Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bestselling writer made crime fiction respectable

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DETROIT -- 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 bestseller, and every fan of crime stories knew his name. George Clooney was an admirer. So were Quentin Tarantino, Saul Bellow, 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, 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 travelled the low road. His more than 40 novels were peopled by pathetic schemers, clever con men and casual killers. Each was characterized by moral ambivalence about crime, black humour and wickedly acute depictions of human nature: the greedy dreams of Armand Degas in Killshot, the wisecracking cool of Chili Palmer in Get Shorty.

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 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 where he had a vacation home.

He died at his home in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Township 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."

Social satire

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 bestseller 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.

Leonard sold his first story, Trail of the Apache, in 1951, and followed with 30 more for such magazines as Dime Western, earning two or three 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.

When interest in the western dried up, he turned to writing scripts for educational 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 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 bestseller.

Hollywood rediscovered him, churning out a succession of bad movies.

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.

Quentin Tarantino took a turn with Rum Punch, turning it into Jackie Brown, a campy, Blaxploitation-style film starring Pam Grier. 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. 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 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.

After serving in the navy during the Second World War, 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.

In 2012, after learning he was to become a National Book Award lifetime achievement recipient, Leonard said he had no intention of ending his 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.'"

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 21, 2013 D3

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