He was the master of his genre, the Dickens of Detroit, the Chaucer of Crime.
Every novel Elmore Leonard wrote from the mid-1980s on was a best-seller, and every fan of crime stories knew his name. George Clooney was an admirer. So were Quentin Tarantino, Saul Bellow and Stephen King and millions of ordinary readers.
Leonard, who died Tuesday at age 87, helped achieve for crime writing what King did for horror and Ray Bradbury for science fiction. He made it hip, and he made it respectable.
When the public flocked to watch John Travolta in the movie version of “Get Shorty” in 1995, its author became the darling of Hollywood’s hottest young directors. Book critics and literary stars, prone to dismissing crime novels as light entertainment, competed for adjectives to praise him. Last fall, he became the first crime writer to receive an honorary National Book Award, a prize given in the past to Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller.
Few writers so memorably traveled the low road. His more than 40 novels were peopled by pathetic schemers, clever conmen and casual killers. Each was characterized by moral ambivalence about crime, black humor and wickedly acute depictions of human nature: the greedy dreams of Armand Degas in “Killshot,” the wisecracking cool of Chili Palmer in “Get Shorty,” Jack Belmont’s lust for notoriety in “The Hot Kid.”
Leonard’s novels and short stories were turned into dozens of feature films, TV movies and series, including the current FX show “Justified,” which stars Timothy Olyphant as one of Leonard’s signature characters, the cool-under-pressure U.S. marshal Raylan Givens.
Critics loved Leonard’s flawlessly unadorned, colloquial style, as well as how real his characters sounded when they spoke.
“People always say, ‘Where do you get (your characters’) words?’ And I say, ‘Can’t you remember people talking or think up people talking in your head?’ That’s all it is. I don’t know why that seems such a wonder to people,” he told The Associated Press last year.
Leonard spent much of his childhood in Detroit and set many of his novels in the city. Others were set in Miami near his North Palm Beach, Fla., vacation home.
He died at his home in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Township, where he did much of his writing, from complications of a stroke he suffered a few weeks ago, according to his researcher, Gregg Sutter.
Crime novelist James Lee Burke said Leonard was a “gentleman of the old school” whose stylistic techniques and “experimentation with point of view and narrative voice had an enormous influence on hundreds of publishing writers.”
Leonard’s work contained moral and political themes without being didactic, Burke said. “And he was able to write social satire disguised as a crime novel, or he could write a crime novel disguised as social satire.”
Leonard didn’t have a best-seller until he was 60, and few critics took him seriously before the 1990s. Now the Library of America, which publishes hardcover editions of classic American writing, is planning a three-volume set of his work.
He had some minor successes in the 1950s and ‘60s writing Western stories and novels, a couple of which were made into movies. But when interest in the Western dried up, he turned to writing scripts for educational and industrial films while trying his hand at another genre: crime novels.
The first, “The Big Bounce,” was rejected 84 times before it was published as a paperback in 1969. Hollywood came calling again, paying $50,000 for the rights and turning it into a movie starring Ryan O’Neal that even Leonard called “terrible.”
He followed up with several more fast-paced crime novels, including “Swag” (1976). Leonard was already following the advice he would later give to young writers: “Try to leave out the parts that people skip.”
In 1978, he was commissioned to write an article about the Detroit Police Department and shadowed police officers for nearly three months. Starting with “City Primeval” in 1980, his crime novels gained a new authenticity, with quirky but believable characters and crisp, slangy dialogue. But sales remained light.
Donald I. Fine, an editor at Arbor House, thought they deserved better and promised to put the muscle of his publicity department behind them. He delivered: In 1985, “Glitz,” a stylish novel of vengeance set in Atlantic City, became Leonard’s first best-seller.
Hollywood rediscovered him, churning out a succession of bad movies including the humorless “51 Pick-up” starring Roy Scheider. Its director, John Frankenheimer, failed to capture the sensibilities of Leonard’s work, and his ear missed the clever dialogue.
It took Barry Sonnenfeld to finally show Hollywood how to turn a Leonard novel into a really good movie. “Get Shorty” was the first to feel and sound like a true Leonard story.
Then Quentin Tarantino took a turn with “Rum Punch,” turning it into “Jackie Brown,” a campy, Blaxploitation-style film starring Pam Grier. But Steven Soderbergh stayed faithful to Leonard’s story and dialogue with “Out of Sight.”
Writing well into his 80s, Leonard’s process remained the same.
He settled in at his home office around 10 a.m. behind a desk covered with stacks of paper and books. He lit a cigarette and began writing longhand on the 63-page unlined yellow pads that were custom-made for him.
When he finished a page, Leonard transferred the words onto a separate piece of paper using an electric typewriter. He tried to complete between three and five pages by the time his workday ended at 6 p.m.
“Well, you’ve got to put in the time if you want to write a book,” Leonard told AP in 2010.
Leonard sold his first story, “Trail of the Apache,” in 1951, and followed with 30 more for such magazines as “Dime Western,” earning 2 or 3 cents a word. At the time, he was working in advertising, but he would wake up early to work on his fiction before trudging off to write Chevrolet ads.
One story, “3:10 to Yuma,” became a noted 1956 movie starring Glenn Ford. That same year, “The Captives” was made into a film called “The Tall T.” But the small windfall wasn’t enough for Leonard to quit his day job. (”3:10 to Yuma” was remade in 2007, starring Russell Crowe.)
His first novel, “The Bounty Hunters,” was published in 1953, and he wrote four more in the next eight years. One of them, “Hombre,” about a white man raised by Apaches, was a breakthrough for the struggling young writer. When 20th Century Fox bought the rights for $10,000 in 1967, he quit the ad business to write full time.
“Hombre” became a pretty good movie starring Paul Newman, and the book was named one of the greatest Westerns of all time by the Western Writers of America.
Soon, another Leonard Western, “Valdez Is Coming,” became a star vehicle for Burt Lancaster. But as the 1960s ended, the market for Westerns fizzled. Leonard wrote five more, but they sold poorly, and Hollywood lost interest.
Leonard was born in New Orleans on Oct. 11, 1925, the son of General Motors executive Elmore John Leonard and his wife, Flora.
The family settled near Detroit when young Elmore was 10. The tough, undersized young man played quarterback in high school and earned the nickname “Dutch,” after Emil “Dutch” Leonard, a knuckleball pitcher of the day. The ballplayer’s card sat for years in the writer’s study on one of the shelves lined with copies of his books.
After serving in the Navy during World War II, he majored in English at the University of Detroit. He started writing copy for an advertising agency before his graduation in 1950.
He married three times: to the late Beverly Cline in 1949, the late Joan Shepard in 1979, and at the age of 68, to Christine Kent in 1993. He had five children, all from his first marriage.
His son, Peter, followed in his father’s path, going into advertising for years before achieving his own success as a novelist with his 2008 debut, “Quiver.”
In 2012, after learning he was to become a National Book Award lifetime achievement recipient, Leonard said he had no intention of ending his life’s work.
“I probably won’t quit until I just quit everything — quit my life — because it’s all I know how to do,” he told the AP at the time. “And it’s fun. I do have fun writing, and a long time ago, I told myself, ‘You got to have fun at this, or it’ll drive you nuts.’”
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