Chili Palmer #1: Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard

Nobody writes openings like Elmore Leonard. Case in point: “When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio’s on South Collins and had his leather jacket ripped off.” You need to know about this because you need to know why there’s bad blood between Chili Palmer and Ray Bones, the guy who stole his coat and is now his boss–and has ordered him to collect $4,200 from a dead guy. Except the guy didn’t die; he went to Las Vegas with $300,000. So Chili goes to Las Vegas, one thing leads to another, and pretty soon he’s in Los Angeles, hanging out with a movie producer named Harry Zimm and learning what it takes to be a player in Hollywood.

Elmore Leonard is an author whose work I need to discover more of and having read the first Raylan Givens novel as well as now Get Shorty he’s already turning out to be one of my thriller writers. Like the blurb describes, nobody can write opening lines like this guy and he’s just so good. He finds a way of drawing you in, keeping you hooked and telling a compelling story that you won’t be able to put down.

Like many of Leonard’s novels Get Shorty has been adapted into a film and I decided that it would be a good idea to read the book before watching an adaption, unlike the case with the Raylan Givens novels, as to which I saw Justified first, and when I inevitably get around to reading the novel that inspired Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, it will be a similar story. Both are among my favourite films and TV shows respectively so it will only a matter of time before I check out the source material. Here the book explores how crazy Hollywood can get, by taking an outsider and putting him right in the middle of it. I was kind of reminded of Shane Black’s incredibly funny and awesome Kiss Kiss Bang Bang which puts an outsider in the middle of Hollywood, and Get Shorty just manages to really work.

The dialogue is excellent and Leonard really has a way of creating colourful characters that are even better than an already good plot. Chili Palmer is a fascinating character to read and a worthy lead, and everything really works well with the pace pulled off perfectly. It’s great to see how meta this book can get at times particularly with its focus on Hollywood and it’s interesting to learn that Leonard wrote this book based on his own experiences, managing to incorporate good jokes about the people that work in the industry.

The story focus on Ernesto “Chili” Palmer a man in Miami Beach, a loan shark who earned his nickname for his temper, and you can probably guess what problems this means for the character over the course of the book. He’s got a problem in that even though he’s part-Italian he can never become as well-off as the other full-Italians in the organization, because he also has some Peurto Rican blood in him which naturally means that he’s looked down upon. The characters that we meet are all really well crafted and instantly memorable as a result, with Leonard taking care to flesh out details like these that really makes things interesting.

Here we see Palmer struggling with both a drycleaner who is presumed dead in Los Angeles whilst trying to pitch a movie about his own life. The way this is handled and how both storylines are balanced is played remarkably well, and it’s great to see that Leonard manages to wrap this up as an effective standalone even if there are more Palmer-featuring novels out there which I will be checking out for sure.

Get Shorty is a heck of a lot of fun and I’m glad that I decided to get it when I saw it on my local Waterstones shelf because it’s not often that they have anything by Leonard. I may need to visit them again in the near future and hope that there’s more of his work there, because I can’t wait to check out what else the author has written.

VERDICT: 9/10

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