Wednesday, April 16, 2014
The Associated Press
DETROIT – He was the master of his genre, the Dickens of Detroit, the Chaucer of Crime.
"When something sounds like writing, I rewrite it," Elmore Leonard often said.
In this March 1983 photo, Elmore Leonard sits by his typewriter at his home in Michigan. Leonard wrote in longhand on unlined yellow pads that were custom-made for him, and when he finished a page he transferred the words onto a separate piece of paper using the typewriter.
Pretty much every novel Elmore Leonard wrote from the mid-1980s on was a best-seller, and every fan of crime stories knew his name. George Clooney was an admirer. So were Quentin Tarantino, Saul Bellow and Stephen King and millions of ordinary readers.
Leonard, who died Tuesday at age 87, helped achieve for crime writing what King did for horror and Ray Bradbury for science fiction. He made it hip, and he made it respectable.
When the public flocked to watch John Travolta in the movie version of "Get Shorty" in 1995, its author became the darling of Hollywood's hottest young directors. Book critics and literary stars, prone to dismissing crime novels as light entertainment, competed for adjectives to praise him. Last fall, he became the first crime writer to receive an honorary National Book Award, a prize given in the past to Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller.
Few writers so memorably traveled the low road. His more than 40 novels were peopled 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 were turned into dozens of feature films, TV 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.
Critics loved Leonard's flawlessly unadorned, colloquial style, as well as how real his characters sounded when they spoke.
"People always say, 'Where do you get (your characters') words?' And I say, 'Can't you remember people talking or think up people talking in your head?' That's all it is. I don't know why that seems such a wonder to people," he told The Associated Press last year.
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.
He died at his home in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Township, where he did much of his writing, from complications of a stroke he suffered a few weeks ago, according to his researcher, Gregg Sutter.
Crime novelist James Lee Burke said Leonard was a "gentleman of the old school" whose stylistic techniques and "experimentation with point of view and narrative voice had an enormous influence on hundreds of publishing writers."
Leonard's work contained moral and political themes without being didactic, Burke said. "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 didn't have a best-seller until he was 60, and few critics took him seriously before the 1990s. Now the Library of America, which publishes hardcover editions of classic American writing, is planning a three-volume set of his work.
He had some minor successes in the 1950s and '60s writing Western stories and novels, a couple of which were made into movies. But when interest in the Western dried up, he turned to writing scripts for educational and industrial films while trying his hand at another genre: crime novels.
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Elmore Leonard, shown in this September 2012 photo, was a former adman who later in life became one of America's foremost crime writers.