Max Read, at Gawker of all places, put his finger on the key ingredient in Elmore Leonard’s distinct sensibility.
The characters in Leonard’s crime novels share with their western-novel antecedents not a particular relationship to law and order but a sense of professionalismâ€”a deep knowledge of the practices and rituals, the codes and conventions of their given fields. His crime novels concern characters who exist on the edge of the law, in gray areas that block them from full membership in Team Good or Team Badâ€”bounty hunters, bail bondsmen, ex-cons trying to make good, sleazy lawyers, slightly corrupt police officers, all forming alliances, enemies, and romances between and across tribesâ€”but all of them (the ones Leonard sympathizes with, at any rate) are professionals. In Killshot, the seasoned hitman Armand Degas takes a younger wannabe, Richie Nix, under his wing, imparting to him the rules of the trade:
“No, no could’ve. Only when you know you could do it. Then all it takes is one shot. It’s the same as with a hunter, a guy who knows what he’s doing. He don;t take the shot if he thinks he could miss, or might only wound it. See, then he has to go find the animal to finish it. OK, what if it’s a kind of animal that could eat him up. Like a lion that’s mad now ’cause it’s shot and waits to jump out at the guy. You understand? That’s why you always make sure, One shot, one kill.
“Man, I’m bleeding something fierce.”
“Don’t get it on the seat. What I’m saying is you don’t want to have to shoot anything more than once.”
“I’m in fucking pain.”
This guy was not only a punk, he was a baby.
Rules like this, professional guidelines gleaned from years of work and dedication, pervade Leonard’s novels (in many cases thanks to his researcher of three decades, Sutter, who provided Leonard with background about the fields and trades his characters worked). Leonard, himself a consummate professional and a tireless worker who at his death was said to be finishing another novel, loved themâ€”the hard-won details that set apart a dilettante from a master.