Elmore Leonard, whose character- and dialogue-driven urban tales of con men, hustlers and killers such as “Glitz,” “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight” earned him a reputation as one of America’s greatest crime novelists and one of Hollywood’s favorite storytellers, died Tuesday. He was 87.
Leonard, winner of an honorary National Book Award in 2012, died at his home in Bloomfield Township, a suburb of Detroit, from complications of a stroke he suffered a few weeks ago.
Leonard’s millions of fans, from bellhops to Saul Bellow, made all of his books since “Glitz” (1985) best-sellers. When they flocked to watch John Travolta in the movie version of “Get Shorty” in 1995, its author became the darling of Hollywood’s hippest directors. And book critics and literary lions, prone to dismiss crime novels as mere entertainments, competed for adjectives to praise him.
His more than 40 novels were populated by pathetic schemers, clever conmen and casual killers. Each was characterized by moral ambivalence about crime, black humor and wickedly acute depictions of human nature: the greedy dreams of Armand Degas in “Killshot,” the wisecracking cool of Chili Palmer in “Get Shorty,” Jack Belmont’s lust for notoriety in “The Hot Kid.”
Leonard’s novels and short stories have been turned into dozens of feature films, television movies and series, including the current FX show “Justified,” which stars Timothy Olyphant as one of Leonard’s signature characters, the cool-under-pressure U.S. marshal Raylan Givens.
“When something sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” Leonard often said – and critics adored the flawlessly unadorned, colloquial style.
On Tuesday, crime novelist James Lee Burke said Leonard was a “gentleman of the old school” who went out of his way to help him with his career even though the two had not met.
“His stylistic techniques and his experimentation with point of view and narrative voice had an enormous influence on hundreds of publishing writers,” Burke said in an email. “His work contained moral and political themes without didactic, and he was able to write social satire disguised as a crime novel, or he could write a crime novel disguised as social satire.”
Leonard spent much of his childhood in Detroit and set many of his novels in the city. Others were set in Miami near his North Palm Beach, Fla., vacation home.
One remarkable thing about Leonard’s talent is how long it took the world to notice. He didn’t have a best-seller until his 60th year, and few critics took him seriously before the 1990s.
It took Barry Sonnenfeld to finally show Hollywood how to turn a Leonard novel into a really good movie. “Get Shorty” was the first to feel and sound like an Elmore Leonard novel.
Then Quentin Tarantino took a turn with “Rum Punch,” turning it into “Jackie Brown,” a campy, Blaxploitation-style film starring Pam Grier. But Steven Soderbergh stayed faithful to Leonard’s story and dialogue with “Out of Sight.”
Writing well into his 80s, Leonard’s process remained the same.
He settled in at his home office in Bloomfield Township, Mich., around 10 a.m. behind a desk covered with stacks of paper and books. He lit a cigarette, took a drag and set about to writing – longhand, of course – on the 63-page unlined yellow pads that were custom-made for him.
When he finished a page, Leonard transferred the words onto a separate piece of paper using an electric typewriter. He tried to complete between three and five pages by the time his workday ended at 6 p.m.
“Well, you’ve got to put in the time if you want to write a book,” Leonard told the Associated Press in 2010 of the shift work that was befitting of his hometown’s standing as the nation’s automotive capital.