When you walk into a new branch library, or stumble across an unfamiliar secondhand bookshop, which writer do you look for? They can’t be too obscure; the idea is to find something. They must be prolific; you’re looking for something that’s new to you. And they must be reliable: you want to be sure that your discovery will be worth your time. The classic answer is PG Wodehouse. Mine has always been Elmore Leonard.
Leonard, whose death was announced today, was a consummate professional pleasure-giver. More than 40 novels over more than 50 years: first westerns, then crime, standard consistently high. His spare style was impressive enough to win both highbrow praise (Martin Amis’s lines on him are already recirculating) and repeated Hollywood adaptation, although his economy and wit proved harder to transfer to the screen than his dialogue.
He could dispense with heroes without abandoning morality – when he invents a sociopath, such as Glitz‘s Teddy Majyk, he doesn’t need the dodgy dark glamour of serial-killer fiction – and bring his characters to a bad end without losing warmth (Freaky Deaky sticks in the mind in that respect).
My most recent library find (currently overdue from Camberwell) was Up in Honey’s Room, a tale of German soldiers on the run in 1940s Detroit. It was published in 2007 but it feels like contemporary, rather than historical, fiction: its setting was one that Leonard knew first hand. We’ll miss him, and not only because no one will be able to do that again.