9. Get Shorty, 1990
By 1990 the “Dickens of Detroit” had found a second home in Miami for his novels, which served as the primary setting for many of his works in the 1980’s. Get Shorty starts in Miami before going to his unofficial “third” home: Los Angeles. His debut on the West Coast is a great look at the people looking to strike it rich in Tinseltown. The book isn’t quite as overt or as funny as the very good 1995 film by Barry Sonnenfeld, but as a story it still works.
Chili Palmer, introduced to us in one of those long first chapter intros that has been a Leonard trademark for years, has dreams and aspirations of hitting it big in Hollywood. He has a good story, drawn mostly from real life, and characters like Harry Zimm, Karen Flores and Leo Devoe, our hapless, “dead” drycleaner who gets the story rolling, are among the people he encounters looking for a second lease on life. Or at least a brief flash of glory.
Harry Zimm, who is a notch or two below “B” movies, sees a chance at the big time with an original screenplay that has Oscar potential and an A-list star interested. Problem? He’s got limo drivers who deal drugs on the side on his ass over investment money he wasted trying to buy the “legit” property. He also has trouble making inroads to the “A” list star, Michael Weir, who happens to be Karen’s ex (Harry also used to be in a relationship with Karen) because he isn’t on the “ins” with mainstream Hollywood.
Chili’s impact on these characters is what keeps the story going and the individual scenes make up for some of the scenes involving Bo Catlett and Bones, who aren’t quite as interesting as the rest of the characters.
There are also some playful digs at Hollywood, who had screwed up Elmore’s stories once too often. By 1990, the only decent adaptations were the original 3:10 to Yuma, Hombre, and 52 Pickup. And 1989 saw the release of Cat Chaser with Peter Weller and Kelly McGillis. Another bomb. He also had to deal with the prima-donna side of Hollywood when trying to get LaBrava made because Dustin Hoffman was a tad difficult, shall we say. You think Elmore forgot? Guess again.
Get Shorty is definitely one of the most accessible of Elmore’s novels and a very good choice for a newbie looking to enter the Leonard canon.
Fun facts: Jimmy Cap is seen off-stage in this book, but he’s been seen or referenced in a few other novels including the aforementioned Cat Chaser and Raylan’s debut in Pronto, where he finally met his end.
Movie capsule review: The movie by Barry Sonnenfeld is, like a love letter to Hollywood. The more classic films you know, the better the experiences. References to Rio Bravo, Touch of Evil and James Cagney? Not bad. John Travolta does his performance in Pulp Fiction one better as Chili and Gene Hackman, Rene Russo and Danny Devito are clearly having fun playing Hollywood caricatures. The violence never seems to work all that well because the comedy is so good and so prevalent, but it’s a minor quibble. And hey, it’s better than Be Cool, which never happened. Grade: A-