NB: Proffered for this Friday's Forgotten Books roundup.
If you were to think of one word to describe the work of Elmore Leonard, that word probably wouldn't be "romance". "Crime",
maybe, or "violence", or "murder", or "humour",
or more obliquely "dialogue", or more obscurely "western". But romance...?
Thing is, romance is
a feature of most, if not all, of Leonard's books. I struggle to think of an Elmore Leonard novel I've read that doesn't have a love affair if not at its
heart, then pretty close to it. Often that romance will be of the lightning-strikes, bolt-out-of-the-blue order, where the eyes of the taciturn male protagonist and the sassy female protagonist meet across a crowded hotel lobby or courtroom and an instant connection is made, and in short order the two are confirmed as eternal soul-mates. I'm generalizing there, obviously, but it is a thing which you do get in Leonard novels, and it's a little-discussed* aspect of his work. Take this book:
Cat Chaser, Elmore Leonard's next published novel after Split Images (1981) – at least in America, where it was published the year after Split Images, by the same publisher, Arbor House, under a dust jacket designed by Antler & Baldwin, Inc. (who also designed the wrapper for the 1983 Arbor House edition of Leonard's next novel, Stick). Here in the UK there was a three year gap between Split Images, which was published by W H Allen in 1983, and Cat Chaser, which was finally published in 1986 (Stick, LaBrava and Glitz all appeared in the interim):
by Viking, under a dust jacket designed by Bet Ayer and sporting a photograph by Peter Chadwick. (The jacket of that Viking edition, by the way, has joined the Existential Ennui British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s gallery, where Ayer and Chadwick's wrapper for the 1987 Viking edition of City Primeval also resides.)
The romance in Cat Chaser is between onetime marine-turned-Florida motel owner George Moran – the eponymous Cat Chaser, so named after the code name for his platoon during the 1965–66 American occupation of the Dominican Republic – and Mary de Boya, wife of property magnate Andres de Boya, former general in the Dominican army and right-hand man of the late, real life, dictator Rafael Trujillo. I'm confining myself to romance in this post – for a more comprehensive review of the novel (and of the 1989 Abel Ferrara film adaptation, which I don't believe I've seen) I can recommend Sergio's one over at Tipping My Fedora – but I will just note that Cat Chaser grew out of the material on Trujillo that Leonard's researcher, Gregg Sutter, unearthed when looking into the playboy confidant of Trujullo, Porfiro Rubirosa, whom Leonard used as the basis for Chichi Fuentes in Split Images (see Sutter's article in Armchair Detective Volume 19 Number 1, Winter 1986); and further note that the novel boasts maybe the funniest scene I've come across in a Leonard book, where Moran is besieged in a Santo Domingo hotel lobby by over a dozen besotted nubile Dominicans and consequently mistaken for a film star by a gaggle of Chinese tourists.
Anyway, Moran and Mary's romance is interesting (to me, anyway) for the way it overtly shapes the narrative of Cat Chaser. Other Leonard novels are shaped by love affairs – Out of Sight (1996) most obviously, but also Unknown Man No. 89 (1977), Split Images, Stick (1983), LaBrava (1983), Cuba Libre (1998) and others besides – but in subtler ways; in Cat Chaser, the blossoming love between Moran and Mary drives the story, overwhelms the narrative almost to the exclusion of everything else. There's money involved, sure, a score to be taken, just as there is in many Leonard works, but it becomes almost incidental (except in regard to the gruesome shootings towards the end of the novel, where it proves rather more instrumental): what matters most to Moran and Mary – and by extension to Leonard, he being the storyteller – is that they be together. In that sense, Cat Chaser is a pointer to how recognising the romantic leanings of Leonard's novels is key to understanding his work.
Which it is, in a weird sort of way. Romance informs the distinctive lilt of his writing more so, I'd argue, than the more widely recognised violent or criminal aspects. Leonard once stated that "all of my male leads... have much the same basic attitude about their own
existence, what’s important and what isn’t" (the template being Jack Ryan in The Big Bounce, 1969), and one of the characteristics that they share is that they have a tendency to fall head-over-heels when the right woman comes along (sometimes after a dalliance with the wrong one) – that woman herself tending to be of a certain type: smart, feisty, independent, but still, like her male counterpart, willing to surrender herself wholesale to this newfound love. And given that Leonard tells his tales from the perspectives of his characters, that once he decides the point of view of a scene, "that character's sound will permeate the narrative" (see Anthony May's 1991 interview with Leonard), then naturally the romantic outlooks of his leads – male or female – is going to at least in part pervade the tone of the piece.
I suppose what I'm getting at is that there is a secret soft centre to Leonard's purportedly tough crime dramas – Cat Chaser being only the most conspicuous example – one which crops up again and again in his oeuvre, and which suffuses and animates his stories more than is perhaps appreciated, lending them much of their unexpected warmth. Unexpected, that is, for anyone who hasn't read any Leonard. For those who have, well... I have a feeling they'll know what I'm on about (er, I hope).
* Addendum: The week after I posted this I happened to stumble upon and reread Donald E. Westlake's review of LaBrava, in which Westlake discusses the romantic in that novel and labels it "a mean-streets romance".