Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules for (Criminal) Success and Happiness

Timothy Olyphant, star of TV’s Justified, reads a passage from the 1976 novel Swag.

A detail from an old cover of Leonard's Swag (Dell)

Elmore Leonard, who died almost exactly one year ago, was probably the most cinematic novelist in the English language, known for his unerringly spare prose and ear-pleasing dialogue. Despite this, his writing suffered notoriously bumpy transitions from the page to the screen. It wasn’t for lack of trying: More than two dozen of Leonard’s novels and short stories have been adapted for film or television.

Among the most successful of these adaptations, as I argued in this essay, has been FX’s Justified, which will enter its sixth and final season next year. To coincide with its publication of Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1970s, the Library of America sent The Atlantic this video of Timothy Olyphant, the star of Justified, reading a passage from one of those novels, Swag.

Published in 1976, Swag is the story of two men, Frank Ryan and Ernest “Stick” Stickley. (The latter would reappear as the protagonist of Leonard’s 1983 novel Stick, which was adapted into a very bad motion picture starring and directed by Burt Reynolds.) The two meet when Stick boosts a car from the dealership where Frank is working. Frank initially identifies Stick to the police but later, at trial, changes his mind, enabling Stick to get off. He does this in part due to the coincidence of their first names. As he explains, “I started thinking about that old saying about being frank and earnest. You be frank and I’ll be earnest.” But the principal reason Frank allows Stick to stay out of jail is that he’s looking for a partner with whom to undertake a series of armed robberies.

Frank has it all thought out, right down to a list of “10 rules for success and happiness” by which the two men should abide in order to make their criminal enterprise a success. (The initial title of the published novel was Ryan’s Rules.) It’s no coincidence that these rules bear a notable resemblance to the 10 rules on writing that Leonard later offered to the New York Times, which placed a heavy emphasis on concision. As Frank explained in his admonition number two: “Never say more than is necessary.” Olyphant’s reading begins as Stick is looking over these rules after a night of heavy drinking with Frank.

Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1970s is edited by Leonard’s longtime researcher and friend, Gregg Sutter. Also featured in the collection are the novels Fifty-Two Pickup, Unknown Man No. 89, and The Switch. The last of these was adapted into the new Jennifer Aniston movie, Life of Crime. My review will appear tomorrow when Life of Crime opens nationally.