Elmore Leonard has died aged 87. Leonard began his career as a hack and ended it as a modern master. His rule was: ‘if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it’. His writing became sparer over the years, perhaps reaching its purest form in Get Shorty, his best known work. His total war on adverbs and adjectives placed all the reader’s focus on his dialogue. Luckily, Leonard understood how speech worked both on the page and in the ear, and he grasped how characters could be developed through dialogue rather than description. This might explain why so many of his stories have been successfully adapted for big and small screens.
The Spectator has not reviewed all that many of Leonard’s recent books; but that’s not to say that we’ve underestimated his contribution to fiction. As Byron Rogers put it in a Spectator Books of the Year round-up 8 years ago:
‘At some point in the last 20 years a writer of Western pulp fiction invented garrulous gangsters and became the master of the English novel. First the adverbs went, then the adjectives. If you want to see what can be done with dialogue alone, read him. It will be a joy.’