Charles J. Rzepka, Being Cool: The Work of Elmore Leonard, (John Hopkins University Press, 2017).
Being Cool: The Work of Elmore Leonard is about style, or more specifically a particular writing style. While it does consider the experiences that shaped Leonard’s beginning it does so through the lens of his work. Charles J. Rzepka is an English Professor at Boston University and previously author of Detective Fiction, a reference work tracing the history of detective fiction from the early eighteenth century to the present. Rzepka has also written extensively on Romanticism including Inventions and Interventions: Selected Studies in Romantic and American Literature, History, and Culture. This combination of specialities is strangely complimentary in Rzepka’s work on Leonard who, despite claims to the contrary, incorporated high and low culture in his work. To be clear, this is a review of the 2017 reprint of Being Cool, not of the original 2013 release.
Rzepka spent a considerable amount of time interviewing Elmore Leonard with ‘several interviews comprising some twelve hours of recorded conversation’ forming the core of Being Cool which is available here. (vii). Rzepka could have written the definitive work on Elmore Leonard, however Being Cool is not that work. Instead, it is a fascinating account of ‘a single theme throughout Leonard’s work‘ (viii). Rzepka writes of being cool as a writers techne and theorizes being cool as a performative act which is ‘rooted in the body and expressed in work’ (12). Rzepka swings between technical literary terms and common terms bridging the divide between literary writing and popular writing with his application of the Greek word techne to Leonard’s popular crime fiction. The key to Rzepka’s thesis on the techne of Leonard’s work finds its full expression in Chapter two where Rzepka defines his terminology and in Chapter Three where Rzepka uses the pop culture terminology of jazz to ‘designate stages, styles and elements, as well as the patterns of combination and recombination’ to further define Leonard’s creative development (134).
Rzepka is most interested in Leonard’s crime fiction characterizing several novels as transitional novels and the first decade of Leonard’s career as a crime writer as ‘ interrupted at several points by work that harkened back to his Western phase’ (92). Rzepka also ignores various attempts to translate Leonard’s work onto film clearly more interested in the techne of Leonard’s text. Due to spacial concerns, and a subject whose career spans six decades, forty-five novels, and dozens of short stories, that Rzepka chooses to look at only the things that Leonard ‘exercised total control’ is a wise decision, but it leaves a gap in the literature (viii).
Perhaps the most dated aspects of Leonard’s work is his depiction of women and Rzepka has difficulty articulating a gender-neutral criticism. For example, when writing of Leonard’s early literary inspiration and the influence Hemingway had on his style Rzepka comments ‘it apparently took him awhile to realize that writing could be as conventionally masculine a pursuit as baseball or football’ (31). Rzepka contends that ‘gender may have proven the most resistant barriers to Leonard’s gifts of empathy’ but does not elaborate on what effect Leonard’s gender perspective has on his writing (63). While Rzepka does suggest Leonard produced stronger female characters after meeting his second wife who encouraged him to ‘move beyond beyond the supportive partners, the bratty bad girls, and motherly widows and divorcées comprising the female cohort of his previous fiction’ (120). Rzepka does not spend nearly enough time on the implications of this shift, or how it relates to the main theme of techne.
Instead of developing on Leonard’s improvement on feminine characterization over his career, or on the gender implications of coolness, Rzepka writes ‘techne takes a backseat to liberation of a traditionally feminist cast’ (120). This thesis that feminist narratives are the antithesis of being comfortable and playful in one’s own skin and profession, which Rzepka contends is the meaning of techne, deserves further evaluation. Instead of analysis Rzepka gives a list of women who he cites as practicing techne such as‘ painting (Franny Kaufman in La Brava), writing ( Angela Nolan in Split Images), law enforcement (Karan Cisco in Out of Sight) investment advising (Kyle McLaren in Stick), fight attending (Jackie Burke in Rum Punch), singing (Linda Moon in Be Cool), tail gunning (Louly Webster in Up in Honey’s Room ), modeling ( Kelly Barr and Chloe Robinette in Mr. Paradise), or film making ( Dara Barr in Djibouti)’ without any evaluation of what meaning these examples have when evaluating Leonard’s treatment of women in his work as a whole (158). Instead of confirming his argument that techne is secondary to feminist liberation Rzepka’s examples seem to push towards the opposite conclusion demonstrating that many of Leonard’s women, particularly in his later work, were fully rounded characters able to find something they were passionate about.
Being Cool is slightly out of date, and it shows in the conclusion. Rzepka ends with a reflection on what was at the time Leonard’s latest novel Blue Dreams and what Rzepka expected would be Leonard’s starring character the Ice Man. Rzepka confidently writes that ‘Whatever happens next, it’s likely the Ice Man will provide his creator with some serious fun before the book is finished, and more than a few shots at being cool’ (206). These words take on a melancholy tone when reading with the knowledge of Leonard’s death in August 2013 before he could finish the novel (206). Being Cool would only have improved if instead of leaving the reader with the question of what’s next for the author Rzepka had ended with the question of what’s next for his work.
Anyone who enjoys Leonard‘s writing would enjoy Being Cool. Rzepka exhibits a considerable techne of his own combining a playful critical voice with detailed close reading. Those interested in the craft of writing would are sure to enjoy Rzepka’s interpretation of Leonard’s style. As with all academic writing, the text is riddled with plot spoilers so non-specialists should take this into account. As previously mentioned reissue could have amended the conclusion to reflect current directions in criticism after Leonard’s death and taken a longer look at the gendered aspects of techne, but despite these quibbles Being Cool has aged remarkably well.
