Elmore Leonard: Crime writer whose hardboiled depictions of American lowlife sold millions

 

Once memorably described, to his own amused satisfaction, as "the poet laureate of wild assholes with guns", Elmore Leonard was in person an unlikely candidate for that peculiar honour. Bespectacled, slightly built and a fastidious dresser, Leonard conveyed an impression of scholarly asceticism somewhat at variance with his status as America's leading crime writer, though in fact it was one of the few traits he could be said to share with such illustrious – and similarly professorial – predecessors as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

Leonard, who has died from complications following a stroke he suffered at the end of July, wrote 45 novels and a number of screenplays in a career spanning more than 60 years. In his most celebrated works, he chronicled with wry detachment the activities of criminal characters whom it was definitely better to meet on the page than in the real-life Detroit backstreets or Miami waterfront bars which were the author's favourite literary settings. Although critics occasionally attempted to elevate Leonard to the pantheon of Great American Novelists, it was an attempt Leonard himself resisted, saying, "I've always considered myself a commercial writer."

Elmore Leonard was born in New Orleans, from where his father worked as a dealership location scout for General Motors. In 1934, after several moves throughout the southern states, the Leonards headed north to settle in the "Motor City", Detroit, Michigan, where young Elmore was enrolled at the Blessed Sacrament Elementary School, then the University of Detroit High School. As a pupil he demonstrated a greater interest in cinema than literature, enthusiastically recreating for his friends scenes from the latest Errol Flynn and Gary Cooper films. He was also a keen sportsman, playing American football and baseball for his school and acquiring the lifelong nickname of "Dutch" Leonard, after a prominent ball player of the day.

In 1943, having been rejected by the Marines due to a bad eye, Leonard was drafted into the Navy and posted to the South Pacific, where he endured an uneventful period of service with the SeaBees (construction battalions). On his return to civilian life he enrolled at the University of Detroit in 1946 to read philosophy and English literature. In 1949 he married Beverly Cline, and after graduating the following year began work at the Campbell-Ewald advertising agency, firstly as an office boy and then as a copywriter specialising in the Chevrolet trucks account. He also joined a local writing society and began to entertain the idea of writing professionally, initially with a view to earning "a little extra money, on the side."

The booming market for Western stories decided Leonard in his choice of genre, and after an early rejection he started to research the period thoroughly, at the same time dissecting the works of Ernest Hemingway for pointers on technique. In 1951 he sold a story, "Apache Agent", to Argosy magazine, which published it as "Trail of the Apache". He also secured the services of a New York literary agent who handled other Western writers and who over the next 10 years placed a further 28 of Leonard's short stories with various magazines, ranging from the two-cents-a-word pulps to the more prestigious (and better-paying) Saturday Evening Post. Two stories, "Three-Ten to Yuma" (1953) and "The Captives" (1955), were bought by Hollywood, resulting in the classic 3:10 to Yuma (1957) by Delmer Daves, with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, and The Tall T (also 1957) by Budd Boetticher, with Randolph Scott, Richard Boone and Henry Silva.

Leonard also wrote five Western novels in this period, beginning with The Bounty Hunters (1953), but by the time he came to write Hombre in 1959 the Western market had severely contracted, losing readers to the many popular Western shows then being aired on television. It took Leonard two years to find a publisher for Hombre, yet in 1961, despite that warning, he quit his job with Campbell-Ewald to write full-time. It was not a wise move; he published nothing for the next eight years and was forced to accept freelance advertising work and to open his own agency (again handling accounts for Chevrolet, among others). With a growing family to support he also turned his hand to scripting educational and recruitment films, and only in 1966, when 20th Century-Fox bought the film rights to Hombre for $10,000 (producing it the following year with Paul Newman, Richard Boone, and Cameron Mitchell in the cast) was he able to return to writing more or less full-time.

