Elmore Leonard, whose character- and dialogue-driven urban tales of con men, hustlers and killers such as “Glitz,” “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight” earned him a reputation as one of America’s greatest crime novelists and one of Hollywood’s favorite storytellers, died Tuesday. He was 87.
Leonard, a longtime resident of the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Village, Mich., died at his home of complications from a stroke, according to a statement from his publisher, HarperCollins.
With his lean, hard prose infused with unflinching realism, mordant humor, moral ambivalence and what one critic called “a seemingly inexhaustible cast of sleazeballs, scam artists and out-and-out psychopaths,” Leonard turned out dozens of best-selling crime novels that transcended their genre.
Frequently set in Detroit or South Florida, they showcased Leonard’s flair for writing pitch-perfect dialogue.
“Chili Palmer’s a talker,” Nick said. “That’s what he does, he talks. You should’ve hit him in the mouth.” — From “Be Cool.”
In reviewing one of Leonard’s books, British novelist Martin Amis once wrote: “Elmore Leonard is a literary genius who writes re-readable thrillers. [He] possesses gifts — of ear and eye, of timing and phrasing — that even the most indolent and snobbish masters of the mainstream must vigorously covet.”
The Michigan author scored more than his share of fans in Hollywood, where most of his novels were optioned or bought for films.
“You have to put him up there with the greats, like Jim Thompson and James M. Cain,” screenwriter Robert Towne told the Los Angeles 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 a newly married Detroit advertising agency copywriter 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 a string 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.
The slightly built, bearded and bespectacled author landed on the cover of Newsweek magazine, which hailed him as the best crime writer in America and “possibly the best we’ve ever had.”
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?”
“When I first hit the New York Times bestseller list in 1985 with ‘Glitz,’ I was worried about the pressure,” he told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in 2004. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve got to do it again.’ Then I thought, ‘I’ve written 20 books already. I’ll just continue to do what I’ve always done.’ So I didn’t have to worry about that anymore.”
On why his novels sold so well, Leonard simply would say: “I leave out the parts that people skip.” And his primary rule was, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
Despite the popularity of his novels among filmmakers, Leonard was seldom pleased with the results.
He often recalled going to a theater in Manhattan to see “The Big Bounce,” the 1969 crime drama starring Ryan O’Neal as a maverick Vietnam vet: “About 15 minutes or so into it, the woman sitting in front of me turned to her husband and said, ‘This is the worst picture I ever saw.’ I agreed wholeheartedly and all three of us got up and left.” (Neither did Leonard find kind words to say about the 2004 remake.)
Leonard had a change of heart about Hollywood with “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.”
In reviewing director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Frank’s 1998 big-screen version of Leonard’s “Out of Sight,” starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, Times movie critic Kenneth Turan wrote that what made the novelist “irresistible, aside from his unmatched gift for playful language, is his pleasure in finding it in unlikely places.”
“Leonard’s books are Oscar Wilde behind bars, drawing-room comedies set amid the bemused venality of a harsh criminal world,” Turan wrote. “Serious bad guys and almost competent cons crowd his pages as both heroes and villains, and a pleasing combination of tension and humor is one of his trademarks.”
Leonard was well aware of what he was up against when it came to Hollywood adaptations of his work.
“Everyone has always had trouble telling if my stories were straight drama or comedy,” he said in the 1995 Times story. “In this town, all they want to know is: What’s it about? All they want is the story. But what I do well is what happens between the story. The talk, the characters.
“I start with people, get them into situations — and see what happens. I send Chili Palmer to Hollywood and then I start thinking — does he become an actor? No, maybe he’s a studio executive or a producer. I never plot my books out.”
As Friedkin observed: “Elmore’s insights come from his narrator’s voice — that’s the real pleasure of his stories — and that’s hard to translate on screen.”
Leonard was born in New Orleans on Oct. 11, 1925. His father worked for General Motors, scouting car dealership locations around the country. His family moved to Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee before settling in Detroit in 1934.
