If you want (you surely don't need!) an example of what made Elmore Leonard such a great writer, turn now to his 2009 novel Road Dogs. Leonard, who by this time was in his mid-80s, brought back bank robber Jack Foley, star of Out Of Sight (1996), and teamed him up in prison with marielito Cundo Rey, last seen getting shot by Joe LaBrava in 1983's La Brava (which won an Edgar for best novel). Foley and Rey are prison 'road dogs', looking out for each other, and after Rey's lawyer gets Foley's 30 year stretch reduced, he sends Foley out to LA, where he's got two houses in Venice, a Cuban silent partner looking after them, and a psychic girl friend named Dawn Navarro, whom we last saw in Riding The Rap (1995).That last was a sequel to Pronto, and you can read here what I wrote about that, in tribute soon after Leonard died.
You'd look at the set-up of Road Dogs and you might accuse many others writers of being lazy, and trying to take advantage of established characters—in this case especially Foley, about whom it is admittedly difficult to read without seeing George Clooney step out from the excellent film version of Out Of Sight. But I wonder if, given he produced Riding The Rap and Out Of Sight back to back, if something hadn't clicked in the back of Leonard's mind, thinking Jack and Dawn ought to encounter each other at some point. After all, there's more than a little Raylan Givens in Foley's adherence to a strong, if flexible, moral code.
But there is nothing lazy about this novel, and that's because of the way Leonard works. 'Character is action,' as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, and what Leonard does is establish characters and then let them interact, and where his phenomenal story-telling ability lies is in his understanding of his characters and his willingness to let the story go where they lead. Which means this tale of double-cross and potential double-cross moves quickly and smoothly through a pretzel configuration of possibility. It's made more interesting by Leonard's omnipresent internal narration—he gets inside each character and lets you know what they're thinking. People concentrate on dialogue, and Leonard owed a lot, for example, to George V Higgins. But where Higgins would clue you in by making you follow what the characters were saying, Leonard is willing to let you follow what they are thinking, and see how that's reflected (or not) by what they're saying.
The freedom he gives his characters means there are one or two surprises along the way, and the confrontations that materialise are not necessarily the ones you are expecting, but that's what makes the novel work so well. Like the best of Leonard's writing, it's compulsive, and you feel that in writing it, Leonard wanted to know what was going to happen just as much as you do reading it. An object lesson....
Road Dogs by Elmore Leonard
Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2009, £18.99, ISBN 9780297856702