We’ve made mention (more than once, in fact) of the pleasures of the original illustrations created for The Folio Society’s handsome reissues of literary classics and modern favorites. But we also love their emphasis on new text, seeking out influential authors to sing the praises of works that inspire them. And the latest is a real must-read: to accompany their reissue of Elmore Leonard’s crackling crime novel (and Hollywood satire) Get Shorty, Folio brought in Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River, Shutter Island, Gone Baby Gone, and more of the best crime works of our time. And we’re happy to share an except with you:
FROM THE INTRODUCTION
A murder, a plane crash, a random mugging that wasn’t actually random, a heist that implodes, a child gone missing—these are staple inciting incidents of a lot of crime fiction. The event that clearly lights the match that leads to a race against time to stop the conspiracy, solve the homicide, get out of town before the net closes in, or find the child.
Here’s how Get Shorty starts: the mobster Ray ‘Bones’ Barboni ‘borrows’ the leather jacket of a loan shark (and diehard movie geek) named Ernesto ‘Chili’ Palmer. Chili retrieves the jacket by punching Ray in the face which leads, a dozen years later, to (stay with me) Chili investigating the faked death of a Miami dry cleaner, which brings Chili to Las Vegas not long before he shows up in the study of a B-movie Hollywood actress named Karen Flores to threaten a deadbeat producer, Harry Zimm, who leads him into the movie business, where he attempts to leave loan-sharking behind and become a producer—along with Harry and Karen—of the film Mr Lovejoy.
That, my friends, is an Elmore Leonard beginning. Where other novels zig, Leonard’s zag. Plot is not a series of bricks built upon bricks to erect a formidable edifice but a loose collection of steps one or two primary characters take down a path that crosses another path that leads to a building with a room where more people are gathered. When one of those characters goes out the back door and down a fire escape, the original character follows and enters an alley which leads to another path which winds further away from that first path, which nobody remembers anyway because it’s, like, ten paths back. In other words, Elmore Leonard’s plots feel less like plots and more like life.
Get Shorty gets so much right about Hollywood: the endless jockeying for status that afflicts everyone from studio heads to parking valets; the heartless consequences of aging in a town that adulates youth; the feeling that everyone has a script in their head, ready to pitch. (Not long after I moved out here, I ran into a nun who, seconds after she found out what I do for a living, pitched me her movie idea.) But Get Shorty gets nothing as right as it does the childlike love most of the people in the movie business have for movies themselves. You can’t successfully satirize something unless some part of you loves what you’re satirizing, and Leonard— at the time of Get Shorty’s writing, a victim of a fresh string of odious film adaptations—somehow retained his love of movies. Most of his books are peppered with references to cinema, as the characters try to find the line where their movie-influenced personas meet their true selves. But if the persona has been in play long enough, who’s to say the person is more real? In Leonard’s view, maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe we are all creatures of ceaseless reinvention. It’s not only an acceptable way of comporting oneself, it might be our cultural birthright. To be born in a celluloid age is to be born with one’s myths arrayed all around one, as easy to touch as one’s own skin (which the myths often become). Chili Palmer, the loan shark on a journey to reinvent himself as a film producer, is as much an Everyman for today’s world as Walter Mitty was for his.
Excerpted from Dennis Lehane’s introduction to the Folio Society edition of “Get Shorty” (out now). Used by permission.