Elmore Leonard’s Maximum Bob

maximum-bobMy introduction to Elmore Leonard came through television: FX’s Justified was based on an Elmore Leonard short story and character, and Leonard played a key role in the show’s development, for which he won a Peabody Award. Sadly, three years after the show began, Leonard passed away, but I had another serendipitous reminder of his brilliance when David Simon, the creator of The Wire, wrote a glowing paean to Leonard and the value of his work. I do not read much genre writing – less out of prejudice than ignorance – and Elmore Leonard is, in the simplest possible terms, a genre writer. He writes crime fiction, about criminals and cops and prostitutes and drug addicts, but to call someone a “genre writer” is typically an insult, or at least a restricting characterization, and you don’t need to read very far into Leonard’s work to discover how easily he defeats categorization.

Let’s begin with the plot, since that’s the primary signifier of genre writing. In crime fiction, a crime has to take place, and Maximum Bob begins by both upholding that expectation and having some fun with it. Judge Bob Gibbs, nicknamed “Maximum Bob” for his reputation for showing no leniency in sentencing, awakens one morning with his wife in their quiet Florida home to discover a live alligator in their backyard, far from any canal. The gator eats their dog and enters their home, where it demolishes their living room furniture until local sheriffs finally manage to kill it. The working theory, quickly picked up on by the local press, is that the gator was placed in Gibbs’ yard, that some former felon or family member of a felon is out for revenge. Through clever manipulation of his third person narration, however, Leonard gives his reader insights denied to his characters: the gator, it turns out, was placed there at Gibbs’ request, by someone indebted to him – though it was supposed to have been dead. It was the judge’s intention to scare his wife Leanne – a woman some 20 years his junior, who has taken an active interest in fortune telling and believes that the spirit of a young black girl, dead for more than a hundred years, is being channeled through her – in the hopes that she might leave him for good, freeing him to act out his lecherous pursuits in peace. As I type all of this out, I recognize how absurd it sounds, but Leonard handles his plot and characters with expert precision, and his ear for dialogue – for the vernacular of cynical judges and short-sighted criminals – has earned envy from the likes of Saul Bellow and Martin Amis. Feast, for example, on this exchange between Judge Gibbs and the man he tasked with placing the dead alligator in his backyard:

“How many times did I tell you, It was suppose to be a dead one?”
“It was, when I left it.” Dicky looking bewildered at the thought of its having come alive. “Judge, me and my wife took the truck, figure to run along the dike. We spot her in the canal right there by the cleaning dock eating on some softshell turtle. I thought we might have to go clear to Canal Point, but there she was. I shine a light on her, see about eight ten inches between the eyes? I know she’s a bi’n.”
Bob Gibbs said, “What was our deal? Deliver the son of a bitch dead.” He couldn’t say it enough.
“Judge, it was. Ask my wife. I used a snatch hook on a quarter-inch line. I caught her clean, one throw, tied off around my trailer ball and pulled her out of there. I don’t mean she come willing, she fought it, pretty near tore the trailer hitch clean off my truck. I said to my wife, ‘We got us one.’ Next, I hit that gator over the head with a ten-pound sledge. One stroke, she let out her air and never made another sound.”
“It came back to life,” Bob Gibbs said. “Walked through my screen porn and into my house.”
“Prob’ly smelled your dog.”
“It ate the dog.”
“Judge, I told you when you called, I hunt frog. Outside of that gator they arrested me for I ain’t trapped one in years.”

The situation worsens when the newspaper coverage of these events inspires an aggrieved ex-con to act out his own revenge plot, and Leonard tells the story from every perspective: the judge’s, the felon’s, the young detective assigned to the case. The reader’s sympathies align, in particular, with Kathy Baker, a young probation officer and divorcee, and the judge’s chief love interest.

It takes no small skill to balance these narrative voices, or harness them to support a plot that is by turns suspenseful and hilarious, but Leonard manages this tricky feat with ease. He has as efficient a prose style as any 20th century writer (Amis famously said that his prose makes Raymond Carver’s look clumsy by comparison); no sentence seems written, carries more weight than it should. Where grammar and authenticity clash, Leonard sides with authenticity. The result is something almost indistinguishable from thinking, a fast-paced style that hooks readers into his narrative and the lives of his characters without their having even noticed — not for nothing was he nicknamed “the Dickens of Detroit.”