Book Reviews: Serendipitous Pulp Fiction – Richard Stark vs. Elmore Leonard

I fell into both of these authors of decent pulp fiction completely by accident, thus the serendipity idea in the title. I learned about one of my favorite shows Justified from my NSFCCDP friend m.poulet and I told you about how I found Richard Stark and The Outfit back in this article. Well, I just finished Pronto from Elmore Leonard from which the Raylan character in Justified is derived (and yes you purists out there, I did order Fire in the Hole as well because that is even more emblematic of the Justified’s portrayal of him) and then thought of comparing these two relatively classic pulp fiction writers albeit based on a severely limited set of their respective writing.

prontoPronto takes place in Miami Beach and in northern Italy and is a relatively complex story concerning a bookie, Harry Arno that falls on the wrong side of his mafia boss and Raylan’s attempt to save his life. Oh yeah, Raylan and he have already crossed paths much to the deficit of Raylan’s career in the Federal Marshals (the guy ran off on him) years back and there are complications all over the place. As with many Justified stories, it ends in bloodshed (though not Raylan’s or Harry’s) and is action-packed cover to cover. I need to read the other Raylan stories and books, but this first story for me was highly entertaining and I did get attached to many of the characters. Like on the TV show, which Graham Yost admits to heavily leaning on Leonard for storytelling techniques and ideas, there are multiple layers to the action with nearly every character having independent and conflicting motives. It creates an intriguing web of suspense. The descriptions are rather spare, but the character development is subtle and rich. There are hints of sex but it is done tastefully and not in a manner that disrupts the story-telling. I feel like kind of an idiot because I didn’t know that it was also Leonard that wrote the story Rum Punch was the inspiration behind the Tarantino classic Jackie Brown or that he wrote Get Shorty as well (and no, haven’t seen that movie yet, its on my list!). I just added massively to my bulky and overloaded reading list.

As for comparing Stark/Westlake and Leonard, based on the very limited spectrum of their writing that I have enjoyed, I feel that they have lots of points in common. The descriptions are similarly Hemmingway-esque and the storytelling is action-packed. The principal characters of Raylan and Parker are similar in that both are essentially loners with capacities of great violence albeit on opposite sides of the law. They nevertheless adhere to a similar code (they both rationalize extreme violence for what they consider extreme situations and are careful to exact judgement only when necessary regardless of how ruthless or summary that judgement might turn out to be). Both are expert shots and have brilliant insight into the worlds they work in. Of the two, Raylan is far more laid-back and this gets him into trouble and yet makes him more likeable than Parker who rests aloof – cool and badass but you would not pony up to the bar for a whiskey with him as you would Raylan. I appreciated that both Flashfire (the other Parker novel I read in anticipation of the new Parker movie called, ingeniously enough, “Parker”) and Pronto both took place in or near Miami so I had plenty of points of reference personally. As far as their writing styles, the Stark books are more structured – always have four chapters and more or less the same sequence of events (someone screws over Parker, he builds his revenge, he starts acting out his revenge, and climax/anti-climax) whereas in Pronto, the characters are all over the place – no real structure here (which is not a criticism, just a stylistic point). The secondary characters and the female interest in both are well-drawn although here the complexity and development of them is better in the Leonard world than in the Stark world – in other works, Leonard takes pains to develop most of the characters beyond just Raylan, his hero whereas Stark takes lots of time to paint shades of grey on Parker while just sketching for the most part the other characters. I found the females in Pronto more attractive and alive than the ones in the Parker novels, but perhaps that’s just me.

So who would win in a Raylan-Parker shoot-out? a Stark-Leonard write-off? I’m not sayin’, I’ll let you, dear reader, take your guesses in the comments 🙂


About mfinocchiaro

IT Architecture Guru for large PLM software company but dabbling in Web 2.0 and other stuff.
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One Response to Book Reviews: Serendipitous Pulp Fiction – Richard Stark vs. Elmore Leonard

  1. Ed mcbride says:

    Revisited this after hearing of Mr. Leonard’s passing this morning. He will be missed.

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