Elmore Leonard: A Pitch-Perfect Scene

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series In Praise of Prose

Elmore Leonard

I’ve got this idea about a series of posts in which I adore somebody else’s writing. I’m starting with Elmore Leonard, who died in 2013 at 87 years old with something like fifty-five novels under his belt. At the time of his death he was still involved with the television series Justified, based on his Raylan Jennings short story “Fire in the Hole.”  The cast and producers recorded a wonderful short tribute to him that you’ll find after the excerpted scene below. If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, start at exactly one minute in. 

This  scene is from Cuba Libre, a historical novel set in the Southwest and in Cuba. It opens with the sinking of the Maine in Cuba Harbor in 1898, and ends later that year with the battle of San Juan Hill.  Every time I re-read it, I fall in love with Leonard’s prose, his ability to draw a character in precise, short strokes, the effortless way he weaves indirect and direct dialogue, the rightness of the way the spoken language flows, the visual cues. All perfect. 

Note where the tense shifts from past tense to present tense, that’s a storytelling technique we all use in our day-to-day communication with the people around us. When you get to the exciting part, you switch into present tense. 


What happened, Tyler’s business fell on hard times and he took to robbing banks. So then the next time Charlie Burke actually saw him was out in the far reaches of the territory at Yuma Prison: convicts and their visitors sitting across from one another at tables placed end to end down the center of the mess hall.

Mothers, wives, sweethearts all wondering how their loved ones would fare in this stone prison known as the Hell Hole on the Bluff; Charlie Burke wondering why, if Tyler had made up his mind to rob banks, he chose the Maricopa branch in Sweetmary, where he was known.

He said on account of it was the closest one.

Charlie Burke said, “I come all the way out here to watch you stare past me at the wall?”

So then Tyler said, all right, because it was where LaSalle Mining did their banking and LaSalle Mining owed him nine hundred dollars. “Four times I went up the hill to collect,” Tyler said in his prison stripes and haircut, looking hard and half starved. “Try and find anybody in charge can cut a check. I went to the Maricopa Bank, showed the teller a .44 and withdrew the nine hundred from the mine company’s account.”

“That’s how you do business, huh?”

“Hatch and Hodges owed me twelve hundred the day they shut down their line. They said don’t worry, you’ll get your money. I waited another four months, the same as I did with LaSalle, and drew it out of their bank over in Benson.”

“Who else owed you money?”


“But you robbed another bank.”

“Yeah, well, once we had the hang of it…I’m kidding. It wasn’t like Red and I got drunk and went out and robbed a bank. Red worked for Dana Moon before he came with me, had all that experience, so I offered him a share, but he’d only work for wages. After we did the two banks I paid Red what he had coming and he bought a suit of clothes cost him ten dollars, and wanted to put the rest in the bank. We’re in St. David at the time. We go to the bank to open a savings account and the bank refused him. I asked the manager, was it on account of Red being Warm Springs Apache? The manager become snotty and one thing led to another….”

“You robbed the bank to teach him manners.”

“Red was about to shoot him.”

“Speaking of shooting people,” Charlie Burke said, prompting his friend the convict.

“We were on the dodge by then,” Tyler said, “wanted posters out on us. To some people that five hundred reward looked like a year’s wages. These fellas I know were horse thieves–they ran my stock more than once–they got after us for the reward, followed our tracks all the way to Nogales and threw down on us in a cantina–smoky place, had a real low ceiling.”

“The story going around,” Charlie Burke said, “they pulled, Ben Tyler pulled and shot all three of them dead.”

“Maybe, though I doubt it. All the guns going off in there and the smoke, it was hard to tell. We came back across the border, the deputies were waiting there to run us down.”

“Have you learned anything?”

“Always have fresh horses with you.”

“You’ve become a smart aleck, huh?”

“Not around here. They put you in leg irons.”

“What do you need I can get you?”

“Some books, magazines. Dana Moon sends me the Chicago Times he gets from some fella he knows.”

“You don’t seem to be doing too bad.”

“Considering I live in a cell with five hot-headed morons and bust rocks into gravel all day. I’ve started teaching Mr. Rinning’s children how to ride the horsey and they like me. Mr. Rinning’s the superintendent; he says to me, ‘You’re no outlaw, you’re just stupid–a big educated fella like you robbing banks?’ He says if I’m done being stupid I’ll be out as soon as I do three years.”

Charlie Burke said to him that day in the Yuma mess hall, “Are you done?”

