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Elmore Leonard, pictured in 2012, standing in his home in Bloomfield Township, Michigan. Leonard, who died this week from complications from a stroke, has been lauded as one of the finest writers of his time. AP Photo / Paul Sancya
Elmore Leonard, pictured in 2012, standing in his home in Bloomfield Township, Michigan. Leonard, who died this week from complications from a stroke, has been lauded as one of the finest writers of his time. AP Photo / Paul Sancya

Elmore Leonard was the Dickens of Detroit

Once labelled 'The greatest American novelist never to be mentioned in the same breath as "Nobel Prize",' Elmore Leonard died this week, at the age of 87. Mark McGinness recalls a remarkable career.

"Leonard is dead, they said" was how a critic, The Guardian's Mark Lawson, claimed that Elmore Leonard would have preferred his passing to be reported. Spare, crisp, sardonic and almost poetic. This style earned Elmore Leonard the title "The Dickens of Detroit", made him rich and one of the most popular writers of his time.

He had always wanted to write. His first attempt at prose was a one-act play in the fifth grade. He had just read All Quiet on the Western Front. "A guy is hooked on the barbed wire [in effect a classmate on all fours under a desk]; someone has to crawl out and get him. That was it. His audience was the Mother superior.'

Born in New Orleans, the son of a General Motors dealership location scout, he, his mother and sister spent his early years moving about the South, until they came to Detroit when he was nine. This was 1934, and he never left. As a boy, he was obsessed with gangsters and baseball, and earned the nickname "Dutch" after professional pitcher Dutch Leonard. A Catholic, he credited the Jesuits with teaching him how to think. The Society of Jesus is unlikely to claim that they had anything to do with his mastery of the vernacular. One bad eye prevented him from joining the Marines, but he served the last two years of the Second World War in the South Pacific with the Navy. After graduating with a degree in English, he joined an ad agency. He claimed: "I used up all my adverbs when I was writing car catalogues for Chevrolet."

He would rise early to write, and in 1951, inspired by Hemingway and encouraged by the popularity of westerns, his first story, Trail of the Apache, was accepted by Argosy magazine. Over the next decade, almost 30 short stories would be published, two of which, 3:10 to Yuma and The Captives (as The Tall T) became Hollywood films. In 1953, his first novel, The Bounty Hunters, appeared. Four more followed, but the next novel, Hombre, took two years to find a publisher. When it did, in 1961, it was voted one of the 10 best westerns of all time. Bungled stagecoach robberies became a speciality. Leonard left advertising to write, but the sun had set for the westerns, and he published nothing for eight years. With a wife and five children to support, he returned to advertising, and scripting recruitment and educational films. When, in 1966, he received $10,000 for the film rights to Hombre (which was to star Paul Newman and Richard Boone), he became a full-time writer.

He turned from boots and saddles to crime with The Big Bounce in 1969. His savvy Hollywood agent suggested that he look at the work of George V Higgins, the Bostonian author of The Friends of Eddie Coyle. In 1974, Fifty-Two Pickup, a blackmail thriller based in hometown Detroit, appeared, and so was born the terse dialogue and dirty diction that became classic Elmore Leonard. Another element that changed his fiction for the better was when he quit drinking "on January 24, 1977, at 9.30am"; 1977 was also the year that his first marriage collapsed.

By the early 1980s (with City Primeval, Split Images, Cat Chaser and LaBrava), he had hit his stride with a style that was distinctly his. He preferred "sound", and it was the sound of his dialogue, rather than its content, that distinguished Leonard. In 1985, with his 23rd novel, Glitz, he became, as he wryly put it, "an overnight success". He appeared on the cover of Newsweek.