Leonard's career was now being managed by HN Swanson, a Hollywood agent whose clients included such literary heavyweights as Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler and James M Cain. After great persistence, Swanson succeeded in selling Leonard's first non-Western novel, a contemporary tale originally entitled Mother, This Is Jack Ryan, which was published in revised form in 1969 as The Big Bounce and filmed under that title the same year.

Leonard then began to aim his work more squarely at Hollywood, selling a script based on his 1969 novel The Moonshine War (filmed in 1970 with Richard Widmark in the lead), as well as original screenplays for the 1972 Clint Eastwood Western Joe Kidd (directed by John Sturges) and Mr Majestyk, Richard Fleischer's 1974 thriller starring Charles Bronson (which Leonard later rewrote in novel form). His 1970 Western novel Valdez Is Coming was also filmed, with Burt Lancaster in the title role.

While Leonard was now earning a living from writing, his work was in need of a new direction, especially as the Hollywood Western, in the early 1970s, was in terminal decline. That direction was provided by Swanson, who in 1972 suggested that Leonard read The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a first novel by the Boston lawyer-turned-writer, George V Higgins. Leonard was immediately struck by the raw power of Higgins' dialogue-driven, low-life crime classic, saying later, "I became more mature as a writer after I read Higgins. I learned to just relax and tell the story. His casual use of obscenities and 'true' dialogue impressed me." Swanson's intervention was timely in more ways than one, as Leonard's personal life was also drifting due to his heavy drinking, a habit acquired in the early 1950s.

In 1974 Leonard published Fifty-Two Pickup, a tough contemporary thriller with a blackmail plot, set in his hometown of Detroit. That year he left Beverly and their five children, and later joined Alcoholics Anonymous (he finally quit drinking in 1977). He worked steadily throughout the 1970s, producing a series of urban thrillers (and one ill-considered return to the Western) that enjoyed respectable sales and the occasional outstanding review. By the early 1980s he had developed a distinct style (or "sound", as he preferred to call it) in such works as City Primeval, Gold Coast (both 1980), Split Images (1981), Cat Chaser (1982), Stick and LaBrava (both 1983).

Leonard relied heavily on research, and in 1981 he began to employ the services of Gregg Sutter, a professional researcher, at the same time drawing on the expertise of Bill Marshall, a friend from college then working as a private investigator in Florida. Their contributions, together with Leonard's time spent with the Detroit police for a 1978 article, combined to give his novels the authentic, hard-edged tone that was beginning to attract not only increased sales but also wider critical attention. In 1984 LaBrava was awarded the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Allan Poe Award, and in 1985 Glitz sold more than 3 million copies; Leonard was featured on the cover of Newsweek. Two years later the former copywriter was appearing in advertisements for America Express, to say nothing of being voted one of the 10 Sexiest Men of the Year by Playgirl magazine ("But of which year?" the then 62-year-old Leonard is supposed to have quipped).

He had hit a rich seam, and with true professionalism he proceeded to mine it assiduously, bringing out a new book virtually every year, each of which worked a different variation on his basic storyline. Titles like Bandits (1987), Freaky Deaky (1988), Killshot (1989), Get Shorty (1990), Rum Punch (1992), Pronto (1993), Riding the Rap (1995) and Out of Sight (1996) all contained what were now the standard Leonard ingredients: a middle-aged, down-at-heel hero (often a small-time criminal or a marginal figure such as a bail-bondsman, a bookie or a loan shark) who chances to hear of some loose money, usually of the "hot" variety, circulating among characters whose sole deity is the Almighty Dollar. Blending guile with a judicious employment of violence, the Leonard hero, often helped (or hindered) by associates of varying degrees of criminality, then manages to orchestrate an escape – usually, though not always, in possession of a sizeable and untraceable percentage of the loot.

