Chatting briefly with Elmore Leonard during a book signing in New York a couple of years ago, I asked the masterful crime fiction writer how he creates such colorful, believable dialogue.
"That's just how those characters talk, isn't it?" he offered. Making it look easy is part of his brilliance.
Leonard's son Peter also has a knack for putting pithy, entertaining lines in the mouths of quirky characters.
The younger Leonard, 56, an advertising executive, demonstrates with his debut novel, Quiver, a knack for tough-guy (and -gal) dialogue, skillful plotting and characterization.
Like his father, Peter plunges right into the action. One minute, Kate McCall is mourning husband Owen, a millionaire race-car driver killed in a hunting accident in Michigan. The next, readers are taken back 25 years, as the two meet cute at Farmer Jack's grocery store. Then it's a quick skip to Guatemala, where Kate, a Peace Corps worker teaching English to second-graders, barely escapes from corrupt local cops.
Here's where Leonard overdoes it a little: Kate is not only smart, funny, sexy and compassionate, she's a lethal one-woman army, too. But without that setup, her aggressive response to later threats would be much harder to accept.
The author introduces a gaggle of characters whose fates are eventually entwined in a criminal conspiracy that goes comically — and darkly — awry. At the center of these hoodlums is good-looking, overconfident Jack Curran, Kate's college boyfriend, newly released from prison and determined to reawaken that old love connection in the service of a criminal plot involving her teenage son Luke, still reeling from his father's death.
Like his father, Peter Leonard uses pop-culture references to add dimension to characterization — risky, as many readers may not get the allusions, and they seldom age well. Characters listen to Drive-By Truckers, the White Stripes and Hank Williams Jr.; eat at P.F. Chang's; talk like a Trekkie; watch Reservoir Dogs and Spider-Man 2.
He closes the book with the bodies of villains (and a nominal good guy) falling in rapid succession, not unlike the conclusion of a Martin Scorsese film.
It's a bloody and ultimately satisfying end to a first novel from an author whose voice sounds familiar. No, it's not as distinct or riveting as Elmore's, but has its own appealing accent.
Philip Booth is a Tampa writer who specializes in music, film and books.