Peter Leonard is the author of five fast paced novels. His thrillers have earned him wide critical acclaim for their tight plotting and story lines that add velocity like well-oiled chicanes. His latest novel is Back From The Dead. It is packed with the author’s trademark twists and turns. Peter is also the son of Elmore Leonard, one of the greatest crime novelists of all time. Peter met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about his latest release and what Elmore Leonard thought of James Lee Burke.
Tell us about your latest novel Back From The Dead.
It’s the sequel to Voices of the Dead. Set in 1971, Back from the Dead is a continuation of the confrontation between Harry Levin, a Holocaust survivor and scrap metal dealer from Detroit, and Ernst Hess, a former SS officer and still a dedicated Nazi twenty-six years after the war. At the end of Voices Harry shoots Hess, drops him in the ocean and lets the current take him out to sea.
But in the opening scene of Back from the Dead: Hess opened his eyes looking up at the white blades of a fan slowly rotating above him. He was in a hospital ward, an infirmary, the last bed in a big white room filled with beds, Hess on his back, a lot of activity to his left, Negro nurses moving about, checking on Negro patients. Everyone he could see had black skin. For an Aryan who believed in racial purity this was hell, God playing a cruel joke on him. Hess picks up where he left off in Voices of the Dead.
Manipulation of identity is a critical plot element in my next novel called Eyes Closed Tight, a psychological thriller, which is based in part on hanging out with Detroit Police Homicide for several weeks. I can’t explain any more or I’ll give the story away. Incidentally, Elmore spent time with DPH Squad 7 back in the late seventies, and wrote a piece for the Detroit Free Press called Impressions of Murder.
Your father, the great Elmore Leonard, acknowledged the influence of George V. Higgins’s seminal novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle on his fictions. Higgins characteristically uses a dialogue rich prose with an economic use of description to advance the story, how much of an influence would you say the novel is on your own writing?
I remember my father phoning me after reading The Friends of Eddie Coyle, saying, you have to read this book. Higgins has set me free. I reread Eddie Coyle a couple years ago, and I think it also set me free. Reading Higgins was like eavesdropping on a conversation among crooks. The novel is a crime masterpiece, one of, if not the best crime novel ever written.
You have mentioned Cormac McCarthy as an influence. His style is unique, thick with imagery and in many ways lyrical. Thematically the idea of the frontier and its attendant brutality recurs in it. How do you feel the sense of the frontier in the American psyche translates from traditional Westerns to crime fiction?
No Country For Old Men is the perfect example. I read this novel four times, studying Cormac McCarthy’s style, his sound. The characters in Cormac’s spare prose are rendered with authentic western grit. The dialogue is so simple and perfect, it’s beautiful. I think of No Country as a modern western and an example of, as author Stav Sherez said, “the versatility of crime fiction.” Curiously, when the Coen Brothers won their Oscar for the film, having used most of Cormac McCarthy’s dialogue, they never gave him credit. I discussed this with my father and he said it was a mortal sin.
Would you say your career in advertising has enriched your understanding of what it takes to write good fiction?
Writing ads didn’t help me in writing fiction. Although I did enjoy creating campaigns for Volkswagen, most of the products and services I promoted, I didn’t really care about. Writing fiction, I think, is the opposite experience. I love my characters. In my mind they become real and tell the story in shifting points of view. I can’t think of a more enjoyable way to spend time. It’s immensely satisfying.
Do you think excessive plotting can kill a story?
I suppose, but I think, unlike my father, plot is important to the reader’s enjoyment of a novel. My view is: keep the reader off balance, keep the reader guessing. I love it when I hear: “I thought I knew what was going to happen, and I was completely surprised.” Elmore’s point of view was: I don’t give a shit about plot. I’m going to tell my story and the characters better be able to talk. I said, well what if they can’t? He said, I’ll have them killed.
Graham Greene famously wrote, ‘There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.’ What do you make of his observation?
I don’t want to disagree with the great Graham Greene, but to me his observation is a bit dramatic. I think writing is fun and if it isn’t you’re doing something wrong.
Do you think the best detectives have strong criminal shadows?
Good detectives, I believe, have to get in the head of the perpetrator whose crime they’re trying to solve. They have to think like criminals.
What are you working on at the moment in your own canon and can you tell us something about your father’s last unfinished novel?
My latest is called Eyes Closed Tight. It’s about a retired Detroit homicide investigator named O’Clair, who has purchased a small seaside motel in Pompano Beach, Florida. When the book opens, O’Clair discovers the body of a young woman on one of his motel lounge chairs on the beach in front of his property. He sees that she has been murdered in a very particular way that reminds him of a homicide he had solved years earlier. O’Clair ends up helping a young, inexperienced Pompano Beach investigator named Holland, try to solve the crime.
I can’t talk about my father’s unfinished novel. I may finish it, and therefore I want to keep it shrouded in mystery. Suffice it to say, what I’ve read of Blue Dreams is quintessential Elmore.
Elmore Leonard and James Lee Burke are in my opinion the two greatest crime novelists of the last decades, they also have quite different styles. What do you make of the differences between them as authors, and did your father ever express a view of James Lee Burke’s novels?
Elmore admired James Lee, liked his protagonist, Dave Robicheaux, and Robicheaux’s sidekick, Clete Purcell. Elmore liked James Lee Burke’s dialogue, authentic to Elmore’s New Orleans-born ear. I think the biggest difference between them is that Elmore didn’t see the need to describe character and setting, while James Lee Burke, in Elmore’s opinion, used a lot of words describing nature, weather and wildlife, but Elmore also admitted James Lee was good at it. My father also told me he couldn’t imagine writing a series of novels with a recurring main character. Elmore thought it would be difficult to hold his interest.
Thank you Peter for an insightful and great interview.
Read more about Peter Leonard’s books at his website.