If his plots were, on the surface at least, sometimes unremarkable (and occasionally rather perfunctory), it was a failing which left Leonard unperturbed: "I'm not that interested in plot," he said. "I feel that plot will come, that something will happen. I begin with just a general idea [and then] develop characters and put them in." Indeed, it was his characters and above all their dialogue (often unexpectedly hilarious) that made Leonard's books so enjoyable. His "sound" was the sound of the streets, a tempo cool yet urgent, and which reflected Leonard's own love of jazz. "I'm very much aware of rhythm in my prose, certainly in my dialogue," he said in 1993. "The whole thing has a sort of beat to it, and I suppose it would be jazz-inspired, if anything."

Leonard's success was duly noted by Hollywood and resulted in adaptations of Fifty-Two Pickup (rendered almost unrecognisable as The Ambassador in 1984, with Robert Mitchum, and more accurately in 1986 as 52 Pick-Up, with Roy Scheider), Stick (1985), a complete misfire directed by and starring Burt Reynolds, and Cat Chaser (1989), with Kelly McGillis and directed by Abel Ferrara. Despite Leonard's gift for dialogue and the fluid ease with which he cut between the perspectives of different characters, his books seldom transferred easily to screen. Leonard understood the difficulties, saying, "dialogue isn't that important in a movie. Plot and story are important. Plot is not important in my [books] ... The producer reads my book and he sees scenes. And he sees dialogue that he thinks he can pick right up. But it doesn't work; it does not necessarily work."

Three adaptations that did work were Get Shorty (1995), with John Travolta, Gene Hackman and Rene Russo, Jackie Brown (1997), directed by Quentin Tarantino, who as a teenager had been arrested for stealing a copy of Leonard's 1978 novel The Switch, and Out of Sight (1998), directed by Steven Soderbergh, all of which sensibly followed the author's own free-form style rather than impose a rigid structure. Less successful were Paul Schrader's 1997 rendition of Touch, an oddball tale of religious weirdness written by Leonard in 1977 but not published till 10 years later), and a TV series based on Maximum Bob (1998) in which director Barry Sonnenfeld (who had made Get Shorty) unwisely inflated Leonard's original – and sufficiently bizarre – creations into a gallery of standard sitcom Southern grotesques.

Cuba Libre (1998), a story set during the Spanish-American War, with a transplanted cowboy as hero, heralded a somewhat quirky final phase to Leonard's career, in which he utilised contemporary events such as the Rwandan refugee crisis (Pagan Babies, 2000) and Somali piracy (Djibouti, 2010) as a backdrop for his characters' customary wheeling and dealing, while occasionally adopting historical settings such as the Great Depression (The Hot Kid, 2005) and the Second World War (Up in Honey's Room, 2007). Following Tishomingo Blues (2002), a picaresque tale of a high-diver embroiled with mobsters and Civil War re-enactors, Leonard published his first children's book, A Coyote's in the House (2004). More expected fare was provided by Be Cool (1999) and Road Dogs (2009), follow-ups to Get Shorty and Out of Sight, respectively, and the Detroit-set Mr Paradise (2004).

Adaptations of Leonard's work in this period included a truly dire remake of The Big Bounce in 2004 and an unsatisfactory version of Be Cool the year after. More successful, however, were a remake of 3:10 to Yuma (2007), with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, and the TV series Justified, first broadcast in 2010, which featured the adventures of US Marshal Raylan Givens, hero of Pronto and Riding the Rap. In 2007 an article first written for the New York Times in 2001 and which contained Leonard's best-known dictum ("If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it") was published in book form as Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing. His short stories were collected in The Tonto Woman and Other Western Stories (1998), When the Women Come Out to Dance (2002) and The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard (2004).

Asked what he would have done had his writing not brought him the popularity and high critical status he eventually enjoyed, Leonard replied, "My satisfaction is in doing the work, performing, not taking bows. I'd still write. It's what I do."

Elmore John Leonard, author and scriptwriter: born New Orleans, Louisiana 11 October 1925; married 1949 Beverly Cline (divorced 1977; five children), 1979 Joan Shepard (died 1993), 1993 Christine Kent (divorced 2012); died Detroit 20 August 2013.

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