Bio: Anna Kirsch completed her English Studies MA at Durham University and is currently applying for a PhD. She is the Book Reviews Editor for the International Crime Fiction Association. Her thesis was on Environmental Ethics and Morality in Carl Hiaasen’s Crime Fiction, and her research interests include Crime Fiction, American Studies, Gender Studies, and Environmental History. Her Twitter is @kucerakirsch
David Geherin, Small Towns in Recent American Crime Fiction (McFarland, 2014) $ 29.95 www.mcfarlandpub.com Phone: 800- 253-2187. Reviewed by Anna Kirsch.
Small Towns in Recent American Crime Fiction by David Geherin covers an impressive list of emerging writers. Geherin has previously written six books on crime fiction including two finalists for the Mystery Writers of America Edger Allan Poe Award Scene of the Crime: The Importance of Place in Crime and Mystery Fiction and The American Private Eye: The Image in Fiction. In 175 pages and ten chapters Geherin covers: K.C Constantine, Daniel Woodrell, Dana Stabenow, Nevada Barr, William Kent Krueger, Steve Hamilton, P. L. Gaus, Karin Slaughter, Julia Spenser- Fleming, and Craig Johnson. Geherin devotes each chapter to an individual author and a summary of their crime series. This structure is excellent for referencing individual authors, but less useful for expressing a coherent argument on the importance of the shift in crime fiction to smaller regional communities.
Small Towns in Recent American Crime Fiction represents a considerable contribution to scholarship on emerging crime writers who are only beginning to gain critical attention, or in some cases, popular attention. Perhaps most notable is the author Daniel Woodrell who began to receive critical attention in 1999 after his Civil War novel Woe to Live On was adapted into a film by Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee and later in 2010 when Debra Granik adapted his novel Winter’s Bone into a film that earned four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. This cinematic attention sparked a reissue of his work in which gained popular attention after it made President Obama’s reading list in 2011. Woodrell’s rising popularity suggests that he is an author with the potential to become a touchstone author in crime fiction, although it is difficult to predict future trends.
Geherin traces the genealogy of small-town crime fiction beginning with his assertion that James Lee Burke and Tony Hillerman were among the first successful writers of small town crime fiction, but over the course of the book Geherin principally addresses the legacy of Tony Hillerman’s Navajo series mentioning his work frequently as an influence on a particular emerging author or as a touchstone for the kind of work they are engaging in writing that Hillerman exerts ‘ a major influence on writers like Nevada Barr, who like Hillerman celebrate America’s natural beauty, and William Kent Krueger, Steve Hamilton, both of whom write about remote places of natural beauty but also incorporate Indian characters and culture into their mystery novels ‘(114). Geherin goes on to cite P. L. Gaus as the most ‘personally influenced ’ author who took direct inspiration from Hillerman for his Amish detective series (114). Geherin additionally draws analogies between Dana Stabenow’s series set in a fictional park in Alaska to the reservation of Hillerman’s detectives Leaphorn and Chee.
Geherin writes in an engaging manner, but many of his conclusions are subjective, and he frequently relies on the persuasive style of his writing over substance. Geherin takes a certain passive- aggressive stance in his criticism to some of his chosen writers and there are points where the reader begins to question his claim to have selected ‘ten of the best of these writers’ of small-town crime fiction (1). Geherin does not reveal to his reader what criteria he employs to determine the quality of an author’s writing, even when it is clear that he has such criteria. An exception to this subjectivity is the chapter on Dana Stbenow where Geherin has a clear textual grievance in Stabenow’s inconsistent writing style. Geherin points to inconsistencies over the series such as when Stabenow lists the park’s population, where here series is set, as both 6000 and 8000 and when she changes character descriptions describing her detectives faithful pet as both a half-husky half-wolf to half- husky half- malamute and the detectives love interest six-foot-ten and six foot- four (52).
Geherin adds an eleventh chapter of additional readings covering six additional authors. This choice is surprising because Geherin does not claim to have written a comprehensive reference guide. Geherin uses the same structure as the preceding chapters, but when condensed into the space of a paragraph this organizational style is not as effective. While Geherin, perhaps sensibly, does not try an exhaustive list of authors using small-town locations, he again fails to explain his reasoning behind his choice of authors leaving the reader with only the claim that these additional authors ‘make excellent use of similar locations’ (176). The last chapter could have been used to investigate why crime fiction has shifted from urban to rural settings and why writers chose rural communities for inspiration after traditional big city settings became stale through over-familiarity. There is something here culturally that Geherin dances around in his writing, but does not fully articulate. This chapter is not particularly successful as a persuasive piece of criticism and is somewhat of a disappointment in an otherwise well-constructed book.
Small Towns in Recent American Crime Fiction would be useful to those beginning to familiarize themselves with any of the ten novelists covered because Geherin is a conscientious biographer of individual authors aware that ‘though small towns may share several features in common, they are not all alike’(6). However, it should be noted that those interested in a deeper investigation of the shift from an urban to rural settings in crime fiction would be disappointed. Whether Small Towns in Recent American Crime Fiction will stand the test of time is dependent upon a variety of factors, but it does serve as the opening entry of an investigation into the importance of place in crime fiction that will continue to produce rich critical social commentary.
Bio: Anna Kirsch completed her English Studies MA at Durham University and is currently applying for a PhD. She is also the Book Reviews Editor for the International Crime Fiction Association. Her thesis was on Environmental Ethics and Morality in Carl Hiaasen’s Crime Fiction. Her research interests include Crime Fiction, American Studies, Gender Studies, and Environmental History. Her Twitter is @kucerakirsch.