What Elmore Leonard taught us about getting old


The Internet is full of great writing about the passing of Elmore Leonard — not as great as he would have written of course, but those who salute him acknowledge that up front. A career of over 40 books in nearly 60 years, some of which sparked wonderful movies and television shows (and some didn’t). There’s lots to salute.

So this is one small corner of Leonard’s genius, but what struck me as different about his characters than about those of most crime novelists — most novelists, actually — is their capacity to grow and change, and not necessarily in a good way. Leonard would revisit characters from previous books, and he wrote a couple of later novels that could be considered proper sequels, such as “Be Cool” and “Road Dogs.” But what I found fascinating is when a character would change on us from book to book, and what that said about the way Leonard saw his fellow man.

So here’s three things Elmore Leonard taught us through his books about getting old:

1. People change. In 1978, Leonard wrote a book called “The Switch,” in which two ex-cons, Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara, kidnap the wife of a Detroit auto magnate. Only the husband is a bastard who doesn’t want to pay, and the kidnappers end up colluding with the housewife to rip the guy off for millions. Robbie and Gara are classic antiheroes.

In 1992, Leonard brought them back for “Rum Punch,” which became the basis for Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown,” with Samuel L. Jackson as Ordell and Robert De Niro as Louis. Only now, they’ve changed. Ordell used his loot to build a drug empire, and is a criminal as ruthless as they come. Meanwhile, Louis frittered his share away, knocked around, and never made anything of himself. Success made Ordell hard, failure made Louis soft

They were the heroes of one Elmore Leonard novel, and now they’re the villains  of another. I can’t think of another writer who pulled that off. I still remember the shock of that, getting the chance to revisit a pair of fondly-remembered characters (“Ordell and Louis are back!” read the back cover blurb) only to have seen them changed, for the worse.  What happened to them says a lot, I think, about how Leonard viewed people, that they don’t stay the same, but they get changed by circumstances, especially as they get older and life takes them down different paths.

2. Be careful what you wish for. Leonard wrote two books that featured Miami bookmaker Harry Amo, 1993’s “Pronto” and 1995’s “Riding the Rap.” It’s “Pronto” that I remember best, especially Amo, who is near retirement age, planning to get out of the bookmaking game and retire to a villa in Italy. It’s what he’s dreamed about all his life, since he was a soldier there in World War II. Finally, he makes it to his dream retirement villa — and he hates it. The place is drafty, it’s lonely, he misses everything about his old, busy life in Miami.

You could see Harry’s story as a sly wink at the audience (Leonard was about the same age as Harry at the time) about the prospects of Leonard retiring himself. Retirement, resting, wasn’t for guys like him and Harry. It was the act of doing, of living your life, that was the real reward for life itself, the thing that really gave pleasure, not some mythical castle in the sky that, in the end, turned out to be dull and drafty.

3. Do what you love, right now, and keep doing it until further notice. And that’s the final lesson, taken of course from Leonard’s life itself. He started writing in his 20s, and he was good. Then he kept writing and he got even better. Then he got great. Then he got famous, but he never chased fame, and never let that distract him from being great. And then he never stopped being great until his time was up.

Leonard’s fiction was full of guys hungry for one big score, one big payday that would change their lives, make them happy. Usually they messed it up, sometimes they died. Sometimes, in the case of Harry or Louis, they got what they wanted and it didn’t change anything. Sometimes it made things worse. Leonard saw it all with an amused eye, refusing to judge, as he merrily kept on doing the thing that he loved to do, the thing that he was best at, for 60 years.

Now that’s a big payday. Rest in peace, Dutch.

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