Like so many other enthusiastic readers of crime fiction, I was saddened to learn earlier this week that Elmore Leonard--the author known as the “Dickens of Detroit” (even though he’d long moved away to a suburb of Michigan’s largest city)--had died at age 87, after suffering a stroke last month. His novels had for so many years, and so consistently, fed my reading addiction (over the course of the last six decades, beginning before I was born, he’d produced almost a book a year!), that it was near-unthinkable to conceive of his prose spigot being turned off by such a bit player as mortality.
Despite the fact that I resided in Detroit for a while during the mid-1980s, and attended an abundance of literary events there, I never had the opportunity to meet Leonard. However, not long before I moved to the Motor City, I did correspond with him. At the time, I was employed in my first reporting job out of college, with Portland, Oregon’s “alternative newspaper,” Willamette Week, and as part of my efforts to assemble a special crime fiction-themed edition of that paper’s entertainment section, I sent letters out to a variety of mystery and thriller novelists whose names were familiar to me, even if--as was then the case with Leonard--I had not yet read much of their work. I asked each of the authors for suggestions of recent books in the genre that they’d recommend to others.
Leonard was generous enough to reply in a letter dated April 28, 1981. He specifically recommended Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park and George V. Higgins’ Rat on Fire, and added that “My favorite suspense writers are Ira Levin [A Kiss Before Dying] and William Goldman [Marathon Man].” He also sent me a copy of Gold Coast, one of his earliest crime novels (after he’d made a modest reputation for himself by penning tales of the Old West), and apparently the last of Leonard’s works to be published straight to paperback in the United States. At the end of his letter, he wrote:
I’m enclosing my latest, which came out in December but was easily missed on the racks.Hah! Looking back now, it’s hard to imagine that readers once passed over Leonard’s latest novels without so much as a howdy-do. But in 1980, they apparently did, and he seemed to take that fact in stride. Without any obvious resentment. Without giving up on his dream of being a writer. The New Orleans-born Leonard (or “Dutch,” as he preferred to be called, having gained the nickname from baseball pitcher Dutch Leonard) had spent many years, after graduating from the University of Detroit, churning out copy for a Detroit advertising agency before his first novel, a Western titled The Bounty Hunters, was published in 1953. Thirteen more years would pass before the debut of his initial crime novel, The Big Bounce, and it wasn’t until the 1990s--when he was beginning his seventh decade--that Leonard’s name became widely recognized, thanks in large part to director Barry Sonnenfeld’s film adaptation of his 1990 Hollywood satire, Get Shorty.
By the time he died this week, Leonard had come a hell of a long distance from the era when his books might be “easily missed on the racks.” Writing his novels first in longhand, and then reproducing them on an electric typewriter (he had “no desire to learn how to use a computer,” according to Detroit’s Metro Times), Leonard had given his fans such best-selling yarns as Glitz (1985), Rum Punch (a 1992 novel adapted for the silver screen as Jackie Brown), Tishomingo Blues (2002), and The Hot Kid (2005). Many followers of this octogenarian author, though, were equally if not more fond of other entries in his oeuvre, be they 52 Pick-Up (1974), Swag (1976), or my personal fave, LaBrava (1983), which won the 1984 Edgar Award for Best Novel.
More than 20 of his 46 novels were made into big-screen or TV movies (with both The Big Bounce and 52 Pick-Up being filmed twice), and three provided the inspirations for television series: Maximum Bob, a broadly comic, 1991 treat that became a short-lived show starring Beau Bridges and Liz Vassey; Out of Sight (1996), which, after serving as the basis for a 1998 film of the same name starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, became the jumping-off point for Karen Sisco, a Florida-set drama featuring Carla Gugino as a sexy young U.S. deputy marshal; and of course Pronto (1993) and its sequel, Riding the Rap (1995), which developed the character of cowboy hat-wearing Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, played by Timothy Olyphant in the FX-TV series Justified. Leonard’s action-oriented, dialogue-rich tales lent themselves to Hollywood treatment.
