Advertisements

Tag Archive: Elmore Leonard


Review by C.J. Bunce

To begin with, it helps to know that “father of Miami crime fiction” writer Charles Willeford referred to himself as a sociopath.  According to Lawrence Block, Willeford even wrote his first, self-published sequel to his hit novel Miami Blues to offend the book’s fans, specifically to ward off those wanting a sequel written (only to go ahead and write those sequels for the right price later).  Willeford is one of those celebrated pulp crime writers mentioned by other celebrated pulp crime writers, like Block, and Elmore Leonard, and Quentin Tarentino.  So I was looking forward to my first Willeford novel.  Unfortunately, Understudy for Death, originally published in 1961 as Understudy for Love (or Willeford’s intended title, The Understudy: A Novel of Men and Women), was probably not the best candidate.  A lost novel that for Willeford completists has been a true rarity to find in any condition, Understudy for Death is one of this year’s finds by the Hard Case Crime imprint.  In print for the first time in nearly 60 years, it’s one of the imprint’s rare selections that is of value for study of the genre and curiosity more than a crime novel for folks that simply love crime novels.

The typical reader will pick up Understudy for Death and continue, forging on, against his or her own will, because a protagonist so outrage-inducing certainly must get his comeuppance by the last page of the last chapter.  Right?  Not so for Willeford, who was known for challenging convention with his prose, with his choice of character, and their dark situations.  “Crime Does Not Pay” means nothing to Willeford or his lead character, a lazy self-absorbed newspaper writer who goes out of his way not to do his job the right way.  He also goes out of his way to belittle his wife, his marriage, his boss, his friends, and everyone ese he encounters.  He is in every way a cheat and a liar, lying to himself as he commits to writing and publishing a play, cheating on his wife, gaslighting his wife, lying to his readers, and only doing the rare good deed when it benefits himself.  Worst of all, he cheats the reader.

Or maybe that’s Willeford.  How?  Understudy for Death is not the typical eye-grabbing novel, despite the latest great retro-style Paul Mann cover.  As the cover asks, “Why would a happily married Florida housewife pick up her husband’s .22 caliber Colt Woodsman semi-automatic pistol and use it to kill her two young children and herself?  Cynical newspaper reporter Richard Hudson is assigned to find out–and the assignment will send him down a road of self-discovery in this incisive, no-holds-barred portrait of American marriage in the Mad Men era.”  Yep, that’s pretty dark stuff.  I’d venture that a thousand people could try to create an answer for the question posed and never come up with a pulp crime ending that answers the question as Willeford did.  Neither does newspaperman Hudson discover anything about himself, or change in any meaningful way between page one and page 223.  I also pity any wife that ever had a husband like Hudson in 1961 or any other era (if this is even remotely a real portrait of marriage in 1961, I am surprised women didn’t get rid of all men by 1962).  It’s the spectacularly, radically misogynistic stuff of other contemporary works like that found in Peter Benchley’s Jaws and Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me.  Plus the 1960s racism that seems even more prevalent in this branch of crime novels.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Review by C.J. Bunce

Elmore Leonard’s 30th novel would become one of his most widely known stories.  Leonard, the “Dickens of Detroit” and one of America’s greatest crime authors, wrote 45 novels before his death in 2013, including Westerns like 3:10 to Yuma and later popular works Get Shorty and Be Cool, but his own favorite film adaptation, and the best screenplay he’d say he had ever read, was Quentin Tarentino’s Jackie Brown, the film adaptation of Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch.  Although Jackie Brown will likely not go down as the most popular of Tarentino’s films–that will probably always fall to Pulp FictionJackie Brown is probably his best work, a straight crime thriller without all the over-the-top operatic bloodbaths of his other films.  It’s also one of the most faithful film adaptations you’ll ever see, keeping most of the dialogue and sequences from the novel.  Rum Punch is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year and Jackie Brown celebrates its 20th anniversary next month.

