Elmore Leonard, the great US writer who has died aged 87, mastered every genre he turned his hand to, says Mark Sanderson.
By Mark Sanderson
20 August 2013
Elmore Leonard’s later novels were notable for what he left out of them as much as what he put in. In his essay "Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing", he wrote: “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” And yet, paradoxically, it was this that made him a writer’s writer – praised to the skies by literary luminaries such as Saul Bellow, Martin Amis and Stephen King – as well as a global bestseller.
In commercial terms his breakthrough book was Glitz (1985) in which a serial rapist stalks the detective who put him away. Finally, his pulpy popularity had caught up with his critical reception.
Leonard mastered whatever genre he chose to explore. His first five novels were westerns, but when the market for them began to shrink in the Sixties he turned his attention to crime fiction, starting with The Big Bounce (1969). In 1972 he read George V Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a comic tale of small-time crooks in Boston told mainly through dialogue, which proved to have a profound effect on him. The result was Fifty-Two Pickup (1974), his first big success as a crime writer.
If realistic dialogue and zany characters are two key ingredients of a Leonard novel, a third – often overlooked – ingredient is research. In 1978 the Detroit News (the city had been his home since 1934) commissioned Leonard to write an article about the local police. A brief assignment turned into a two-month stretch on the streets where an endless cavalcade of colourful creatures and incidents presented him with a wealth of material. City Primeval (1980) was his first novel to feature a cop as the protagonist. The four novels that followed in quick succession – Split Images (1981), Cat Chaser (1982), Stick and LaBrava(both 1983) – established him as a fresh voice in crime fiction.
Thereafter Leonard often used the services of a researcher to add realism to his tales of gambling in Atlantic City or the inner workings of the federal witness protection programme. He never lost his taste for the contemporary: Djibouti (2010) was an explosive story about piracy and al Qaeda in Africa.
On the other hand, two of his most recent novels, The Hot Kid (2005) and Up in Honey’s Room (2007), brought the Thirties back to life with warmly humorous accounts of a sharpshooting lawman’s battles with gangsters and their molls.
Leonard’s skill at leaving out the bits that readers tend to skip meant his books were often turned into screenplays by himself and others: Get Shorty, Jackie Brown and Out of Sight are three of the best movie adaptations (and well worth watching).
However, there is no shortage of ugly characters doing ugly things in crime fiction. Leonard’s unique ability was to blur the line between good and evil, to make the reader care for his quirky characters, and to do so with humour and compassion. The real twists in his work are in the people, not the plots.