However, it was his novels--sparely composed but richly evocative, casually humorous, and unaffected in their intent--that kept his name in the news and will be best remembered by future generations. “His flair is hard to borrow,” Janet Maslin observed this week in The New York Times, “because so much of it depends on what he did not write, not what he did. As with a Japanese line drawing, the bare space is as meaningful as the marks that have been made. There was great elegance to his elision.” New York magazine’s Matt Zoller Seitz adds: “Anybody in the last four, maybe five decades who has tried to write colorful but believable crime fiction with characters who behave realistically and don’t sound phony has either studied Leonard, or failed because they should have studied him more.” Leonard long ago committed his “10 Rules of Writing” (which include some caveats) to print, but even memorizing those restrictions cannot make a mediocre fictionist a champion, and slavish adherence to some of his personal rules (“Avoid detailed descriptions of characters”; “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip”) might stymie the development of authors with greater ambitions or bore readers who want something beyond Leonard-lite.
It was good to see Elmore Leonard’s persistent efforts honored, even if such recognition didn’t come until late in his long life. In 1992 the Mystery Writers of America presented him with its Grand Master Award for “lifetime achievement and consistent quality.” He was given the Crime Writers’ Association’s Diamond Dagger award in 2006, the F. Scott Fitzgerald award in 2008, and the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009, and in 2012, the National Book Foundation presented him its prize for distinguished contribution to American letters.
Yet it’s readers who gave him his greatest rewards just by picking up his new books, quoting from them (his opening lines were often memorable) and passing them along to like-minded crime-fiction fans. I asked a few dozen of those readers--primarily crime novelists, but some critics/bloggers too--for their assessments of Leonard’s career and their selections of favorite books from his body of work. Half of their responses are posted below; the rest will appear on this page within the next couple of days. And everyone reading this tribute to Leonard should feel free to add their own thoughts on his achievements in the Comments section at the end of this post.
Elmore Leonard with fellow author Ace Atkins
Ace Atkins, author of The Broken Places and Robert B. Parker’s Wonderland, the latter of which continues Parker’s popular series about Boston private eye Spenser:
I don’t think a day passes that I don’t go back to a passage of Elmore’s work for inspiration. I am especially drawn to his Westerns and other period pieces. I think 2005’s The Hot Kid was his masterwork. It’s a novel about storytelling and myth-making in America. The way he’d change viewpoints and voices and reference points to tell the same story was incredible. It reminded me of Faulkner’s work. There has been a lot written and said about his 10 Rules. But I take the list as gospel and cringe at my early work that didn’t follow his advice. His professional writing was devoid of all the pretentiousness and tricks that often get rewarded in literature. Like Hemingway, he told it straight and true, and in turn, his novels reflected real life.
Over the years, I got to spend some time with Elmore here in Oxford, Mississippi, and also in France. He was a complete rock star in France. When we pulled into the train station in Sete, he was greeted by reporters from every major newspaper. Elmore Leonard had arrived.
A day later I got a note from Leonard telling me he’d really enjoyed the profile of the CIA agent and that I should keep working on the novel. If it found a publisher he offered to read it in galleys, and if he liked it, he would write me a blurb.
That was all the encouragement I needed. I finished the book a year later. It found a publisher. Leonard liked the book and did blurb it.
The thing that stuck with me was here was a guy who had labored long and hard to find success at writing. He wrote for 10 years before he could quit his day-job writing advertising copy at an agency in Detroit. Ten years of getting up early, pounding away on a typewriter in his unheated basement. Ten years of writing Westerns, because they could sell. Paperback originals, no reviews, lousy pay, but they sold. The Westerns are great, by the way, offering his familiar terse dialogue, the same hyper-realistic characters and situations--no dusty-streets shootouts or fanning a six-shooter. The real shit, from a guy who knew people and knew what mattered. Thirty years later he’s on top of the world. Big-shot reviewers are talking like he’s John Cheever or John Irving--as if that was a compliment. No matter, the reviewers thought it was. On top of the world, and he sits in his hotel room on book tour while a sweaty wannabe asks him rude questions. Then he actually helps the kid.
