Thursday, August 22, 2013

Dutch and Me

Elmore Leonard died on Tuesday. Stories and memorials have been appearing everywhere since. This one is mine.

It would’ve been 1988. Which would’ve made me sixteen years old at the time. I was on a family holiday in Florida and, as usual, no matter how many books I’d packed to cover the duration, I’d managed to get through them all long before the end of the holiday.

I found myself in the hotel lobby, prodding at a spinner rack of largely uninspiring paperbacks. But there was one book that stood out from the slabs of Tom Clancy and Jackie Collins. This was the cover:

So I bought it. I found a quiet corner, cracked open the cover, and this is what I found on the first page:

Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.

What happened, a guy by the name of Booker, a twenty-five-year-old super-dude twice-convicted felon, was in his Jacuzzi when the phone rang. He yelled for his bodyguard Juicy Mouth to take it. “Hey, Juicy?” His bodyguard, his driver and his houseman were around somewhere. “Will somebody get the phone?” The phone kept ringing. The phone must have rung fifteen times before Booker got out of the Jacuzzi, put on his green satin robe that matched the emerald pinned to his left earlobe and picked up the phone. Booker said, “Who’s this?” A woman’s voice said, “You sitting down?” The phone was on a table next to a green leather wingback chair. Booker loved green. He said, “Baby, is that you?” It sounded like his woman, Moselle. Her voice said, “Are you sitting down? You have to be sitting down for when I tell you something.” Booker said, “Baby, you sound different. What’s wrong?” He sat down in the green leather chair, frowning, working his butt around to get comfortable. The woman’s voice said, “Are you sitting down?” Booker said, “I am. I have sat the fuck down. Now you gonna talk to me, what?” Moselle’s voice said, “I’m suppose to tell you that when you get up, honey, what’s left of your ass is gonna go clear through the ceiling."

And that was it. I was in love. I tore through that sucker in a day.

Sometimes, you find a book or an author who re-wires the way you think about stories and language. Elmore Leonard was the one that did it for me. It read like the work of a man who enjoyed writing, and wanted you to enjoy reading it just as much.

Once I got back to London, I went on the hunt for his previous books. Fortunately for me, 1988 was also the year that Murder One opened on Charing Cross Road. I’d buy as many as I could afford whenever I went in there and began to scarf them down on the Tube journey home.

And when I’d exhausted his backlog of crime stories, I started in on the westerns. Then the short stories. I was a little bereft when I’d finally got through them all. But I knew that a new one was never very far away.

I continued picking up new volumes whenever they came out. Then, life got in the way and I’ve realised that the last Elmore Leonard book I read is Up in Honey’s Room, and that was back in 2009. The upside to that is I’ve still got some books to read. (Top of my To-Do List: get hold of copies of Road Dogs, Djibouti and Raylan). The downside...well, you know the downside.

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