Obituary: Elmore Leonard / Acclaimed writer of crime novels

Died Aug. 20, 2013


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If Elmore Leonard had the luxury of writing his own obituary, he would keep it a lot shorter than those who have devoured his novels about laconic cowboys, desperate lawmen and affable criminals for more than six decades.

"Elmore Leonard wasn't a patron saint or dean of crime writers or anything pretentious like that," Mr. Leonard would probably write. "He was a scribbler who understood the value of putting in his time every day writing from his characters' point-of-view.

"Mr. Leonard even got lucky a few times with a handful of alienated, but charming characters who spoke to our modern sensibility like old friends hitting us up for money. A whole bunch of bad movies, a few good ones and one undeniably great television series resulted from that output. That's all you need to know about that Son-of-a-Gun. The end!"

Mr. Leonard, 87, died Tuesday at his home in Bloomfield Village, Mich., according to his literary agent, Jeffrey Posternak. The cause of death was not listed, but Mr. Leonard suffered a stroke two weeks ago. He was working on his 46th novel.

"Life of Crime," an adaptation of his novel "The Switch," will debut at the Toronto Film Festival next month.

Mr. Leonard was born in New Orleans but spent his formative years in Michigan, a state that looms large in his novels. Detroit in particular provides Mr. Leonard's novels with a point of origin for the countless hit men, bounty hunters and corrupt characters who spread out over Appalachia, the bayous and the most godforsaken places in America in pursuit of their goals.

Mr. Leonard began his professional writing career in 1951. Though he worked as an advertising copywriter at the time, he labored over pulpy westerns early in the morning before heading to work. Publishers were immediately drawn to his spare, but character-rich writing style, which owed a huge debt to Hemingway and other stoic mid-century American writers even then.

Mr. Leonard didn't have to wait long for Hollywood to come knocking. Two of his early western short stories, "The Captives" and "3:10 to Yuma," were made into movies. He quit advertising in 1961, secure in the knowledge he could at least support himself as a writer of genre fiction even if Hollywood continually "butchered" his stories in his estimation.

He was no fan of "Hombre" or "Joe Kidd," though he loved the starring performances by Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood. Mr. Leonard adored "Get Shorty" and "Jackie Brown" and made his peace with the second version of "3:10 to Yuma." Most of the products that Hollywood turned out with his name on it disappointed him.

Though Mr. Leonard published "The Big Bounce," his first crime novel, in 1969, he didn't begin writing the books that would become his signature genre until 1974, several years after he read and was deeply influenced by George V. Higgins' classic "The Friends of Eddie Coyle."

Like the best American movies of the 1970s, Mr. Leonard's crime novels were full of terribly flawed protagonists who, like their cowboy predecessors, kept their chit-chat to a minimum. But when they did speak, readers couldn't get enough of them. Mr. Leonard wrote the kind of dialogue other writers drooled over.

The novels starring such characters as Chili Palmer, the loan shark-turned-movie producer, and Jack Foley, the loquacious bank robber, came rolling from Mr. Leonard's typewriter at an average of one a year for decades.

He wrote a murderers' row of genre-defining novels like "Get Shorty," "52 Pickup," "Out of Sight," "Rum Punch," "Killshot" and his 1985 best-seller "Glitz." Mr. Leonard constructed a world where morally ambiguous characters were far easier to root for than the law enforcement officers and bail bondsmen tasked with bringing them to justice, though the author would quibble with that characterization, especially if U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens of Harlan County, Ky., is overlooked in the discussion.

"He may solve the crime -- or commit it," Mr. Leonard famously told one interviewer in describing Raylan, played to swaggering perfection by Timothy Olyphant on the FX television series "Justified." Longtime Leonard fans have been rooting for Raylan since the short story "Fire in the Hole" and the novels "Pronto" and "Riding the Rap."

In an interview in 1997, Mr. Leonard attempted to impress upon me the ordinariness and banality of even the most ruthless bad guys in his novels -- the very quality that helped him maintain his interest while chronicling their various misdeeds and attempts at redemption.

"This is serious business," he said. "I see a bad guy as a normal person when he isn't being bad. When he's going to rob a bank or shoot somebody, he thinks, 'What should I wear? Is it going to be cold out there? I should call my mother.' Then the guy pulls a gun and shoots somebody."

As far as Mr. Leonard was concerned, his menagerie of swindlers, charismatic killers, con men, fallen cops, beautiful bounty hunters, amoral wise guys and virtuous deadbeats weren't irredeemable misfits at all. At the very least, we would see that they were scoundrels much like us if we only had the courage to open our eyes.

Elmore "Dutch" Leonard's gift to his readers was teaching us that there are more interesting questions than whether "crimes pays." Just because someone got away with the loot in the end didn't necessarily make him a bad guy.

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Tony Norman, a columnist and book editor: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG. First Published August 20, 2013 3:45 PM


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