Inspired by a Detroit Times serialization of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Leonard took his first stab at writing in the fifth grade by writing a play based on the World War I novel. It was staged in his classroom, with the desks serving as “No-man’s Land.”
In high school, where he played football and baseball, a fellow student gave him his lifelong nickname, “Dutch,” after Washington Senators pitcher Emil “Dutch” Leonard.
It wasn’t until he was majoring in English and philosophy at the University of Detroit after serving in the Naval Reserve in the South Pacific during World War II that Leonard began writing short stories.
Leonard married his college sweetheart, Beverly Cline, in 1949, and they had their first child within a year.
After graduating in 1950 he landed a job at Campbell-Ewald Advertising in Detroit, where he wrote advertising copy for Chevrolet. He also began writing short fiction for magazines on the side. He chose westerns, he said, “because I liked western movies.”
His first published story was “Trail of the Apache” for Argosy, a men’s magazine, in 1951.
With his full-time job as a copywriter and a growing family, Leonard realized that the only way he could write fiction was to rise at 5 a.m. Sitting at the living room coffee table, he’d spend two hours trying to write two pages on a yellow tablet.
“I made a rule that I had to get something down on paper before I could put the water on for the coffee,” he said in an interview published in “The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard,” a 2004 book. “Know where you’re going and then put the water on. That seemed to work because I did it for most of the ’50s.”
He sometimes continued working on his stories at work, writing on a tablet in his desk drawer, which he’d close whenever someone came in.
“The Bounty Hunters” was published in 1953. In 1960, armed with $11,500 from Campbell-Ewald’s profit-sharing plan, Leonard quit with the intention of writing full time. Instead, he bought a house and, with a wife and five children to support, spent the next few years writing freelance advertising copy and educational film scripts for Encyclopedia Britannica.
In 1966, however, 20th Century Fox bought the film rights to his 1961 western novel “Hombre,” which became a 1967 movie starring Paul Newman. That gave Leonard enough money to write his first non-western novel, “The Big Bounce.”
For many years, Leonard wrote screenplays to support his crime-novel writing. Among his numerous film credits: “Joe Kidd,” starring Clint Eastwood; “Mr. Majestyk,” starring Charles Bronson (Leonard wrote the screenplay for the 1974 film before writing it as a novel) and “Stick,” starring Burt Reynolds (based on Leonard’s novel).
But the screenplays, he told the New York Times in 1984, “were just a matter of trying to make money; it was work, that’s all.”
While his writing career was booming in the early ’70s, his marriage was crumbling and he was drinking heavily. In 1974, the year he moved out of the house, a friend suggested he try Alcoholics Anonymous.
“I got into drinking because I was shy, somewhat introverted, self-conscious, and it brought me out. It was the macho thing to do,” he told Playboy in 1995. “I drank from the time I was 16 until I quit when I was 52. And I had more fun when I was drinking than at any other time.”
In 1979, two years after his divorce, Leonard married Joan Shepard, who helped him during his alcohol withdrawal and read and critiqued his writing before it went out. She died of lung cancer in 1993 at age 64.
Six months later, Leonard asked out Christine Kent, who was in charge of the gardening crew that tended to his yard. He was, according to the Playboy interview, impressed with her knowledge of books and movies, and they were married two months later. They divorced in 2012.
When he was working on a novel, Leonard wrote every day — in his living room with a No. 5 Pilot Pen on unlined yellow paper before typing the handwritten pages on an IBM Selectric.
“If a day goes by and you haven’t done anything, or a couple of days, it’s difficult to get back into the rhythm of it,” he said in 1998.
Writing novels, he said, is “the most satisfying thing I can imagine doing. To write that scene and then read it, and it works … there’s nothing better than that. The notoriety that comes later doesn’t compare to the doing of it. I’ve been doing it for almost 47 years, and I’m still trying to make it better.”
McLellan is a former Times staff writer.