Elmore Leonard: King of crime capers who gave hookers and hustlers a voice, dies aged 87

Crime novels spawned several film adaptations, including Get Shorty starring John Travolta and Danny DeVito
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Elmore Leonard, the writer of gritty crime novels who was as prolific in his output as he was pithy in his widely celebrated prose, died at the age of 87 after suffering a stroke three weeks ago. A statement on his website said he died at his Michigan home surrounded by family.

While Mr Leonard’s preferred territory was low-rent America peopled by conmen, loan sharks, whores and hustlers, his place in the literary firmament was entirely of a higher category. He was given an honorary National Book Award last year while Hollywood perennially craved the rights to his latest book. Those that made it onto the screen have notably included Get Shortly, Out of Sight and Be Cool.

“I didn’t know it was possible to be as good as Elmore Leonard,” the author Ann Arensberg once wrote in the New York Times. Also in the Times, Martin Amis said while reviewing Riding the Rap that Mr Leonard had “gifts – of ear and eye, of timing and phrasing – that even the most indolent and snobbish masters of the mainstream must vigorously covet.” Even as his health faded, Mr Leonard never showed any inclination to stop. “I probably won’t quit until I just quit everything – quit my life – because it’s all I know how to do,” he told The Associated Press at the time of the book award.

“And it’s fun. I do have fun writing, and a long time ago, I told myself, ‘You got to have fun at this, or it’ll drive you nuts.’” His 47th book, Blue Dreams is expected out later this year.

To aspiring novelists, Mr Leonard offered inspiration, not least because success did not come early. After a phase of writing cowboy novels petered out, he earned his keep churning scripts for educational and industrial films while writing crime novels more on the less on the side. It was only when he was 60 that he had his first best-selling work, Glitz.  Thereafter, there seemed no stopping him. 

The joy of reading a Leonard book may lie first in savouring the unsavoury nature of his characters. “My characters are what the books are about… the plot just kind of comes along,” he once said. The ruthless could seem suddenly funny by his pen, the murderous ridiculous.  He famously tired of people asking what the secrets of his writing might be and responded finally by offering ‘Ten Rules of Writing’ to the Times.  The included, ‘Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip’ and ‘if it sounds like writing, rewrite it’.

He was not always inclined to return to Hollywood the love that it showed him, often declaring the movies of his books heinous misfires. In an oft-told story, Leonard allegedly said of a 1969 movie version of his book The Big Bounce that it was the “at least the second-worst movie ever made”. Then when it was made into a film a second time in 2004 he told people he knew which one was the worst.

The exception may have been the 1995 film adaptation of Get Shorty directly by Barry Sonnenfeld and starring John Travolta as Chili Palmer. The author would later declare that the film had been faithful to the book. He was less kind about its sequel, Be Cool. But Leonard also gave public praise to Quentin Tarantino for his reworking of his book Rum Punch into the film Jackie Brown.

Leonard had been married three times and had five children.