Ranking the Best Elmore Leonard Novels

Elmore Leonard is one of my writing heroes. He is a major influence on my own novels. The man’s prolificity makes it a challenge to tackle his entire catalog–he wrote 45 novels over a 60-year writing career. He published almost a novel a year for six decades. In some years he even published two books.

I have been working my way through the list of Elmore Leonard novels. Here is a rank of my favorites. As I read more of his catalog, I will slot them into the list accordingly.

  1. Rum Punch – Ordell “Whitebread” Robbie makes a fine living selling illegal high-powered weaponry to the wrong people. Jackie Burke couriers Ordell’s profits from Freeport to Miami. But the feds are on to Jackie—and now the aging but still hot flight attendant will have to do prison time or play ball, which makes her a prime “loose end” that Ordell needs to tie up permanently. Jackie, however, has other options. And with the help of Max Cherry—an honest but disgruntled bail bondsman looking to get out—she could even end up with a serious nest egg in the process.
  2. Swag – The smallest of small-time criminals, Ernest Stickley Jr. figures his luck’s about to change when Detroit used car salesman Frank Ryan catches him trying to boost a ride from Ryan’s lot. Frank’s got some surefire schemes for getting rich quick—all of them involving guns—and all Stickley has to do is follow “Ryan’s Rules” to share the wealth. But sometimes rules need to be bent, maybe even broken, if one is to succeed in the world of crime, especially if the “brains” of the operation knows less than nothing.
  3. The Big Bounce – Jack Ryan always wanted to play pro ball. But he couldn’t hit a curveball, so he turned his attentions to less legal pursuits. A tough guy who likes walking the razor’s edge, he’s just met his match—and more—in Nancy. She’s a rich man’s plaything, seriously into thrills and risk, and together she and Jack are pure heat ready to explode. But when simple housebreaking and burglary give way to the deadly pursuit of a really big score, the stakes suddenly skyrocket. Because violence and double-crosses are the name of this game—and it’s going to take every ounce of cunning Jack and Nancy possess to survive . . . each other.
  4. The Switch – Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara hit it off in prison, where they were both doing time for grand theft auto. Now that they’re out, they’re joining forces for one big score. The plan is to kidnap the wife of a wealthy Detroit developer and hold her for ransom. Looks good until they learn the lowlife husband doesn’t want his wife back. So it’s time for Plan B and the opportunity to make a real killing—with the unlikely help of a beautiful, ticked-off housewife who’s hungry for a large helping of sweet revenge.
  5. Get Shorty – Mob-connected loan shark Chili Palmer is sick of the Miami grind—plus his “friends” have a bad habit of dying there. So when he chases a deadbeat client out to Hollywood, Chili figures he might like to stay. This town, with its dream-makers, glitter, hucksters, and liars—plus gorgeous, partially clad would-be starlets everywhere you look—seems ideal for an enterprising criminal with a taste for the cinematic. Besides, Chili’s got an idea for a killer movie, though it could very possibly kill him to get it made.
  6. Killshot – Ironworker Wayne Colson has come to the real estate office where his wife, Carmen, works at the worst possible time: while Ojibway Indian hit man Armand Degas and loose cannon Richie Nix are there to shake down Carmen’s boss. Unable to help himself, Wayne steps into harm’s way . . . and sends the two malefactors out the door bleeding. Now the shooter-for-hire and his ex-con partner are after the Colsons and there’s little the state police and local law enforcement can do about it. The best the feds can offer is the Witness Security Program. So it’s coming down to just Wayne and Carmen—and ultimately to Carmen herself—to deal with two rough-trade misfits with murder on their minds.
  7. Stick – After serving time for armed robbery, Ernest “Stick” Stickley is back on the outside and trying to stay legit. But it’s tough staying straight in a crooked town—and Miami is a pirate’s paradise, where investment fat cats and lowlife drug dealers hold hands and dance. And when a crazed player chooses Stick at random to die for another man’s sins, the struggling ex-con is left with no choice but to dive right back into the game. Stick knows a good thing when he sees it—and a golden opportunity to run a very profitable sweet-revenge scam seems much too tasty to pass up.
  8. LaBrava – Joe LaBrava is an ex–Secret Service agent who gets mixed up in a South Miami Beach scam involving a redneck former cop, a Cuban hit man who moonlights as a go-go dancer, and a onetime movie queen whose world is part make-believe, part deadly dangerous.
  9. Glitz – Psycho mama’s boy Teddy Magyk has a serious jones for the Miami cop who put him away for raping a senior citizen—but he wants to hit Vincent Mora where it really hurts before killing him. So when a beautiful Puerto Rican hooker takes a swan dive from an Atlantic City high-rise, and Vincent naturally shows up to investigate the questionable death of his “special friend,” Teddy figures he’s got his prey just where he wants him. But the A.C. dazzle is blinding the Magic Man to a couple of very hard truths: Vincent Mora doesn’t forgive and forget . . . and he doesn’t die easy.
  10. Fifty-Two Pickup – Detroit businessman Harry Mitchell had had only one affair in his twenty-two years of happy matrimony. Unfortunately someone caught his indiscretion on film and now wants Harry to fork over one hundred grand to keep his infidelity a secret. And if Harry doesn’t pay up, the blackmailer and his associates plan to press a lot harder—up to and including homicide, if necessary. But the psychos picked the wrong pigeon for their murderous scam. Because Harry Mitchell doesn’t get mad . . . he gets even.
