WASHINGTON – Elmore Leonard, a masterful crime novelist whose razor-sharp dialogue and indelibly realized lowlifes earned him an unusual mix of mass-market appeal and highbrow acclaim, died Aug. 20 at his home in Bloomfield Township, Michigan. He was 87.
The cause was complications from a stroke, said his researcher, Gregg Sutter.
A diligent, unpretentious writer who worked in relative obscurity for many years, Leonard went on to influence a generation of crime writers whose sales may have eclipsed his but whose adoration of him never waned.
His lean, violent stories also served up choice film vehicles for actors including Paul Newman (“Hombre”), John Travolta (“Get Shorty”), George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez (“Out of Sight”), Charles Bronson (” Majestyk”), Roy Scheider (“52 Pick-Up”) and Pam Grier (“Jackie Brown”).
What made Leonard stand out among other chroniclers of crime and punishment was his voice — laconic, funny, unsentimental — and his ruthlessly coherent vision of life in the lower depths. As described in a 2008 Washington Post profile, Leonard’s world is “populated by cops who aren’t exactly good, crooks who aren’t exactly bad, and women who have an eye for the in-between.”
What galvanizes this gallery of rogues and scoundrels, more often than not, is a scheme — a kidnapping, con job or robbery that will bring quick and easy money. As it turns out, the money is neither quick nor easy, and the schemes are doomed from the start, spinning down unexpected tangents and threatened at every turn by absurdity.
In “Rum Punch” (1992), would-be thief Louis Gara spends so much time crafting his “Do not panic” stickup note that the bank he’s plotting to rob has closed by the time he gets there. In “Switch” (1978), two ex-cons abduct the wife of a rich, philandering builder, only to learn he has no intention of paying the ransom. They gain a new ally in his wife.
Time and again, bad guys pause in the middle of bad acts for extended bull sessions on music or clothes. Screenwriter-director Quentin Tarantino, who turned Leonard’s “Rum Punch” into the 1997 film “Jackie Brown,” cited the author as a key influence on his own garrulous movie thugs.
Taken as a whole, the Leonard oeuvre serves to demolish the myth of the criminal genius. And yet what his villains lack in intelligence, they make up for in mayhem. Beatings, torture and murder feature prominently in the author’s pages. The villain in Leonard’s first bestseller, “Glitz” (1985), is a psychopath who kills prostitutes and rapes old ladies.
Leonard, in marked contrast, was a quiet, reserved, owlishly bespectacled man who lived in the Detroit suburbs and sported Kangol caps and tweed jackets. He had no rap sheet; he never owned a gun; he gave up drinking in his early 50s after his first marriage crumbled.
Although critics tended to lump him into the hard-boiled detective school of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald, Leonard resisted the tag of mystery writer, pointing out that his work lacks anything in the way of puzzles.
The mystery was all in the books’ creation. “I develop characters, and I’m not sure where they’re going until I get to know them,” he told The London Independent in 1998. “In fact, I seldom know before I’m halfway through what the thing is about.”
For Leonard, the writing process was an extended audition, in which major characters could be fired if they didn’t sparkle and minor characters might suddenly receive star billing. “If I’m curious enough to turn the pages,” he said, “I figure it’ll have the same effect on readers.”
Elmore John Leonard Jr. was born in New Orleans on Oct. 11, 1925. His father, a dealership scout for General Motors, moved the family from city to city before settling in Detroit.
Nicknamed “Dutch” after a Washington Senators knuckleball pitcher with the same surname, young Elmore Leonard went on to serve in World War II. His bad eyesight consigned him to a job as store manager for the Seabees, doling out beer for the troops.
After graduating from the University of Detroit in 1950, Leonard married his college sweetheart, Beverly Cline, and took a job with a local advertising agency. He nurtured his fiction habit in private.
He woke at 5 a.m. every morning and churned out pulp Westerns for two hours before heading to work.
“I’d come down in the dark into the living room — that Michigan cold — and I wouldn’t even let myself heat the coffee water until I’d started writing,” he told People magazine. “I’d write in longhand, one word after the other in pencil on a yellow pad, then rewrite on the typewriter. I’m so damned glad I did it. I studied hard, I worked hard, I learned what I could and couldn’t do. I can’t do description well, so now I don’t do it at all.”
