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The Crime Writer's Just Deserts : Elmore Leonard's Rave Reviews, Best Seller, Big Bucks

February 18, 1987|MIRIAM BERKLEY | Miriam Berkley is a New York writer

His following has grown from the cult that read his Westerns in the '50s to what a Time reviewer called "a critical, bookstore-stampeding mass."

With a first printing of 250,000 copies, and a promotional budget matching it in dollars, his new book, "Bandits," is already on half a dozen of the nation's most important best-seller lists.

Not only is Elmore Leonard cleaning up financially--his per annum income for the last two years has been in the million-dollar range--but he is now the center of a storm of acclaim.

Listen to Walker Percy, himself an acclaimed serious novelist, in his review of "Bandits" for the New York Times Book Review: "He is as good as the blurbs say: 'The greatest crime writer of our time, perhaps ever,' 'Can't put it down,' and so on."

In 1978, Leonard's "Switch" was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award, the highest accolade of the Mystery Writers of America, for the year's best paperback. Four years later, "Split Images" was nominated in the best novel category, and the following year he won an Edgar for "La Brava." Leonard was the subject of a Newsweek cover story in 1985, and with "Bandits," he is receiving more media exposure in interviews from coast to coast.

Astonished by the Hoopla

How does all this hoopla strike Leonard? "It astonishes me," said the novelist, a trim man of 61 with a salt-and-pepper beard, who lives in a Detroit suburb. "I felt that it was possible that I would write a best seller some day, but because the kind of story I write falls somewhere between the popular best seller and the literary book that makes it on the author's name, it would have to be a very unusual story. I'm with a bunch of people who are just telling stories to entertain. For mine to suddenly jump out of the pack really surprises me, although I have been trying from the very beginning to do something different."

But his success didn't happen overnight. In 1966, at the age of 40, Elmore Leonard quit his job and turned to crime. In his writing, that is. This was after creating no fiction at all for five years, and a significant departure from the Western novels he had written successfully throughout the 1950s, until the market dropped out of the genre due to competition from movie and television Westerns. Leonard's new book at the time was called "Mother, This Is Jack Ryan," and his agent loved it. "Kiddo," the man said to him, "I'm going to make you rich."

It didn't work out quite that way. "Mother, This Is Jack Ryan" was rejected by 84 publishers and film producers. "Everybody thought," Leonard realled with a wry smile, " 'What a dumb story.'

"They all felt it was a downer. They didn't think this character, Jack Ryan, a former burglar who became a migrant worker, was very interesting. Editors would suggest, 'Let's make him a hero.' He wasn't even a returned war hero--he's a guy who couldn't get into the Army who wanted to be a major-league baseball player but couldn't hit a curve ball. That's the way we all are, and that's the kind of character I was trying to develop. I didn't call him an 'anti-hero,' I just called him a regular, normal person."

Eventually, with some changes and a new title, "The Big Bounce" did sell. And eventually it, and its 20 successors, of which "Bandits," published last month (Arbor House: $17.95) is the latest, did make its author rich.

And also along the way to succcess, when he was past 50, he divorced his first wife--they had five children together--and went on the wagon from alcohol. Seven years ago he remarried. "Bandits," which is set in New Orleans, the city of Leonard's birth, is different, not so much for its non-traditional hero as for the political element woven into its fabric. The protagonist, Jack Delaney, a likeable guy easily underestimated, once served time in prison for burglarizing hotel rooms and is now unhappily employed as a mortician's assistant. He returns to crime now less for the riches it may bring him than to correct injustice.

The plot is tied to a plan, devised by an idealistic and comely former nun, Lucy Nichols. The goal is to steal millions of dollars being privately raised by a murderous Nicaraguan colonel for the contra cause. To help her with the theft, Lucy enlists Jack's aid and he in turn brings in a couple of friends from prison. Lucy intends to use her share of the money to re-build a leper hospital in Nicaragua that has been destroyed by the colonel.

Leonard can understand that some people would consider "Bandits" a political novel. But it is not a political book, he said, "maybe because of my purpose. I want to entertain. This just happens to be the setting and the background of the story."

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