By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
So where do those modern crime-fiction authors come in? I can draw you a diagram, if you’ll follow me back to that Stockton location for The Moonshine War in 1969.
“Look,” the second assistant director (the Pushcart Prize winner) said to me one day, “there’s the writer.”
He indicated a slim, trim-bearded fellow in his 40s standing on the sidelines, wearing a flat cloth cap and watching the setup with a laid-back intensity.
“This is his first script,” the A.D. said. “He’s written a lotta books.”
“Oh yeah? What kind?”
“Western novels, mostly.”
“Westerns?” No wonder I’d never heard his name: Elmore Leonard.
Several Leonard stories had already been made into movies. But now, in acknowledgment of a changing fiction market, he’d determined to stop writing Westerns and start writing crime fiction. He encountered a problem, though: There was no model for the type of novel he wanted to write.
“Hammett, I couldn’t get into him,” Leonard told me in a 1997 interview. “I liked Chandler okay, but I didn’t learn anything from him. I didn’t learn anything from the first-person writers.”
The only book he learned anything from, Leonard said, was a 1972 book touted to him by his Hollywood agent H.N. Swanson (whose movie-town clients in earlier decades included Raymond Chandler and John O’Hara). The book Swanson told Leonard to read was The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a first novel by a former Massachusetts federal prosecutor named George V. Higgins. Higgins’ striking use of vernacular dialogue electrified Leonard, freeing him to find his own voice. “I think Friends of Eddie Coyle is the best crime book written,” Leonard said. “Yeah.”
George V. Higgins, who died in 1999, was clear about who’d shaped his writing: John O’Hara. Higgins quoted with approval O’Hara’s creed: “A man cannot be a first-rate writer unless he can write first-rate dialogue.” From O’Hara to Higgins to Leonard, then — with Leonard influencing a host of younger writers since.
“Dutch” Leonard has come a long way from that day in 1969, when he watched us shooting scenes for The Moonshine War. “The only time I was on the set,” Leonard recalled, “[Patrick] McGoohan comes over, and he says, ‘Well, what’s it like to stand there and hear your lines all fucked up?’ Oh, man . . .” It was a vexed production from the start, Leonard thought. “The producer fired me off the picture — and then the director got me back on, about a week later. But he was the wrong director, for this! You know, How To Murder Your Wife, Paris When It Sizzles — but then, to do this!”
Richard Quine had had many successes as a movie director in the 1950s and ’60s, but The Moonshine Warmarked the start (or maybe the middle) of his decline. His last film was the disastrous The Prisoner of Zenda in 1979, with the by-then-impossible Peter Sellers, who (according to Sellers’ biographer) went out of his way to humiliate the director. Dick Quine died in 1989, at the age of 68.
“There was a black guy that lived on his property, and he worked at NBC,” said Leonard. “And I ran into him. I was comin’ outta Chasen’s about 1992, and he came along on the street . . . and he told me that Quine had killed himself . . . shot himself. Yeah.”
“I dunno. Well . . . I suppose he wasn’t makin’ it anymore. He wasn’t working.”
It was a dreadful and violent final act — one better suited, one might have thought, to the bleakest fiction of Elmore Leonard.
Or John O’Hara.
THE ART OF BURNING BRIDGES | By GEOFFREY WOLFF | Knopf 400 pages | $30 hardcover
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