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Saturday, February 25, 2006

Elmore and the Weather

The Guardian (London)
February 25, 2006 Saturday

Elmore Leonard not long ago listed 10 rules for writing: only the first concerns this column. It says “1. Never open a book with weather.” That is because, Leonard told the readers of the New York Times, “If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.”

He makes an exception for Barry Lopez, author of a number of books about the Arctic Circle. He might also have mentioned Charles Dickens, who makes the weather do a lot of work in Bleak House, and Dostoevsky, who opens The Idiot with bleak November skies. It could be a good rule, however, for the kind of taut, action-packed stuff Elmore Leonard delivers. Dashiell Hammett fails to mention the weather in the first pages of four of his thrillers.

On the other hand, Raymond Chandler opens The Big Sleep (1939) with “the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.” In Farewell My Lovely (1940) he leaves the weather (“it was a warm day”) till paragraph three. In both cases, the barometric detail is gratuitous.

Temperature really does matter in Elmore Leonard’s novel Get Shorty (1990) which opens with a stolen jacket and a sentence that begins “When Chili first came to Miami beach 12 years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters, 34 degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch. . .”

Tim Radford

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