The wonderful thing about Leonard’s writing is how unobtrusive it is…it gets out of the way and puts you right there with the characters. And oh, what great characters they are, each one every bit as rich and complex as those in “literary fiction,” emerging through action and dialogue rather than belabored, self-conscious prose. He knew the power of simplicity and humor to convey character, ethical issues, and the often contradictory impulses that shape what we do. His characters are never simply good or bad. Even the most vicious sociopath in one of his stories can be surprisingly likable, gentle and polite in certain situations. His cops and marshals were often more bloodthirsty and lawless than the criminals they pursued. I return to his books not just for the pleasure of a great story well told, but to learn how to say more with less (something I’ve failed to do here) and to use humor to reveal character.
I was lucky enough to meet him on two occasions, and I’d intended both times to tell him how much his writing meant to me, but that’s not what ended up happening. We didn’t talk about writing at all. We shared a few Hollywood anecdotes, but mostly we just chatted about this and that. Amusing, time-passing small talk. In some ways, that was more gratifying and revealing than me gushing over him or grilling him. The easy familiarity he could create in person was the same experience he created in his books. I realized that his writing talent came naturally, that it wasn’t so much a skill as it was an outgrowth of who he was. And that, in itself, was a writing lesson…and maybe a life lesson, too.