This year, a legend in the hardboiled genre passed away, Elmore Leonard. When I heard the news of his death, I was reminded of a copy of his novel Pronto that I had picked up a few months earlier, along with a small lot of other used paperbacks. Pronto had caught my eye because it features a character named Raylan Givens, who is the focus of one of my favourite television shows, Justified, which Leonard was involved with as a producer until his passing.
Pronto is both an excellent example of Leonard’s style and functions as a de facto prequel to Justified—the novel’s climax is a key scene early in the pilot episode.
Raylan emerges gradually as the hero of Pronto, but the character the reader begins and ends the story with is Harry Arno, a Miami bookie in his middle sixties who has been skimming from his mob bosses for years as part of a plan to flee into retirement in Ripallo Italy. Ripallo holds a special place in Arno’s heart due to a Word War II encounter he had there with poet Ezra Pound. But in the way of most of Leonard’s protagonists, reality rarely, if ever, matches the vision in their heads—of either the past or the future.
Years earlier, Arno had given U.S. Marshal Givens the slip in an Atlanta airport. The dogged Raylan sees Arno’s latest flight to Italy as a chance for him to redeem himself with the Marshal service, and hopefully secure a promotion. At the same time, Arno, vaguely dissatisfied with life in Ripallo, has called his ex-stripper wife Joyce to join him, using American ex-pat Robert Gee, a former foreign legionary, as intermediary and security. Joyce is pursued by Raylan, Tommy ‘The Zip’ Bucks—a cold-blooded hitman working for Arno’s mob boss Jimmy ‘The Cap’ Capotorto—Nicky Testa, The Cap’s assistant, and several other Italian confederates of Tommy Bucks. All of these vividly drawn characters converge on Arno’s decaying villa in the hills of Ripallo.
But the events of Ripallo will lead to an inevitable final showdown between Tommy Bucks and Raylan Givens back home in Miami. In Raylan, Leonard found an engaging balance of traditional western* and contemporary crime heroes—extravagantly flawed, but attempting to make the right decisions, to do good, within a limited frame of reference.
Arno, in contrast, is a perfect example of a Leonard protagonist who is incapable of understanding his own motivations—not stupid per se, but too myopic and narcissistic to fathom the impact his choices might have on those around him. He is entirely driven by trying to satisfy needs he is unable to effectively articulate or even enjoy when he meets them.
Better than any other writer, Elmore Leonard understood the intersection between criminality and stupidity. Not that all of his criminal characters are idiots, but even the smarter ones make bad decision after bad decision as a result of greed. Rather than a simple “crime doesn’t pay” morality though, Leonard’s novels are often overtly sympathetic to the way average people can be lead astray by greed. Even his heroes are drawn as complex individuals who make bad decisions due to flaws—like Raylan’s temper and stubbornness.
Pronto is classic Elmore Leonard, clean hard prose** with ultra-sharp dialogue, but the novel is also an interesting read if you’re a fan of Justified. Justified captures the essence of Elmore Leonard’s writing in a way no other adaptation, some of them very good, has managed—a specifically Leonardian combination of black humour and gripping crime drama. Although published back in 1993, Pronto contains a number of scenes and characters that appear throughout Justified, albeit often in reconfigured fashion. Raylan’s back-story in the tv show is very close to what appears in Pronto, with some minor variations—for example he mentions two young sons in the novel, but starts the tv show childless. As a fan of the show, the variations become a bit distracting, but the novel definitely merits attention on its own terms.
It’s striking how clearly Leonard’s characters and dialogue translate to the screen. Twenty-six of his novels and short stories have already been adapted into movies and television,*** starting in the 50s. But this natural affinity film and television has for Leonard’s strong dialogue and plotting shouldn’t obscure the overall quality of his writing. His ability to convey rich characterization with a minimum of highly readable prose sets his work well apart from many of his hardboiled contemporaries. Elmore Leonard’s books aren’t just entertaining, they’re very good.
*Leonard began his writing career with westerns, including the seminal 3:10 to Yuma.
**Leonard was influenced by Hemingway, but found him too humourless—nicely summarizing Leonard’s appeal as a prose stylist.
***Apparently even Pronto in 1997 with Peter Falk!—thank you for your generous bounty wikipedia.