Only a few chapters into Rum Punch and it’s easy to understand why Tarentino acquired the screen rights to adapt the novel for film.  The characters are edgy and typical of the pulp crime genre, yet they are also unique in their depth.  Leonard weaves Jackie, Max, Ordell, Louis, Melanie, and Ray into an intricate and fulfilling caper and con job.  Jackie is driven, determined, and a little rough on the edges.  Max is a straight shooter and ex-law enforcer who plays by the rules.  Ordell and Louis have years of crime between them and are moving beyond the petty crimes of their past.   And the book is filled with cool–cool people, cool ambiance, cool talk.  The biggest difference between book and film adaptation is in Leonard’s handling of the relationship between Jackie Brown and bail bondsman Max Cherry, played so well by Robert Forster in the film.  Jackie Brown sketches what may be one of the best modern romances on film–a subtle and almost teenage infatuation between the two film leads that culminates in a simple kiss at the end of the film.  Jackie and Max seem to care sincerely for each other, and the film leaves Max to return to his life of writing bonds while Jackie drives off into the unknown.  But the original novel left open whether the two characters would go off together, while making them a romantic couple early in the story.  In the novel Max has been estranged from his wife for a few years and he’s finally getting to filing the divorce papers.  But Max doesn’t have much to drive him until Jackie shows up and they end up in the sack, almost taking away from something Tarentino was able to tap into to make more touching for the film.  Leonard gives Max and Jackie individually second chances and an opportunity to start anew with each other–if only they’d just take it.  Leonard leaves the question open–is there a happily ever after in the cards for them?  But Tarentino has Max watch as Jackie drives off.  It’s a gut punch–there’s no happy ending here.  The viewer can’t help but imagine him getting into the car and going after her, after the credits roll.  Which is better?  That answer is in the eyes of the reader.

But there are other differences worth noting between the novel and the film.  Leonard’s heroine is a blonde woman named Jackie Burke.  Initially Tarentino was nervous about discussing with Leonard the re-casting of the lead to Pam Grier for his film, but Leonard was in favor of it.  And the name shift was simply because Tarentino thought Jackie Brown was a cooler name than Jackie Burke.  Rum Punch, the title of the 1992 novel, was the term used to identify the scheme that Ordell (played in the film by Samuel L. Jackson) was using to bring money into the U.S. from Jamaica (this is the same type of arms purchase scheme and players that were the focus of this month’s new Tom Cruise movie American Made, reviewed here).

Continue reading

Michael Keaton in Jackie Brown

With the popularity of Quentin Tarentino’s other writing and directing achievements, Jackie Brown tends to get short shrift. Based on Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, it’s the exception in Tarentino’s film arsenal where the story concept didn’t originate from the mind of Tarentino.  Yet there are enough changes made by him to make 1997’s Jackie Brown a standout film for the heralded director, and it may very well be his best all-around film, full of style, suspense, and pulp cool.

The prime reason for that is his handling of the character of Jackie Brown as a tough, no-nonsense survivor, and Pam Grier’s ability to fill those shoes perfectly.  The cast of top Hollywood stars and character actors, including Samuel L. Jackson, Robert DeNiro, Bridget Fonda, and the great Robert Forster fills in the remaining blanks. But you may forget the key role played by Michael Keaton as straight-shooter cop Ray Nicolette.

Michael Keaton as Ray Nickolette

Keaton played a supporting role in a previous ensemble cast effort under a popular director, Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, as Dogberry, the closest on-screen attempt at showing what Charles Schulz’s Pigpen would look like all grown up.  Part of the conceit of Keaton’s new film Birdman is the intended irony of a washed-up actor that once played a popular character called Birdman, and the obvious comparisons to Keaton’s Batman and lack of promising acting gigs in recent memory.

In fact Keaton has always been a working actor plugging away at film roles through the years and Dogberry, along with Jackie Brown’s Ray, may have helped fuel the vibe since Keaton was either content to join these ensemble casts with small parts, or that was all he was offered.  Either way, these weren’t major leading man roles as he has found with Birdman.

Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: