Crime writer Elmore Leonard’s best book isn’t a crime book

May 19th, 2011 § 0 comments

To some, Elmore Leonard is famous for writing Get Shorty. To others, he’s the cool crime writer who leaves out the parts readers usually skip. Some may even remember him for his early Westerns like Hombre. Not many will equate his name with a book that is neither Western nor crime story.

It is called The Juvenal Touch or sometimes simply Touch. It is the story of a religious man with healing powers. There is some nefarious goings on, but that’s not the focus of the story.

Touch, Elmore Leonard's best book

Touch, crime writer Elmore Leonard's best book

It has all the other hallmarks of vintage Leonard though. The sparse writing that makes him arguably the easiest of all writers to read. The cool, smart characters. The crackling dialogue, often followed by interpretive phrases that wouldn’t pass muster on MS Word spellchecker. (The dreaded “Fragment” fault.)

An example to illustrate: “I was up north.” Not giving anything away.

In fact, Touch is a more typical piece of Elmore Leonard writing than at least one of his full-on crime books, Split Images. If I haven’t read all of Elmore Leonard’s books, I’ve read nearly all, and Split Images is the most ambitious structurally and darkest in tone of the lot. It’s the only one that ends on a downer. Truth be told, it reads like all of it was written by a man on a downer.

The Juvenal Touch is at the other end of the spectrum. It’s an uplifting book. It is the book of a hopeful romantic, without the tough veneer that seemingly comes with the territory in crime stories. (Here’s a thought: Can anyone think of a tender crime story?)

If I had little time to live and could only reread one Elmore Leonard book, Touch would be it.

Of the many others, I’d probably pick something written from Stick to Get Shorty, skipping anything set in historic times or outside the US. Not that they’re bad – it’s just that Leonard is at his most appealing in modern Detroit or Florida settings.

If you’re not a reader of crime but are interested in the craft of writing, you should try to read at least one Elmore Leonard book. Get Shorty could be the easiest to like, but I find the inexplicably little-known Touch hardest to forget.

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