I was 25 when I picked up my first Elmore Leonard novel. The Big Bounce.
I plucked it off the communal bookshelf at a hostel in Tulum, Mexico, during a thunderstorm. The hostel was opposite a strip club, presumably very popular with truckers because the road outside was lined with 18-wheelers. For reasons I will never truly be able to explain, the hostel manager was listening to Tina Turner’s Private Dancer, on repeat. I was giving my liver a break from drinking games for the night, and this slim, battered volume grabbed my attention. At this point in my reading life, crime novels were still something of a novelty, and The Big Bounce was like nothing I had ever read at that time. The deceptively simple plot and effortless delivery hooked me in from the get-go, and I tore through the book in a couple of sittings.
It kick-started an obsession with crime fiction that gets stronger with every passing year. I remember following up The Big Bounce with a late period Matt Scudder novel in a collapsed armchair in a Mexican border town, waiting for an early morning bus to Belize… I read a Henning Mankell novel on a dilapidated coach in Guatemala, with a local farmer eating a Styrofoam container full of fried chicken over my head, his holstered machete clattering into me every time we hit a pothole… I read The Dogs of Winter by Kem Nunn in the hammock of a bare-brick El Salvador motel, guts churning with some unspecified ailment…
All great books, but it was the Leonard one that made the biggest impression on me and my writing. I had enjoyed the movie versions of Jackie Brown and Out of Sight years earlier, but never really considered tracing those movies back to the source – an oversight I duly corrected when I returned home. From the gritty, booze-swilling Detroit stories through to the more colourful Florida-set novels and beyond I envied the casual way he gently nudged bad situations into even worse ones. I envied the way that his taciturn tough-guy protagonists were always the smartest guys in the room. I envied the way his stories were cooler than everyone else’s.
Elmore Leonard is the kind of writer that forces you to get better. There were several occasions, after finishing a Leonard book, when the sheer impressiveness of what I had just read derailed my own writing attempts for weeks. Leonard’s influence on my own writing is probably difficult to detect, but he schools me every time I pick up one of his books.
Over the last decade, since picking up The Big Bounce, I’ve read dozens of Elmore Leonard novels, and never encountered a dud. How many authors can you say that about?
One of the strangest memories I have relating to The Big Bounce happened a couple of months down the line. We rolled into Honduras on Boxing Day after spending a rum-soaked Christmas at a vegetarian commune in Guatemala. When I’m on the road for an extended period, my first reaction is usually to switch on the TV – mainly to check that it works! I switched on the TV, cracked open my can of Salva Vida, and slumped on the bed. I thought I had lost my mind, as I saw Vinnie Jones, Owen Wilson and Charlie Sheen clad in Hawaiian shirts, appearing recreate a 40-year-old book I had read for the first time a few weeks earlier! (It was years before I watched the movie in its entirety, and it was every bit as bad as the reviews made it sound. Leonard was no stranger to bad movie adaptations, but this one plumbed new depths! A topic for another blog post, if ever there was one…)