Elmore Leonard, one of the most prolific and beloved popular writers of the past forty-odd years, has died, three weeks after it was first reported he had suffered a stroke. He was 87.
Leonard was born in New Orleans, but his family settled in Detroit in 1934 when he was 9. He lived there for most of the rest of his life, claiming the city as his own personal literary territory. When the plots of his novels strayed beyond the Motor City, he hired others to visit those locations and do the research that, along with his celebrated ear for dialogue, helped him to achieve the lowlife verisimilitude of such modern crime-fiction classics as Swag, City Primeval, and Get Shorty.
Leonard began writing fiction in the 1950s while moonlighting as a copywriter for an ad agency. His first sale was a Western story, “Trail Of The Apaches,” which appeared in Argosy in 1951. For the next 20 years, Leonard concentrated on horse operas. In the 1990s, he appeared on The Charlie Rose Show, where the host told him that, by the 1960s, the field of successful, professional writers of Western novels must have dwindled down to “you and Louis L’Amour.” Leonard corrected him, saying that, actually, it was pretty much “just Louis.” Still, he actually did okay for someone specializing in a commercially moribund genre. Between 1953 and 1961, Leonard published five novels, the best-remembered being 1961’s Hombre.
Hombre was turned into a hit movie starring Paul Newman and Richard Boone in 1967. Leonard would later recall taking special pride in a scene that he felt had tempered the clichés of the genre with some practical, gritty realism, when the hero, having agreed to a parlay with the villain, refuses to honor their implied agreement not to shoot at him when he tries to take his leave.
Leonard’s short stories also inspired two Western films that have taken on the status of genre classics: The Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher film The Tall T (1957), and Delmer Daves’ 3:10 To Yuma (1957). Although Leonard wasn’t credited as working on the screenplays of any of those movies, they all had certain things in common that hinted at what was to come and why his work would always be especially attractive to Hollywood: Tense situations, clever plot twists, eminently playable dialogue, and especially juicy roles for whoever was lucky enough to play the bad guy.
In 1966, Leonard wrote his first crime novel, The Big Bounce, which went unpublished until 1969. (An undistinguished movie version was released that same year, to be followed by an undistinguished remake in 2004.) After the rural melodrama The Moonshine War (1969) and the screenplay for its movie version, the original script for the 1972 Clint Eastwood Western Joe Kidd, and the Western novels Valez Is Coming (1971) and Forty Lashes Less One (1972), Leonard returned to crime fiction in 1974, with 52 Pick-Up. That same year, he wrote the original screenplay for the Charles Bronson movie Mr. Majestyk, in which the bad guys make the fatal mistake of hassling the wrong melon farmer. He also wrote the film’s novelization.
In 1976, Leonard really found his style and subject matter in the novel Swag, a casually plotted, disarmingly funny slice-of-life about a couple of guys who decide to get into the armed-robbery business. It introduced the character Ernest Stickley, Jr., who would star in the 1983 sequel, Stick. Between those two novels, Leonard published most of the novels—including Unknown Man No. 89 (1977, a sequel to The Big Bounce), The Hunted (1977), City Primeval (1980), Split Images (1981), and Cat Chaser (1982)—that would make him a word-of-mouth cult favorite among fans of crime fiction and lay the groundwork for his emergence as one of those genre novelists whose name could be invoked reverentially by “serious” literary critics without crossing their eyes. Just to show that he still liked cowboys and had a sense of humor about it, he also wrote the script for a 1980 TV sequel to High Noon, with Lee Majors in the Gary Cooper role.
The two novels Leonard published in 1983, Stick and LaBrava, cemented his aboveground reputation as the thinking person’s crime novelist. (LaBrava also won Leonard the Edgar Award for best mystery novel of the year, while the troubled 1985 film version of Stick, directed by its star, Burt Reynolds, firmly established a pattern of Hollywood not always doing right by his material.) The days of paperback originals were over now, but Leonard did his best not to allow his higher profile to get in the way of either his productivity or his ear. His most notable later novels include Glitz (1985), which inspired a TV miniseries starring Jimmy Smits; Freaky Deaky (1988); Killshot (1989); Get Shorty (1990); Riding The Rap (1995); Pagan Babies (2000); The Hot Kid (2005); and Road Dogs (2009).
The golden age of Elmore Leonard adaptations in movies and on TV was probably the mid-to-late 1990s, starting with the 1995 John Travolta vehicle Get Shorty. The success of that film helped inspire Steven Soderbergh’s definitive 1998 Out Of Sight, as well as Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997), which was based on the novel Rum Punch. There were also the less successful adaptations of Touch (1997), Killshot (2009), Freaky Deaky (2012), and the Get Shorty sequel Be Cool (2005).
Beau Bridges starred in a 1998 summer TV series based on the novel Maximum Bob, and in 2003, Carla Gugino played the title role in Karen Sisco, an excellent but short-lived TV series spinoff of Out Of Sight. More recently, Timothy Olyphant has been playing Deputy U. S. Marshal Raylan Givens in the series Justified since 2010; the character first appeared in the 1993 novel Pronto (which was made into a TV film in 1997) and later appeared in Riding The Rap and the story “Fire In The Hole.” Leonard’s last published work was a 2012 novel centering on that character, simply titled Raylan.
Last November, the National Book Foundation presented Leonard with a medal honoring his “outstanding achievement in fiction writing.” The award was presented by Martin Amis, who once called Leonard “perhaps the greatest popular writer of all time.” Heady stuff, but when Leonard published his 10 Rules Of Writing in 2010, the man who used to research his Westerns by leafing through Arizona Highways stuck to advocating for directness and simplicity. “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue,” he advised. And most importantly, “Try to leave out the part that writers tend to skip.” It always worked for him.
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