The other thing about Leonard was how he treated his criminals: "Bad guys are not bad guys 24 hours a day." His crooks often show themselves to be human. "A guy who robs a bank thinks, what should I wear?" The line between the law and the lawbreakers was not a firm one. He had the knack of making his villains attractive enough to make the reader sorry when they die. His work has been described as "a light, tight, manly read", yet he portrays strong woman with a sure touch. His heroine in Bandits (1987) is an anti-Contra ex-nun. Freaky Deaky - with the monstrous multimillionaire Woody, constantly drunk and lying on his back in his swimming pool - followed in 1988. It was his favourite novel, and thought by a number of his fans as his very best. In Killshot (1989), Richie Nix wants to rob a bank in every state of the Union. This and Get Shorty (1990), which made him a household name, confirmed his vintage form. Get Shorty was filmed, and help to revive the career of John Travolta as Miami loan shark Chili Palmer, chasing a debt to Hollywood, which he realised, was as treacherous as the criminal underworld. Martin Amis, one of Leonard's most ardent fans, described Get Shorty as "a masterpiece". He thought he made Raymond Chandler look clumsy, and regarded Leonard "as close as anything you have here in America to a national novelist".

His fiction was not confined to Detroit or even the United States. He did "travel". Glitz featured Puerto Rico, and Pagan Babies (2000) switched between Rwanda and Detroit. In Djibouti (2011) - dubbed a "Middle East western on water" - he ventured off the east coast of Africa, throwing together an American documentary maker, her 6 foot 6 inch African-American assistant, a crew of pirates, some Al Qaeda operatives, a posh Anglo-Arab and a gun-toting, champagne-drinking Texan billionaire. The delicious dialogue was still in evidence. ("Why do bad guys take themselves so seriously?" "Cause they're dumb.")

Leonard long had his eye on Hollywood. Yet often the dialogue that bounced so brilliantly off the page lost its zing at the cinema. When he saw the adaptation of The Big Bounce in 1969, he said that it was the second-worst movie he had ever seen. When it was remade in 2004, he said that he had seen the worst. More than 40 of his works were adapted to film or television: 3:10 to Yuma was filmed twice - half a century apart, with Glen Ford in 1957 and Russell Crowe in 2007. In 1997, Quentin Tarantino made Jackie Brown from Leonard's Rum Punch (1992). Tarantino had long been a fan: as a teenager he had been arrested for stealing a copy of Leonard's The Switch (1978). The critic John Sutherland believes that Tarantino's masterpiece Pulp Fiction was an extended, subtle homage to Leonard. He also regarded him (somewhat extravagantly) as "The greatest American novelist never to be mentioned in the same breath as 'Nobel Prize'."

The adaptation that brought Leonard the most satisfaction and much acclaim was the television series Justified. First broadcast in 2010, it featured the adventures of US marshal Raylan Givens, Leonard's hero from Pronto, Riding the Rap and a short story, Down in the Hole. As The National's Greg Kennedy put it: "Givens is a lawman straight out of the 19th century, whose no-guff brand of justice puts a target on his back with criminals and puts him at odds with his superiors."

He was so inspired by Justified that last year he revived his hero in Raylan, his 45th and last complete work. And typically, while Martin Amis enthused "for an absolutely reliable and unstinting infusion of narrative pleasure in a prose miraculously purged of all false qualities, there is no one quite like Elmore Leonard", the man himself said simply: "I've always considered myself a commercial writer."


The rules of writing

In a half-serious piece for The New York Times in 2001, Elmore Leonard shared his 10 rules for writing; or, as he put it: 'Rules Ive picked up along the way to help me to remain invisible while Im writing a book'. They are all worth repeating: '1. Never open a book with weather (The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people); 2. Avoid prologues (They can be annoying]; 3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue; 4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"; 5. Keep your exclamation points under control (You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose); 6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "All hell broke loose"; 7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly; 8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters; 9. Dont go into great details describing places and things; and 10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.' He then summed them all up with the most important rule': 'If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. And essentially, over six decades and 45 novels, Leonard practised what he preached.

Best-known works

Hombre (1961)

LaBrava (1983)

Glitz (1985)

Freaky Deaky (1988)

Get Shorty (1990)

Djibouti (2010)


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