s not really taking his characters seriously. He also works references to Ezra Pound and his poetry, Pound’s flirtation with fascism, his life in Italy, into short but effective narrative segments. It’s clear that Leonard is in this for the money, yet he doesn’t cheat the discriminating reader; his rather shallow storyline is perfectly executed, dragging his characters along with deceptively erudite writing. Leonard has drawn criticism for pandering to the baser human instincts, but that’s only the surface of his writing skills. His tone here seems instead to tell us that violence and depravity are a part of the human experience, but “Please, don’t give it more social worth than it deserves.”
My rating 17 of 20 stars
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