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Elmore Leonard dies at 87; master of the hard-boiled crime novel

His ear for dialogue and stable of oddball characters made Elmore Leonard a bestselling author and one of Hollywood's favorite storytellers.

August 20, 2013|Dennis McLellan

Elmore Leonard populated his novels with con men, hustlers and killers, with names like Chili, Stick and Ordell. He plunged readers into a sea of urban sleaze, spiking his tales with mordant humor and moral ambivalence.
In stories often set in Detroit or South Florida, he betrayed a love for down-and-out characters and pitch-perfect dialogue. A line from his novel “Be Cool” makes a point in typical Leonard style: “`Chili Palmer's a talker,’” Nick said. “ ‘That's what he does, he talks. You should've hit him in the mouth.’ ”
Leonard’s dozens of novels and short stories helped raise the genre of crime fiction to a literary level, winning a global audience and inspiring such popular films as “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight.”
The author died Tuesday at his Bloomfield Township, Mich., home. He was 87 and had suffered a stroke three weeks ago.
 A bearded, slightly built man who looked a little like everyone's favorite English professor, Leonard held dear a personal list of rules for writing: Never open a book with weather, keep your exclamation points under control, and if it sounds like writing, rewrite it.

"If proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go," Leonard wrote in 2001. "I can't allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It's my attempt to remain invisible…"

The author who aimed to keep his writerly presence out of his prose started his career with a string of Westerns, some penned in early morning sessions before his day job as an advertising copywriter in Detroit.

In Hollywood, most of his stories were optioned or bought for films or TV shows, most recently the FX series "Justified."

"You have to put him up there with the greats, like Jim Thompson and James M. Cain," screenwriter Robert Towne told The Times in 1995. "His stories have an economy of language that gives his dramatic situations an incredible sense of ballast and gravity."

Director William Friedkin went even further, telling The Times in the same article: "Nobody who writes crime fiction is even in the same league with him."

Leonard was newly married when he launched his literary career in 1951, moonlighting as a writer of western short stories for the then-thriving pulp magazine market.

His first western novel, "The Bounty Hunters," was published in 1953. Four more of his western novels were published over the next eight years, while two of his short stories were being turned into movies — "The Tall T," starring Randolph Scott; and "3:10 to Yuma," starring Glenn Ford (and remade in 2007 with Russell Crowe).

After the market for westerns dried up in the 1960s, Leonard switched to writing contemporary crime novels, the literary genre that made him a worldwide critical favorite and earned him fans ranging from Nobel laureate Saul Bellow to President George W. Bush to director Quentin Tarantino.

Beginning with "The Big Bounce" in 1969, Leonard turned out dozens of crime novels, including "Mr. Majestyk," "Swag," "Gold Coast," "Split Images" and "Stick." His 1983 novel "La Brava" earned him an Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

But it wasn't until "Glitz," his 1985 novel about a psychopathic ex-con who wants revenge on the Miami Beach cop who put him behind bars, that Leonard cracked the prestigious New York Times bestseller list.

Time magazine dubbed the then-59-year-old author "The Dickens of Detroit," an unabashedly alliterative accolade that the self-effacing Leonard once wryly dismissed by asking, "Do you think if I lived in Buffalo, I'd be Dickens?"

On why his novels sold so well, Leonard simply would say: "I leave out the parts that people skip."

Despite the popularity of his novels among filmmakers, Leonard was seldom pleased with the results. Until it came to "Get Shorty," the hit 1995 film adapted from his acerbic novel about Miami loan shark Chili Palmer (John Travolta), who arrives in Hollywood to collect a gambling debt and winds up becoming a movie producer. The film, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and written by Scott Frank, "had my sound. I could hear my characters on the screen," Leonard said.

Tarantino, who based his 1997 movie "Jackie Brown" on Leonard's novel "Rum Punch" and optioned several other Leonard novels, has acknowledged "owing a big debt to Leonard."

"He helped me figure out my style," Tarantino told Playboy in 1995. "He was the first writer I'd ever read who let mundane conversations inform the characters. And then all of a sudden — woof! — you're into whatever story you're telling."

Leonard was well aware of what he was up against when it came to Hollywood adaptations of his work.

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