The novels that Elmore Leonard published in the final decade of his life were often all but plotless.
That’s not to say that things didn’t happen, but there was a loosey-goosey feel to the action in the books.
These last handful of books give the reader absolutely no sense that Leonard (1925-2013) sat down before writing with a clear outline of what events would happen when and by whom. I suspect he never really did that. I do, though, imagine that, with his first 35 or 40 novels, he had a general idea of point A leading to point B and so on. But not with these last books.
I also suspect that, especially in the early years, he aimed at giving his novels a tightness that was expected by publishers.
From the beginning, Leonard was deft at writing dialogue and creating oddly human characters. It was clear he enjoyed that. Through most of his career, however, he knew he need to write the sort of well-plotted book that publishing houses were looking for.
After the turn of the millennium, when Leonard had reached his late 70s and then his 80s, he had been so successful that he could do whatever he wanted. His books had sold hugely. Many had been made, sometimes more than once, into movies or television shows. He was golden.
So, in his last novels, Leonard seems to have been writing simply to please himself.
“Watching his back”
A prime example is his 2009 book Road Dogs.
First of all, three characters from three earlier novels are suddenly back on the scene and have met or come to meet each other — bank robber Jack Foley from Out of Sight (1996), Cundo Rey from LaBrava (1983) and Dawn Navarro from Riding the Rap (1995).
In a way, it’s not all that surprising that Jack and Cundo meet in prison and become “road dogs.” As Leonard explains:
It was a custom to pair off as road dogs inside, living among gangs with their own signs and tats; inmates who weren’t with them were against them; gangbangers could make living inside a daily chore, watching not to look any gansta in the eye.
While Cundo was the jive Cat Prince with money, lots of money he used for favors, Jack Foley watching his back.
A dead man walking
And it’s not surprising that Cundo, a cagey Cuban criminal in Florida, played a lot of angles in Los Angeles to become an underworld star of his own.
What is surprising is that he is alive.
The last time Leonard wrote a sentence about him (in LaBrava), Cundo was being gunned down with three shots in the chest and left, for all intents and purposes, dead as a doornail. Well, through the wonders of modern medicine, he’s still walking and talking and meeting Foley in prison.
Dawn, who was a Floridian hippie-ish occult priestess in Riding the Rap, has come to Los Angeles in the meantime and hooked up with Cundo.
When he was sent away to prison for eight years, she agreed to wait for him, to save herself for him — “Are you being a saint?” he’d ask in every phone call, driving her nuts — though, of course, she wasn’t.
Old home week
Again, it’s not surprising that Leonard brings back characters; he does that often. But this is the only time, as far as I know, when he brings characters from three different books to play out the story of a novel.
Foley, who was portrayed by George Clooney in the movie, is great to see again. Cunda has a little more heft as a character which means he’s less colorful and more irritating, if more human. Dawn in Road Dogs seems much more jaded and conniving — less human.
The novel mentions by name other characters from LaBrava and Riding the Rap and brings back for a few scene Foley’s wife Adele. There’s even a movie actress, as there was in LaBrava, but it’s not the same one.
All in all, it’s old home week in the Elmore Leonard universe.
I envision Leonard writing Road Dogs in this way:
I picture him getting the idea of Jack Foley, back in prison, meeting some interesting dude, and why not Cundo? His earlier death can be explained away by the superhuman work of the paramedics.
At this point, the book could be a prison novel except that’s too constraining so Leonard wonders what would happen if these road dogs of prison became road dogs on the outside. This being Leonard, though, one of the dogs is more into the relationship than the other.
And what’s more likely to break apart the friendship — or road dog-ship — of two guys than a woman? So Leonard has to create a new one or simply shift Dawn from Florida out to LA. That’s easier, and then let’s see what happens next.
There’s a lot of that — let’s see what happens next.
Jack’s relationship with the movie star provides some nice set pieces but doesn’t go anywhere.
Instead, it’s Dawn’s relationship with Cundo and two other men (and, yes, Jack, a third) that gets things to happen.
Leonard’s fun novel
Leonard can’t write a bad novel.
If Road Dogs is light on plot, that’s fine. Scene after scene, the novel is entertaining in any number of ways.
It’s a fun novel, a delight to read.
Patrick T. Reardon