  11. Out of Sight – World-class gentleman felon Jack Foley is busting out of Florida’s Glades Prison when he runs head-on into a shotgun-wielding Karen Sisco. Suddenly he’s sharing a cramped car trunk with the classy, disarmed federal marshal and the chemistry is working overtime—and as soon as she escapes, he’s already missing her. But there are bad men and a major score waiting for Jack in Motown. And the next time his path crosses Karen’s, chances are she’s going to be there for business, not pleasure.
  12. Maximum Bob – Hard-ass Palm Beach County judge Bob Isom Gibbs enjoys sending even petty offenders away to do hard time—which has made the list of miscreants who want him dead longer than a fully grown Florida gator’s tail. And a good number of his ill-wishers are probation officer Kathy Baker’s clients, including young Dale Crowe and his psycho uncle Elvin. Suddenly Kathy’s got an even more daunting task than keeping BIG’s horny hands off her: keeping “Maximum Bob” alive. Because Gibbs’s many enemies seem to be willing to go to any lengths—be it death by amphibian or some more tried-and-true method—to permanently end the career of an oversexed, racist jurist who’s more interested in scoring than saving his own red neck.
  13. Cat Chaser – The last time Florida motel owner George Moran was in the Dominican Republic he was in a uniform and people were shooting at him. Years later he’s back looking for a girl he lost—and finding one he’d be better off without. But that doesn’t matter to George while he’s sleeping with beautiful Mary DeBoya—only when he discovers his lover is the wife of a former death squad general in exile with solid mob connections. Now George is bringing big trouble back with him to the Sunshine State—as his nostalgic trip down memory lane has tangled him up in a cat’s cradle of drug deals, swindles, vengeance, and murder . . . and a love that’s not only blind but lethal.
  14. Road Dogs – Jack Foley and Cundo Rey are road dogs: trusted jailhouse comrades watching each other’s back. They’re so tight, Cundo’s using his own money and his shark lady lawyer to get Foley’s sentence reduced from thirty years to three months. And when Jack gets out, the wealthy Cuban criminal wants him to stay in Cundo’s multimillion dollar Venice Beach house—right across from the one where Cundo’s common-law wife, professional psychic Dawn Navarro, resides. There will certainly be some payback expected, though Jack can’t figure out what. Sexy Dawn’s intentions are a lot clearer. But Cundo’s coming home earlier than anticipated, and Jack smells a double-cross cooking—the kind that could turn a road dog into road kill.
  15. Tishomingo Blues – Daredevil Dennis Lenahan has brought his act to the Tishomingo Lodge & Casino in Tunica, Mississippi—diving off an eighty-foot ladder into nine feet of water for the amusement of gamblers, gangsters, and luscious belles. His riskiest feat, however, was witnessing a Dixie-style mob execution while atop his diving platform. Robert Taylor saw the hit also. A blues-loving Detroit hustler touring the Southland in a black Jaguar, Taylor’s got his own secret agenda re the “Cornbread Cosa Nostra,” and he wants Dennis in on the game. But there’s a lot more in Robert Taylor’s pocket than a photo of his lynched great-grandfather. And high-diver Dennis could be about to take a long, fatal fall—right into a mess of hoop skirts, Civil War playacting . . . and more trouble than he ever dreamed possible.
  16. Mr. Majestyk – Aincent Majestyk saw too much death in the jungles of Southeast Asia. All he wants to do now is farm his melons and forget. But peace can be an elusive commodity, even in the Arizona hinterlands—and especially when the local mob is calling all the shots. And one quiet, proud man’s refusal to be strong-armed by a powerful hood is about to start a violent chain reaction that will leave Mr. Majestyk ruined, in shackles, and without a friend in the world—except for one tough and beautiful woman. But his tormentors never realized something about their mark: this is not his first war. Vince Majestyk knows more than they’ll ever know about survival . . . and everything about revenge.
  17. Be Cool – After a smash hit and a flop, B-movie producer Chili Palmer is looking for another score. Lunching with a record company executive, Chili’s exploring a hot new idea—until the exec, a former “associate” from Chili’s Brooklyn days, gets whacked. Segue from real life to reel life. Chili’s found his plot. It’s a slam-bang opener: the rubout of a record company mogul. Cut to an ambitious wannabe singer named Linda Moon. She has attitude and a band. She’s perfect. Zoom into reality. Linda’s manager thinks Chili’s poaching and he’s out to get even, with the help of his switch-hitting Samoan bodyguard. But somebody else beat them to the punch, as Chili discovers when he gets home and finds a corpse at his desk. Somebody made a mistake. . . .
  18. Freaky Deaky – Way back when revolution was the thing, bombs were Robin Abbott and Skip Gibbs’s bag—until their explosive “freedom of expression” was curtailed by some considerable prison time. Now the ex-SDSers are back out in the material world and looking to put their pyrotechnic skills to more profitable use. Their target is Woody Ricks, a dope-addled Detroit “rich kid” and aging former fellow radical who Robin thinks ratted them out to the Feds. But Motown cop Chris Mankowski also has his eye on Woody—albeit on another matter entirely—and until his recent switch to Sex Crimes, Chris was the Bomb Squad’s golden boy. So it’s only fitting that he’ll be around when the really nasty stuff starts going down . . . or blowing up.
  19. Bandits – Working at his brother-in-law’s New Orleans funeral home isn’t reformed jewel thief Jack Delaney’s idea of excitement—until he’s dispatched to a leper’s hospital to pick up a corpse that turns out to be very much alive . . . and under the care of a beautiful, radical ex-nun in designer jeans. The “deceased” is the one-time squeeze of a Nicaraguan colonel who’s ordered her dead for trying to infect him, and Sister Lucy’s looking to spirit the young woman away from his guns and goons. Plus Lucy’s getting ideas about spiriting away some of the colonel’s millions as well—and someone with Jack Delaney’s talents could come in very handy indeed.