Yesterday I wrote that it was impossible to pick a favorite Elmore Leonard novel. But when I went to pick up one to re-read last night, I reached for Pronto without even having to think about it. It’s the first of Leonard’s works to star Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens, but it wasn’t meant to be.
The first part of the book focuses an aging Miami bookmaker, Harry Arno, one of Leonard’s most visceral characters. I hate to use the cliché “leaps off the page,” except that he does. Harry is greedy and self-absorbed and a bit of a whiner but you just love this guy because he’s so real. He might be old, but his girlfriend is a stacked ex-stripper named Joyce, and you can totally see them together.
Harry is in trouble with the Mob for skimming profits off the top of his bookie operation. So he sneaks off to Italy, which he loves because he fought there in World War II and because of a brief acquaintance with Ezra Pound in an Army stockade.
But the Mob isn’t the only organization that wants Harry. The Justice Department wants him to testify against his old (and peeved) boss, Jimmy Cap. So Raylan is sent to bring Harry home before Cap can have him killed. And, oh yeah, Harry already got away from Raylan once — the only stain on Raylan’s record as a deputy marshal.
Leonard poured his heart into bringing Harry to life. Here’s a guy pushing 70 with about a million dollars of stolen Mob money in a Swiss account, dating a former stripper only half his age, and who once gave the slip to a cowboy marshal — and you believe every last bit of it. That’s some amazing writing.
Problem is, Harry Arno loses control of his own story. Rather, Elmore Leonard lost control of his own novel.
Raylan Givens moseys in about a third of the way through, and completely takes over the book. You can tell just from reading it that Leonard never intended for that to happen — he was doing such a great job of telling Harry’s tale. But there’s Raylan, larger-er-than-life than Harry is. Even Joyce perks up and takes notice. Smart writer that he was, Leonard didn’t try to fight it. He thought his book was going to zig, but it zagged somewhere better instead — all thanks to Raylan.
If you’re thinking I’m using this as a segue into Justified, give yourself a cookie. Raylan took over a novel, now he’s taking over this little column.
The secret to that show’s success — and Leonard loved it, by the way — is how perfectly Timothy Olyphant captures Raylan’s ability to ease himself into a tense situation, and take it over without anyone there really knowing how he did it. Givens is the Deputy US Marshal with a wide reputation as a quickdraw artist with a high body count — and yet any time he thinks there’s a bad guy in need of a killing, Raylan is able to talk the bad guy into drawing first.
Pause for a moment on that. Everybody knows that if you draw on Raylan Givens, you end up shot. And yet everybody draws on Raylan Givens, because Raylan is able to sort of sideways talk them into it. And just like with Harry, you believe it, each and every time. And there’s lots of times, especially in the first season.
That’s the guy Leonard created 20 years ago as a secondary character in a novel about an over-the-hill bookie, but who somehow ended up the hero. Raylan is now the guy portrayed by Olyphant with that same effortless authority, on what is arguably the best drama on TV today.
So I’m still not sure I can pick a favorite Elmore Leonard novel. But check back with me in a few years, and I’ll tell you which of my paperbacks is the closest to falling apart.