In 1951, he published his first short story in Argosy magazine for $1,000. His first novel, “The Bounty Hunters,” came out in 1954. Two of his early stories become popular Western movies, “The Tall T” with Randolph Scott, and “3:10 to Yuma” with Glenn Ford (both in 1957); the latter was remade in 2007 with Russell Crowe.
By the end of the 1950s, the Western market was saturated, so to support his wife and five children, Leonard turned to writing scripts for educational films.
Then, in 1967, 20th Century Fox bought the rights for his novel “Hombre” for $10,000. The resulting film, starring Newman as a white man raised by American Indians, was only a moderate box office success, but it gave Leonard the financial cushion he needed to reboot his fiction.
His next book, “The Big Bounce,” the story of an ex-con falling into the clutches of a psychotic young seductress, was rejected 84 times before finding a publisher. It found devoted readers, though, and it placed Leonard for the first time in his natural milieu — the modern American underworld — while planting the seeds for the great work of the 1970s and early 1980s, including “City Primeval,” “Split Images,” “Stick” and “52 Pick-Up.”
This was also a time of personal turmoil for Leonard. His first marriage ended in divorce, and his heavy drinking was a contributing factor.
“I’d been drinking since I was a kid,” he told People magazine, “and for 20 years I was a happy drunk. Then I started to get wild.” He joined and dropped out of Alcoholics Anonymous three times before he quit alcohol entirely. “I had my last drink at 9 a.m. on Jan. 24, 1977,” he said. “I think it was Scotch and ginger ale.”
Two years later, he married Joan Shepard. She died in 1993. His third marriage, to Christine Kent, ended in divorce. Survivors include five children from his first marriage; 13 grandchildren; and five great- grandchildren.
Hollywood had long warmed to Leonard’s taut, dialogue-heavy yarns. “The Big Bounce” was filmed twice. Leonard hated both versions. “Joe Kidd” (1972) featured Clint Eastwood as a bounty hunter tracking a Mexican revolutionary, and ” Majestyk” (1974) starred Bronson as a farmer battling the syndicate.
More successful were Barry Sonnenfeld’s “Get Shorty” (1995), about a loan shark who finds little difference between organized crime and the film industry, and Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight” (1998), in which a deputy U.S. marshal fights and eventually resolves her feelings for a handsome jailbreaker.
In recent years, Leonard’s work inspired the FX television series “Justified,” with Timothy Olyphant as a federal lawman busting heads in the hill country of eastern Kentucky.
Even as Leonard’s sales figures and box-office receipts mounted, he began winning kudos — much to his own surprise — from intelligentsia.
Walker Percy and Saul Bellow were fans. George Will gave out Leonard first editions as Christmas presents. Martin Amis declared that “for an absolutely reliable and unstinting infusion of narrative pleasure in a prose miraculously purged of all false qualities, there was no one quite like Elmore Leonard.” In 2012, Leonard received the National Book Foundation’s medal for distinguished contribution to American letters.
The author reacted to his cultural enshrinement with a mixture of pride and puzzlement.
When a professor rhapsodized about his “patterns of imagery,” Leonard’s initial response was, “What’s he talking about?” Leonard liked to quote the review from a librarian at a Connecticut prison: “While you ain’t caught on with the crack and cocaine heads, you have got a following amongst the heroin crowd.”
In truth, Leonard’s art is plain and seamless enough to escape more than crackheads. He supplies human behavior in all its variety, but he is as notable for what he leaves out: imagery, metaphor, thematic summations, even psychological motivation. Most conspicuously, he leaves out Elmore Leonard. “If I ever show myself in there,” he once declared, “then there’s something wrong.”
He expanded on this principle in an essay on writing for the New York Times. Among his injunctions: “Never open a book with weather.” “Avoid prologues.” And “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” His most important rule: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” His ultimate object, he wrote, was “invisibility.”
And yet his ear for American vernacular was unmistakably his own. The many hours he spent in Detroit bars, police stations and courtrooms gave him a sense of how people reveal themselves through elision and compression.
In his bare-bones dialogue, even conjunctions and punctuation drop away: “I had a tire iron we could find out in ten minutes.” “I do what she wants, she comes up with something else, I don’t talk to her.” In “La Brava,” a hoodlum tersely accounts for the money from his last heist. “I spent half of it on broads, boats and booze. The rest I just wasted.”
Asked to explain his facility with idiom, Leonard replied: “There is no secret. I listen when people are talking. I listen when they’re talking to each other, and I listen when they talk to me.”