The 10 best Elmore Leonard novels

Elmore Leonard was The King of Crime Writing and one of the greats of modern fiction. Some reviewers called him the Dickens of Detroit because of the vast array of his characters.

For any author to write enough good books to make a selection of their best 10 is a fantastic achievement. Leonard wrote over 40 books and they were all somewhere between good and great.

If there was one certainty in a reading life it was that once a year you’d be presented with a gripping book full of great characters and superb dialogue.

Leonard introduced me to many concepts, such as vigorish, or The Vig, which is American underworld slang for interest, always at an extortionate rate, on a loan. Who knew that payday lenders were Elmore fans?

His books often touch on social issues. Pagan Babies has the background of the Rwandan civil war massacres, there are references to racism, from all sides, in many of his books, the justice system is often seen as corrupt. There’s no campaigning and no Political Correctness in a Leonard book, he’s the definitive reporter, setting down what people say rather than what the author might think about what they say.

He was 87 when he died and still writing great stuff. His last published book, Raylan, almost made my top 10. A cluster of the books here were published in the 1990s when Leonard hit a golden run with Get Shorty, Maximum Bob, Rum Punch, Pronto, Riding the Rap, Out of Sight, Cuba Libre and Be Cool.

I’ve selected only from Leonard’s crime novels and put the Westerns to one side, maybe for another article when I’ve been through them again. The Westerns were great too. Here are the 10 best Elmore Leonard novels (in my humble opinion) and some short extracts from them.


1: Pagan Babies

A high point in American crime fiction. After his amazing sequence of winners in the 1990s, Leonard took a new turn with this 2000 novel which starts with the background of the grisly aftermath of the Rwandan civil war. Terry Dunn, a priest who’s not really a priest, is handing out the Hail Marys before returning to Detroit in a bid to raise money for aid from an unsuspecting mobster.

The opening lines of Pagan Babies:

The Church had become a tomb where forty-seven bodies turned to leather and stains had been lying on the concrete floor the past five years, though not lying where they had been shot with Kalashnikovs or hacked to death with machetes. The benches had been removed and the bodies reassembled: men, women and small children laid in rows of skulls and spines, femurs, fragments of cloth stuck to mummified remains, many of the adults missing feet, all missing bones that had been carried off by scavenging dogs.

 2: Swag

There isn’t a trace of sentimentality in this tale of two men linking up for a series of armed robberies and there isn’t a spare word, apart from the rare instance of Leonard breaking one of his own 10 Rules of Writing — never qualify the verb said — with: Frank said, impatiently. This book was published in 1976. It’s the earliest book in my Top 10. Check out the fantastic original Delacorte cover shown here.

These are the opening lines of Swag, 106 words that set you up for the whole book. Is this show or tell? It doesn’t matter.

There was a photograph of Frank in an ad that ran in the Detroit Free Press and showed all the friendly salesmen at Red Bowers Chevrolet. Under his photo it said Frank J. Ryan. He had on a nice smile, a styled moustache, and a summer-weight suit made out of that material that’s shiny and looks like it has snags in it.

There was a photograph of Stick on file at 1300 Beaubien, Detroit Police Headquarters. Under the photo it said Ernest Stickley, Jr, 89037. He had on a sport shirt that had sailboats and palm trees on it. He’d bought it in Pompano Beach, Florida.

 3: Maximum Bob

Florida judge Bob Gibbs hands down heavy sentences, so some felons are aiming to take their revenge on him. The cast includes probation officer Kathy Baker, the judge’s wife Leanne who has multiple-personality syndrome, Leonard’s favourite low-rent family the Crowes, and an alligator. It’s a bit Carl Hiaasen but a great book nonetheless.

Kathy Baker sat in her secondhand VW, faded beige, 78,746 miles on the odometer and tires going bald, waiting for Dale Crowe Junior to show up.

4: Rum Punch

This book doubles up on double-dealing and was once my choice for No 1. Jackie Burke is Leonard’s best female lead. She’s a flight attendant who carries hot money into Florida from the Bahamas for gun dealer Ordell Robbie.

These are the opening lines of Rum Punch:

Sunday morning, Ordell took Louis to watch the white-power demonstration in downtown Palm Beach.

