ELMORE Leonard's voice arrives like curling smoke. It seems to drift down the phone line from Detroit, Michigan, and float around me for quite a while. "I was in Australia a few years ago," he says, then his story begins to unwind. Something about a writers festival in Adelaide, landing in New Zealand first, "a journey around the coast" and what I think may have been confusion as to whether he and his wife were ever in Australia at all.
By the end of it I am wondering if this vague gentleman is the same Leonard whose genre-buckling crime novels paved the way for filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and shows such as The Sopranos.
Leonard doesn't strike you as a literary superstar. But that's what he is: the living master of the crime writing genre, as everyone from Tarantino to fellow authors Martin Amis and George Pelecanos have acknowledged.
Apart from their popularity on the lending lists of US prison libraries (and bestseller lists generally), Leonard's books were selected for the 2006 Hip-Hop Literacy campaign to encourage reading in high schools and colleges across the US: all of which indicates he's still pretty switched on to the street on for an old white guy.
I'm expecting him to be hard-boiled. Instead he just rolls along, exhibiting a generous propensity for conversation of almost any kind, although with the distinctly laconic aftertaste of the trademark humour of his writing, which is equal parts underdog and deadpan bullseye.
As well as his screenplays and short stories, Leonard has produced 43 novels in 54 years, rarely letting the quality slip below entertaining. Among them he has turned in at least 10 crime genre classics, notably Swag (1976), City Primeval (1980), Stick (1983) LaBrava (1983), Glitz (1985), Freaky Deaky (1988), Killshot (1989), Get Shorty (1990), Maximum Bob (1991), Pagan Babies (2000) and Tishomingo Blues (2002). Actually that's 11, with other books jostling for inclusion. His latest crime novel, Up in Honey's Room, came out late last year to mixed reviews. Leonard isn't feeling battered. He's halfway into writing a new one.