RARA-AVIS: Ross Macdonald vs. Elmore Leonard

From: Frederick Zackel ( fzackel@wcnet.org)
Date: 21 Aug 2007

I have been hesitant to de-lurk, but I know a bit about both men and their writing styles and their strategies. RM came up with the notion that the detective was the least important character in the piece. The victim, the corpse, was the most important. The story was about the corpse. The line about Archer turning sideways and he can't be seen, well, that was RM's hard-earned goal. He used to tell me that a good writer never has to describe the detective; the questions the detective asks describe the detective. He also said the detective is like a welder's gloves; the material of the story was hot enough, it could singe. So the detective was the go-between; he carries the heat for the reader. RM wanted distance to be important. RM was literary; he said that The Great Gatsby was a detective story, just written from a different character's POV than we expect. Oh, and all of his lost children look like young Huck Finn, who was an abused teenager, by the way. RM was about saving the lost children; he himself lived in fifty different places growing up; I guess that's where that came from. I have always loved the compassion in his stories. Want to see it? read the last two pages of The Blue Hammer, his last book. In these days of neo-noir, how quaint. How ... unsaleable.

Elmore Leonard grew up in the South during the Bonnie & Clyde era. One of his earliest memories was about those cross-country gangsters of the 1930s. He was born the same year as Flannery O'Connor; they both wrote from their Roman Catholicism. She was a fierce Catholic, while Leonard switched to Alcoholics Anonymous. (He lived; she didn't.) Leonard, compared to RM, erases every trace of the author. If you look at any page, notice he has cleaned away all the adjectives, adverbs, and the like. Shit, he erases speech tags. Description? Less than the bare minimum. Almost all dialogue, and most of it is written obliquely, away from the plot arcs. Dig out your copy of GLITZ, and there is a scene where two detectives are talking on the phone from two different cities. As clean, as bare as page 16 in your Postman Always Rings Twice. Just look at that one, two pages, in Glitz from a writer's standpoint, and wow, Leonard pulls it off, and we never notice. Also, Leonard writes each scene absolutely separate, absoluetly stand-aone, without CARING what the ending will be. Notice also that almost every one of his novels is a re-write of High Noon. That movie really got to him. Oh, and there is two bad guys at the start of almost every novel, one white
& one black. Sooner or later, Leonard told me, one of them will kill the other. It's how he starts. Next strategem? Well, pick any scene in any of his books over the last, oh, 25 years. Notice that the character in the scene with the most POWER is the main character in that scene. He will junk the whole scene, or re-writing it for days on end, until he knows who is the POWER in that scene. That character gets his moment of glory. That momemnt of glory is more important than where the plot was going toward.

Every writer today imitates Leonard. Ross Macdonald's style is nowhere imitated.

Go figure. Me, I figure it's a fad. I blame the movies. Oh, yeah, Leonard laughs about how almost all 40 of his books has been made into a movie.
"They don't know how to do it." But he cashes the check.

This past weekend, in the 21 August, 2007, New Yorker, Adam Gopnik, in his essay, "Blows Against the Empire: The return of Philip K. Dick," actually writes, "No one hates the rise of Elmore Leonard so much as a lover of Ross Macdonald." He's full of shit, but I can see how he got that idea.

My two cents.

Fred Zackel

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