“Young skinhead Nazis,” Ordell said. “look, even little Nazigirls marching down Worth Avenue. You believe it? Coming now you have the Klan, not too many here today. Some in green, must be the coneheads’ new spring shade. Behind them it looks like some Bikers for Racism, better known as the Dixie Knights. We gonna move on ahead, fight through the crowd here.” Ordell said, bringing Louis along.

5: Get Shorty

This kicked off a great run in the 90s for Leonard with the debut of Chili Palmer in a Hollywood caper. Chili and horror film producer Harry Zimm form an unlikely alliance, one of Leonard’s staples.

Chili wondered if Leo was attracted to sweaty women in sundresses.

6: Riding The Rap

Raylan Givens makes his second appearance in a Leonard novel, having been introduced in Pronto, where much of the action is set in Rapallo, Italy. He also appears in a novella, Fire in the Hole, which became the basis for the TV series Justified. A poor cover though.

The guy handed him a bathing cap to use as a blindfold, with instructions when to put it on, didn’t say anything about doing business, and left.

7: Be Cool

The return of Chili Palmer from Get Shorty. Chili is being stalked by a hitman while trying to get a movie deal together. It’s probably Leonard’s funniest novel.

Raji was told to meet Joe Loop at Canter’s on Fairfax. This was two days after Joe Loop hit the Russian by mistake. He wouldn’t admit he’d screwed up. He said to Raji, “I never seen a hit like this one before. You got to fuckin get in line to whack this guy.”

“The man’s popular,” Raji said, “offends all kinds of people. You know Chili Palmer?”

 8: The Hot Kid

An historical novel set in the 1930s featuring Carl Webster, the hot kid of the marshals service, who’s aiming to make his reputation as a famous lawman.

Carl and Louly arrived at sundown in the ’33 Chevy they gave him to replace the shot-up Pontiac. Carl didn’t even get inside the house before he and his dad were sitting on the porch talking about the weather: over a hundred degrees for the past twenty-five days, Virgil said, from July into August.

“A hunnert eight to a hunnert eleven in Okmulgee. It got so bad shade trees were dying in town. I haven’t counted what we lost, must be a couple dozen. No discovery wells are going in anywhere less they’re near water. The crew working the Deep Fork section were sucking water out of the creek and the graze was starting to look burnt, so I had ‘ em shut down the wells.”

“You can’t live on oil,” Carl said.

“That’s the truth.”

“You told me that a long time ago. The night Dillinger went to the movies it was a hundred and two in Chicago.”

9: Stick

The 1983 return of Ernest J Stickley from Swag. Stick’s working as a chauffeur and going to great lengths to set up a movie investment scam for a movie called Scam to get his five grand back from a villain named Chucky.

Stick said to the mirror. “How’d you know about the other drivers?”

“I happen to know things, Stickley. Stickley, old boy. My wife thinks you’re English. What’d you tell her, you’re from Jacksonshire? Oh yes, that’s right next to Yorkshire … Stay on Ninety-five, we’re going to Lauderdale … I know things that’d surprise the shit out of you, Stickley. I know, for instance, that fall you took up in Michigan wasn’t half of it. I understand you and your partner were in something much bigger. You and your partner. What was his name?

“Who, Frank Ryan?” Stick said to the mirror.

 10: Out of Sight

The book that introduced Deputy US marshal Karen Sisco and serial bank robber Jack Foley. It shows Leonard’s sense of romance which is evident in several novels.

 “That’s north Lou’siana,” Foley said, “a long way from New Orleans, where I was born and raised. Once you leave the Big Easy you may as well be in Arkansas, where Buddy’s from originally. He went up to Detroit to work in an auto plant once, but didn’t care for it, moved to California. I remember seeing the movie – it was after I got out of Angola and started doing banks on my own. That part where they get shot? Warren Beatty and . . . I can’t think of her name.”

“Faye Dunaway. I loved her in Network.”

“Yeah, she was good. I liked the guy saying he wasn’t gonna take any more shit from anybody.”

“Peter Finch,” Karen said.

“Yeah, right. Anyway, that scene where Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway get shot? I remember thinking at the time, it wouldn’t be a bad way to go, if you have to.”

“Bleeding on a county road,” Karen said.

“It wasn’t pretty after,” Foley said, “no, but if you were in that car — eating a sandwich — you wouldn’t have known what hit you.”