We kept up an intermittent correspondence for the last 25 years. He called to compliment me once on a series of good reviews of one of my books. I complained--once an asshole, always an asshole--that my hometown paper, the L.A. Times had slammed it. He laughed and told me to never take it personally. He recounted a scathing review one of his books had gotten. He recited it from memory and it was ugly, a personal attack on the man himself, the reviewer accusing Leonard of believing his own press, putting on airs. Total bullshit, of course. Leonard told me that a week after the review hit, the reviewer had requested an interview when he came through town on tour. “What did you do?” I said. “I gave him the interview,” said Leonard. “You gotta remember,” he said, “your first job is to write the book. Then, your job is to promote the book. So you smile and smoke a cigarette and you do the interview.”
I’ll miss the fact that there will be no new book from him this year, but treasure the backlist and the fleeting contact with a fine writer and an even better man.
Bill Crider, author of the Dan Rhodes mystery series (most recently including Compound Murder) and persistent blogger:
Way back in 1971, I was so impressed by the movie Valdez Is Coming that I bought the paperback book by Elmore Leonard and read it not long after seeing the film. I’ve been reading Leonard’s work ever since. I first thought of him as a Western writer, because for the next few years I picked up copies of things like Hombre and Forty Lashes Less One. Later I discovered 52 Pick-Up and Unknown Man #89. I haven’t read all his crime novels since then, but I’ve read most of them. He’s been one of my favorites for a long time and a big influence on my own writing in the western genre.
About 10 years ago, the Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona, had an event on cross-genre writing. I was one of the guests, along with Loren D. Estleman, Joe R. Lansdale, and Leonard. He was a nice guy, and it was a real thrill for me to meet him, be involved in panel discussions with him, and get him to sign a few of my old paperbacks, including that Gold Medal paperback of Valdez Is Coming that I’d held onto for so many years.
It’s hard to calculate Leonard’s influence on crime fiction except to say that it’s been wide and deep. Just about everyone knows his “rules” for writing and keeping the author “invisible” in the work. His approaches to dialogue and criminal characters are widely admired. Will people still be reading his work in 70 or 80 years as they’re still reading fiction by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett? I think they will.
Robert J. Randisi, the author of both crime fiction (The Honky Tonk Big Hoss Boogie, You Make Me Feel So Dead) and Westerns, and founder of the Private Eye Writers of America:
It was 1982 and my first Miles Jacoby book, Eye in the Ring, was scheduled to be published by Avon Books. The Avon folks asked me for some names of authors to send the galleys to for blurbs. The first one I thought of was Elmore Leonard. Dutch read it, and sent this back to the editor: “If Bob Randisi’s Eye in the Ring moved any faster, you’d have to nail it down to read it.” In the end, the publisher forgot to put that blurb on the book. Some years afterward it was used on another edition, though.
A few years later I was doing an anthology and decided to invite Dutch Leonard. I don’t remember how, but I had his phone number. I called him. When he answered I wasn’t sure he’d remember me. I said, “Dutch, this is Bob Randisi. I’m not sure you remember me, but--“
He cut me off and said, “Of course I remember you. You’re the guy who writes a book in a weekend.”
Still more years later, I was at a party at the Michigan home of another author and Dutch walked in. I think we had seen each other once or twice during the intervening time--at the Edgar Awards, or something like that. I went over to say hello. He was talking with several people, but looked at me and asked, “Did you ever use that quote I gave you? “ This had to be six or seven years after the fact!
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I did. Thank you,” I said.
He looked at the other people and said, “I sent him a quote that said if his book moved ay faster you’d have to nail it down to read it.” I was shocked that he remembered it, word for word.
I’ve received blurbs from many authors over the years--Harlan Ellison, Sue Grafton, Michael Connolly, James W. Hall, others--but my Dutch Leonard quote is still one of my favorites. And it always leads to these stories.
Elmore Leonard was a gentleman, and an innovator in the crime-writing business. I don’t know if he dug the grave of, or simply dumped the last shovel of dirt onto the omniscient third-person narrator in books, but his narration--whether first-person or -third--was immediate, and vital, and opened up a whole new world for me. I first encountered him with 52 Pick-Up, quickly moved on to Unkown Man #89, Swag, and City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit. He became one of my favorite authors. I also believe he became a friend.
Although I never did get him into one of my anthologies.
