Reading Crime Novels by Elmore Leonard

Reviewers describe them as ‘hot’ and/or ‘cool’. The dialogue is ‘stunning’ and ‘all-found.’ The plots induce ‘page-turning.’ No reviewer describes the crime novels of Elmore Leonard as moral.

Why the reluctance to view the work in this way?

Certainly the majority of characters are deeply immoral. Even the ‘good guys’ are bad, often performing gross acts of brutality and violence, frequently random, sometimes as retribution or revenge.

Can narratives of such immoral behaviour constitute a work of literature that is moral? What is ‘good’ and where is it to be found in Elmore Leonard’s exceptional body of work as a writer of crime fiction since the early nineteen sixties?


The world of his novels is that of American ethnic minorities and other marginalised people. Socially low-class Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, ‘white thrash’ and hicks are embroiled in scams, robberies, murders and other crimes. The occasional Mafia figure appears, usually the victim of a killing.

And yet, many of the scenes of absurdity or violence are set in contexts of great gravity.

The opening chapters of Pagan Babies illuminate the actuality of genocide in Rwanda in a way that a shelf-full of UN reports fails to do, before morphing into a scam-romp of many twists.

Killshot reveals the depth of alienation experienced by a mixed race Native American French Canadian assassin, criss-crossing the north American border between Canada and the USA, that goes to heart of the multi-racial experience on that continent.

In Mr. Majestyk a small-time melon-grower refuses to bow to power and corruption. From his efforts, a love story blooms for him and a labour organiser, fuelling a thrilling car-chase and a violent dénouement.

The reader suggests that these, among many other thorough-going morality tales in Elmore Leonard’s crime novels, are not viewed as moral literature because Elmore Leonard offers no lessons. He describes rather than prescribes. His books have the impact of Power Point (re)presentations rather than instructions. They offer pleasure, not diktats or commandments. They are felicitous, rather than didactic.

And exist as literature in a violent world where the concepts of peace researcher Johan Galtung apply.

‘Cultural violence’ refers to aspects of culture that can be used to justify or legitimize direct or structural violence, and may be exemplified by religion and ideology, language and art, empirical science and formal science. Cultural violence makes direct and structural violence look or feel ‘right’, or at least not wrong, according to Galtung. The study of cultural violence highlights the way in which the act of direct violence and the fact of structural violence are legitimized and thus made acceptable in society.

Acts of direct violence in Elmore Leonard’s crime novels reinforce the immorality of cultural and structural violence in the world in which they occur. Thus, the novels are deeply moral.

The reader agrees that the novels are also entertaining, vivacious, hilarious, outrageous, vicious, violent, wonderfully wrought and written, and both ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ at the same time.

As the crime novels excite pleasure in the reader, is reading them an immoral act? Even if the reader perceives the novels themselves as deeply moral?

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