“I was mad is all, those people owing me money I’d worked hard for. Yeah, I got it out of my system,” Tyler said. “But you know what? There ain’t nothing to robbing a bank.”


The Editor’s Catch-All: AWK

First, a general announcement:

I’ve restored about a thousand posts from the earlier incarnation of this weblog. It will take me a while to categorize all of them, but the tag cloud should help (low in the right hand column) and there are a few links, also to the right, that are more specific. For example: links to the ‘writing sex scenes’ series and the ‘memoir’ series. Warning: the older the post, the more likely the external links will no longer work.

doctorow-elSo now, this word: awkward. You may see it  in the margin of work you have handed off to people in your workshop, or to your editor. The simplest interpretation of the AWK in the margin goes like this:

This [sentence]  doesn’t work.


This doesn’t work on many levels.


This doesn’t work on so many levels, I don’t know where to start.

An experienced writer, one who knows how to make the most of constructive criticism, will then look at the sentence in question and try  — really try — to see what’s wrong. Point of view? Tone? Lexical choices? Plot turn?  And if so, why didn’t the editor write POV instead of AWK? Answer: see responses two and three, above.

There are many synonyms for the word awkward: amateurish, stiff, artless, bumbling, floundering, inept, ungainly, ungraceful, unpolished but a good editor will most likely stick with AWK, because this shifts the responsibility back to you, the writer. There’s something off here, your editor is saying. You need to figure out what it is and fix it.

I’ve got a radical suggestion for you. If and when you encounter the AWK, do not panic. If you’re talking about a single sentence or short paragraph, don’t even try to rewrite it. Delete it, and see if the center holds. Because it often will.


lyricism in hot pursuit of story: film at eleven

[asa book]0060534222[/asa] There are dozens of novels that take Jane Austen’s characters onward past the end of her novels to imagine what happens next. The same has been done for Heathcliff, and for the crazed Mrs. Rochester in Bronte’s fictional attic.

I’m sure there must be   authors who have taken Dickens and his characters for a ride, but I just can’t think of any. As far as I am aware, Mr. Timothy is the first onward telling (as opposed to retelling) of the fate of one of Dickens’ characters.

A Christmas Carol is one of those stories that will live on because it strikes a chord, and people feel a strong need to tell and retell it. It’s a universally satisfying theme: the mean guy gets taught a lesson. (Hmmmm, I’m thinking that maybe it’s time to retell ACC  again. One of those greedy Wall Street CEOs would be a good object  for scroogification.) ACC has been retoled countless times with Scrooge as the focus, and as far as I’m aware, storytellers have been content to leave him capering around on Christmas morning bestowing his new-found largesse on Bob Cratchett’s family.

And then Louis Bayard came along and plucked Tiny Tim from the shadows. The frail little boy who would have died but for Scrooge’s reformed character, in Bayard’s novel Tim has grown up and he’s in fairly stable health. He’s also got intelligence and curiosity and imagination, and he’s living in Dickens’ London.  Bayard had a good idea, and he ran with it.

I will write a review when I’ve finished Mr. Timothy, but for right now I just wanted to point out (as I have before, but the point bears repeating) that lyrical language and good story are not mutually exclusive goals. There is a ripping big plot in this novel worthy of Dickens, and dozens of sharply drawn characters. But there is also Tim, who  tells his story in his own voice, and oh, does he tell it well. An example:

Smiling is something of a foreign language for old Otterbourne, and so once he has made a token stab in that direction, his face realigns itself into the shell I have  come to know tolerably well.  He is the sort of man who absorbs light without ever imparting it.

These observations are never loud or distracting, which is a matter of some craftsmanship. It’s very easy to trumpet a big message, but Bayard understands the power of subtlety. And still, there are images here that will stay with me for a long time, such as Tim thinking about pain and the way it slides down the banister of his bones.

I look forward to the rest of Tim’s story with great anticipation.

another kiss, via updike

and how in her narrow kitchen her great silvery breasts had spilled from her loosened Shantung dress into his hands as simultaneously their mouths fused in the heat of first kiss… ((Updike,  Beck is Back))

John Updike is known for his unusual turns of phrase and imagery, but before I get to that:

The last example I posted (the infamous honey jar kiss) many of you found revolting; nobody seemed to find it evocative at all. Someone pointed out (quite correctly) that it might have made a different impression in a greater context. But I still think this is useful as an exercise because what you notice — what jumps out at the reader, his or her first reactions — are important. So in this very brief take on a kiss, how do your reactions differ from the honey jar example? Or do they?