A Novelist Who Made Crime an Art, and His Bad Guys ‘Fun’
August 20, 2013
Elmore Leonard in 2012 (Daniel Borris for The New York Times)
Elmore Leonard, the prolific crime novelist whose louche characters, deadpan dialogue and immaculate prose style in novels like “Get Shorty,” “Freaky Deaky” and “Glitz” established him as a modern master of American genre writing, died on Tuesday at his home in Bloomfield Township, Mich. He was 87.
His death was announced on his Web site.
To his admiring peers, Mr. Leonard did more than merely validate the popular crime thriller; he stripped the form of its worn-out affectations, reinventing it for a new generation and lifting it to a higher literary shelf.
Reviewing “Riding the Rap” for The New York Times Book Review in 1995, Martin Amis cited Mr. Leonard’s “gifts — of ear and eye, of timing and phrasing — that even the most indolent and snobbish masters of the mainstream must vigorously covet.” As the American chapter of PEN noted, when honoring Mr. Leonard with a lifetime achievement award in 2009, his books “are not only classics of the crime genre, but some of the best writing of the last half-century.”
Last year, the National Book Foundation presented him its award for distinguished contribution to American letters.
Mr. Leonard, who started out writing westerns, had his first story published in Argosy magazine in 1951, and 60 years later, he was still turning out a book a year because, he said, “It’s fun.”
It was in that spirit that Mr. Leonard, at 84, took more than a casual interest in the development of his short story “Fire in the Hole” for television. “Justified,” as the resulting series on FX was called, won a Peabody Award in 2011 in its second season and sent new fans to “Pronto” (1993) and “Riding the Rap” (1995), novels that feature the series’s hero, Raylan Givens (played by Timothy Olyphant), a federal marshal from Harlan County, Ky., who presents himself as a good ol’ boy but is “not as dumb as you’d like to believe.”
Approving of how the show was working out, Mr. Leonard wrote his 45th novel, “Raylan,” with the television series in mind. Published in 2012, it featured three strong female villains and gave its cowboy hero license to shoot one of them.
It was a major concession for Mr. Leonard to acknowledge his approval of “Justified”; he had long been candidly and comically disdainful of the treatment his books generally received from Hollywood, even in commercially successful films like “Get Shorty,” “Be Cool,” “Out of Sight” and “Jackie Brown” (based on his novel “Rum Punch”). His first novel, “The Big Bounce,” was filmed twice, in 1969 and 2004. After seeing the first version, he declared it to be “at least the second-worst movie ever made.” Once he saw the remake, he said, he knew what the worst one was. (Yet another movie based on a Leonard novel is to open this year: “Life of Crime,” based on “The Switch” and starring Jennifer Aniston and Tim Robbins.)
In an interview with the author Doug Stanton for the National Writers Series in 2011, Mr. Leonard explained why “Get Shorty,” the 1995 movie starring John Travolta, was a faithful treatment of his novel of the same title, and why its sequel, “Be Cool,” was not. The directive he had given the producers about his clever crooks — “These guys aren’t being funny, so don’t let the other characters laugh at their lines” — was heeded in the first case, he said, and ignored in the second.
Amused and possibly exasperated by frequent requests to expound on his writing techniques, Mr. Leonard drew up 10 rules of writing, published in The New York Times in 2001. “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip,” “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it,” and other tips spoke to Mr. Leonard’s puckish wit; but put into practice, his “rules” do capture his own spare style.
Mr. Leonard’s narrative voice was crisp, clean and direct. He had no time to waste on adverbs, adjectives or tricky verb forms, and he had no patience for moody interior monologues or lyrical descriptive passages. His dialogue, too, was succinct, as in this passage from “Riding the Rap”:
“ ‘She isn’t home,’ Raylan said.
“Bobby nodded toward the red Toyota in the drive.
“ ‘Her car’s there.’
“ ‘She still isn’t home,’ Raylan said.
“ ‘Maybe she’s asleep or she’s taking a shower.”
“ ‘When I say she isn’t home,’ Raylan said, ‘it means she isn’t home.’ ”
It takes only three words — “Look at me” — for Chili Palmer, the Miami loan shark in “Get Shorty,” to strike terror into the hearts of the deadbeat clients he hounds for late payments. “You never tell the guy what could happen to him,” Chili explains. “Let him use his imagination, he’ll think of something worse.”
The western novels and short stories he wrote before turning to urban criminals attracted their own following, as well as movie producers. “Hombre” was made into a movie starring Paul Newman in 1967, and “3:10 to Yuma” was adapted twice, in 1957 with Glenn Ford, and in 2007 with Russell Crowe. When asked about the vivid landscapes in his westerns, Mr. Leonard told how he did his “research”: from a magazine.
“I subscribed to Arizona Highways,” he said, “and that was loaded with scenery.”
Mr. Leonard never aimed to write the kind of “high plains” westerns popularized by Hollywood, he said; he preferred grittier mysteries set in the border states of Arizona and New Mexico and featuring Apaches and Mexicans. “I was always dying to write those border voices,” he said. He began including characters like Cundo Rey (in “La Brava”) and Nestor Soto (“Stick”).
As Mr. Amis noted, Mr. Leonard had an ear, and let his chatty characters have their say. “I always write from a character’s point of view,” he said, adding that he couldn’t even begin writing a scene until he had decided which character would be assigned the narrative voice.
