Elmore Leonard on Voices of the Dead

Article published on February 1, 2012.

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Detroit, 1971.

Harry Levin, scrap metal dealer and holocaust survivor, learns that his daughter has been killed in a car accident. Travelling to Washington DC, he’s told by Detective Taggart that the German diplomat, who was drunk, has been released and afforded immunity; he will never face charges. So Harry is left with only one option – to discover the identity of this man, follow him back to Munich and hunt him down.

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Elmore Leonard writes …

An important difference between Peter’s books and mine, he writes his prose on a computer while I put down the words with a ballpoint pen. That’s all right. David Mamet said, “I think there are people who are sufficiently driven that even a computer is not going to stop them from writing well.”

And Pete is sufficiently driven.

After twenty-five years running a successful advertising agency – all while reading hundreds of popular novels and making judgments about their worth – Peter has attacked the world of fiction with a vengeance, writing five novels in the past five years and his publisher is after him to write another, a sequel to Voices of the Dead.

The key to writing successful books is developing the right voice to tell the stories, one that’s natural to the writer and flows without strain or too many words and uses the voices of the people in the book, their attitudes, showing rather than telling who they are. Peter read a lot of Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck – not so much the popular names on the Times’ list – none of the authors who have a co-writer on the cover along with theirs, though much smaller. It causes you to wonder who actually wrote the book. Peter has read my ‘Ten Rules of Writing’ and it shows; he always leaves out the parts readers tend to skip.

I remember him giving me the manuscript of his first novel Quiver with some hesitation, expecting me to begin marking up the pages to underscore awkward sentences, tired expressions. But right from the start I liked Quiver and Peter’s dead-on style; no long-winded parts of it over-written, no show-off descriptions that say, “Hey, look at my writing.” I think my only suggestion was to move a key scene to a place where it would get more attention. Reading his work since I haven’t done much more than circle typos.

Four books later Voices of the Dead shows a remarkable leap in story content, a terrific plot told with Peter’s ability to write quiet scenes packed with suspense.

The story takes place in 1971. Ernst Hess, a diplomat visiting the German Embassy in Washington, is still a dedicated Nazi 25 years after the war, loving the time he was an SS officer in charge of a killing squad; and he’s still at it, looking for Jews he might have missed.

In the other corner is Harry Levin, who escaped from a Nazi death camp when he was a boy. Now Harry’s a scrap-metal dealer in Detroit who goes one on one with the cunning Nazi.

Read the first chapter and you won’t sell this scrap dealer short.

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