In less than two months’ time, the American reading public has lost two giants. In late August, the popular author of gritty crime novels, Elmore Leonard, passed away at age 87. Earlier this week, the equally renown author of spy thrillers, Tom Clancy, died at age 66.
These two men chose to write about two very different subjects, but within their disparate topics a world of commonalities abound. Both wrote in very traditionally male genres. Their characters were strong, complex and driven. Their styles of prose are similarly forthright, spare and engaging.
Elmore Leonard opens his novel, “Get Shorty,” with these lines: “When Chili came to Miami Beach twelve years ago, they were having one of their on-and-off cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo and had his leather jacket ripped off. One his wife had given him for Christmas, a year ago before they moved down here.”
Contrast that with the opening passage of Tom Clancy’s best-seller, “The Hunt for Red October”: “Captain First Rank Marco Ramius of the Soviet Navy was dressed for Arctic conditions normal to the Northern Fleet submarine base at Polyarny. Five layers of wool and oilskin enclosed him. A dirty harbor tug pushed his submarine’s bow around to the north, facing down the channel.”
The men described could not be more different. Leonard’s Chili Palmer is muscle for loan sharks. We don’t need many more details to see Palmer wince at the Miami cold. He wears a leather jacket — an artifact from his Brooklyn upbringing. He functions in the new environs, but they aren’t his. Even so, it’s only a small step to learn of his grander plans for fame, fortune and a movie deal.
By contrast, Clancy’s Marco Ramius is inured of the cold. It is woven into him so deeply that he’s indifferent to the sting. He has his own deal to wrangle, but his isn’t about fame or fortune. Known by his comrades as “the Vilnius Schoolmaster,” Ramius is stoic, studied. He’s no less driven, but his drive emanates from principle and ethics.
Both Leonard and Clancy have the rare gift to make readers care about their characters. Even when their characters are psychopaths, narcissists or emotional menhirs, we want them to make out OK.
Both Clancy and Leonard were fortunate enough to realize great success during their lifetimes. Each writer had several of their novels recast onto the silver screen. Because their style of dialogue has an often clipped and staccato rhythm to it, their stories translate easily into film.
Similarly, their characters have depth and breadth sufficient to fill the screen. While guns are fired and things blow up, the pyrotechnics are there as mere adjuncts to the plot. Unlike so many forgettable Transformer-esque movies, the flash and bluster are driven by the plot, not the other way around.
Perhaps this is why these authors enjoyed so much popularity. They had the capacity to take us on long, uncertain journeys — journeys that seemed to be worth the time it took to take them. These were not just pages filled with action for actions’ sake. They were filled with action because their characters are people of action. They are heroic and flawed, studied and absurd.
While the genres elevated by the two egressed authors may not appeal to everyone, to those who love their stories a great void has been left on pages yet unwritten.
Ah, but we get one more taste of Clancy, as he was awaiting the publication of a new novel “Command Authority,” due out on Dec. 3. Opening the pages of that one will certainly be bittersweet.