More often than not, that character would be among his rogues’ gallery of killers, gangsters and con artists. Guys like Richie Nix, whose ambition in “Killshot” is to rob a bank in every state of the union; or Teddy Magyk, the psychopathic stalker in “Glitz”; or the unforgettable Chili Palmer, who goes to Hollywood to collect on a debt in “Get Shorty” and sticks around to make a movie.
Mr. Leonard called them “my guys” and delighted in their affable amorality and pragmatic professionalism. He took special pride in the technical skills these gun dealers, loan sharks, bookies, thieves, grifters and mob enforcers brought to their trade. They may be criminals, but they know their business and they honor their work ethic.
“He never condescends to these people,” Scott Frank, screenwriter on “Get Shorty,” told The Times in 1995. “He loves these people.”
“The bad guys are the fun guys,” Mr. Leonard acknowledged in a 1983 interview. “The only people I have trouble with are the so-called normal types. Their language isn’t very colorful, and they don’t talk with any certain sound.”
Harry Zimm, the schlock-movie producer in “Get Shorty,” is wary of Chili Palmer’s screenplay because, he says, “there’s nobody to sympathize with.” He asks, “Who’s the good guy?”
Mr. Leonard’s identifiable good guys (including those more-or-less honest civilians whose names you tend to forget) are keen observers and often strangers in town. To the ex-con hero of “Stick,” the Florida Gold Coast is alien country. “It was so different out,” he says. “All the lights, for one thing, all the headlights and streetlights, the neon lights, all other people’s lights that had nothing to do with you.”
Whenever one of these alienated protagonists is goaded into action, there’s no telling what he might do. “He may solve the crime — or commit it,” Mr. Leonard said of one such hero. “He’s easily misjudged, which is a quality all my main characters have.”
Good guys and bad guys both, the players in Mr. Leonard’s books are always energized by the big, bad cities where they operate. There’s a wicked backbeat in his urban novels that pulses through cities like Miami, Detroit, New Orleans and San Juan.
Atlantic City is its own sinister character in “Glitz,” preying on the tour buses that lumber into the city like blind cattle. “Two thousand a day came into the city, dropped the suckers off for six hours to lose their paychecks, their Social Security in the slots and haul them back up to Elizabeth, Newark, Jersey City, Philly, Allentown,” Mr. Leonard writes. “Bring some more loads back tomorrow — like the Jews in the boxcars, only they kept these folks alive with bright lights and loud music and jackpot payoffs that sounded like fire alarms.”
Although he was galvanized by the pace and patois of the metropolis, Mr. Leonard lived quietly beyond the city’s reach. During his 28-year marriage to Beverly Cline, which ended in divorce in 1977, he lived in Birmingham, a suburb of Detroit. When he got married for the second time, in 1979, to Joan Shepard, who died in 1993, he moved into a house seven blocks away. He and his third wife, Christine Kent, had a home in the Bloomfield Village area of Bloomfield Township, another Detroit suburb. That marriage, too, ended in divorce.
Mr. Leonard is survived by five children from his first marriage, Jane Jones, Katy Dudley and Peter, Christopher and William Leonard; 13 grandchildren; and 5 great-grandchildren.
Elmore John Leonard Jr. was born in New Orleans on Oct. 11, 1925. Nine years later, his father, an executive with General Motors, moved the family to Detroit. After graduating from high school in 1943, he did a two-year stretch in the Navy. Picking up his schooling at the University of Detroit, he graduated in 1950 and became a copywriter for a Detroit advertising agency.
Before going to work in the morning, he would try his hand at writing westerns. After selling his first story, “Trail of the Apaches,” he went on to write western novels and short stories throughout the 1950s and ’60s, including “Hombre” (1961), which was named by the Western Writers of America as one of the 25 best westerns ever written.
His first crime novel, “The Big Bounce,” set in Michigan, was published in 1969 and kicked off a series of them — including “Fifty-Two Pickup,” “Swag,” “Unknown Man No. 89” and the raw genre masterpiece “City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit” — that to his fans define urban noir.
“Glitz,” published in 1985, was his 25th novel and the breakthrough that flew to the top of the best-seller fiction lists and put him on the cover of Newsweek.
But he felt it was the movie “Get Shorty” that really made his a household name.
“After writing almost anonymously” for decades, Mr. Leonard noted in 1996, “I am what you call an overnight success.”
Did success spoil Elmore Leonard? No one who knew him would say so. The only thing slightly raffish about this soft-spoken, laconic author was his nickname, Dutch, and the cloth working-guy caps he wore in all kinds of weather. The name was borrowed from a baseball player (“I was in high school and I needed a nickname”), and the caps were a concession to the vanity of a balding man. In person and in private, he was much like his hero in “Split Images”: “one of those quiet guys who looked at you and seemed to know things.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: August 20, 2013
An earlier version of this obituary referred incorrectly to Mr. Leonard’s marital status. He was divorced from his third wife; he was not married. The earlier version also referred imprecisely to the location of his home, where he died. It is in Bloomfield Township, Mich., not Bloomfield Village, Mich. (Bloomfield Village is an area of Bloomfield Township, not a separate town.) An earlier version of this obituary also misstated the number of Mr. Leonard’s great-grandchildren. He had 5, not 15.