Patricia “Patti” Abbott, a Derringer Award-winning short-story writer, the author of Home Invasion, and a well-known blogger:
As you may know, we recently did an Elmore Leonard Day as part of the Friday Forgotten Books series. It was terribly difficult, for most of us, to choose which book to read. I chose some of his short stories, which were first-rate lessons in how to write a short story that grabbed the reader immediately and kept him in a headlock. But all of his novels were like that, too. People don't speak enough about his graceful writing. Read a short story and see what I mean.
I saw Leonard twice in the last few years. Once at a Borders store, where the event was hardly advertised, so [my husband and I] had Elmore and his son, Peter, practically to ourselves. I have never seen a writer--and I have been to many of these talks--so happy to discuss every facet of his career. Peter was a marvelous straight man for the vivacious 80-year-old. The talk went on for well over an hour. And this was to a group of perhaps 12.
We saw him more recently at a huge gathering in a large facility. This time he was interviewed by his assistant. Although more fragile (the event didn’t begin until 9 p.m.), he still charmed everyone with his enthusiasm and his stories about Justified. (I am so glad he was able to go out with Justified the roaring success it is.) In both cases, he gave so much more of himself than most people would. And he did it naturally without prompting, answering the most inane questions from the audience with patience and charm.
Chris Knopf, copywriter and principal of a Connecticut marketing communications agency, and the author of such novels as Dead Anyway and Short Squeeze:
There are a rare few artists who contribute more than a simple re-imagining of their art, but rather invent a new form within the form. You think of Beethoven, James Joyce, Picasso, Jimi Hendrix, and Dashiell Hammett. Elmore Leonard was one of these. Where Hammett rescued crime fiction from the formalism and cozy (pun intended) world of gentleman sleuths and stately homes, Leonard took readers directly into the dirtiest of the dark streets, not just of place, but of the heart and mind. While Hammett freely tapped into the literary revolution of his time (Ernest Hemmingway comes to mind), Leonard brought the rhythms of postwar jazz, the cynicism of urban intellectuals and traumatized veterans, and a vein of black humor entirely of his own invention, to the world of crime fiction.
He blurred the lines between the forces of good and evil more thoroughly than any prior writer by rendering all of his characters as more real than real, almost entirely through dialogue. His influence on me is manifold, though I’m most grateful for this remarkable dialogue, which gave writers like me the license to be brutal, funny, and intelligent all in the same line.
Barry Forshaw, British critic, editor of Crime Time and the author of Death in a Cold Climate and The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction:
When I last saw the doyen of American crime writers in a Seven Dials hotel (filming an interview with him for his UK publisher), I was struck--as I always was when meeting the great Elmore Leonard--by the youthful demeanor that animated his weathered frame. Although the years were beginning to take their toll, he was still--mentally--as sharp as a pin, if occasionally turning to his son, fellow novelist Peter, for the odd prompt. But there was always about “Dutch” (that famous sobriquet I never felt I knew him quite well enough to use) a subtle timelessness--and not just in his attitudes. He was even able to wear a pair of jeans without making one think how loosely they hung on his aging body. And, boy, was talking to him stimulating!
As on earlier meetings, I remembered that he really enjoyed a range of conversational topics, not just talking about his crime novels, the most influential of the modern era (although he was happy enough to answer questions about them, and took an infectious pleasure in the cult success of his TV series Justified). But he relished discussing his early life as one of the most successful writers of Westerns, and I knew I could always get a smile from him by answering one of the many questions he’d fire at me, mischievously testing my credentials as someone who was supposed to know the minutiae of films and books: “Who played the villain in that Paul Newman film of my book Hombre?” When I answered “Richard Boone,” he grinned broadly. “Boone, yes! Terrific character actor--best heavy in films. And, wow, could that son of a bitch drink!” But Leonard also liked to discuss the arts in general: films, music ... and books. He remembered fondly the lost generation of professional writers like himself in the 1950s, 10-cents-a-liners who turned their hands to whatever paid the rent, be it Westerns or crime fiction. Basically, however, any subject was grist to the mill for Leonard’s still-keen mind, and there was never enough time to listen to all the stories he’d regale me with. Stories which (unlike many men of his age) one had not heard before on previous meetings.
One of these meetings (in 2006) was a proud one for the writer, when Leonard received one of the top honors for practitioners of his craft. Leonard was clearly pleased by the gathering of the Great and the Good in the British crime-fiction world who had assembled in a plush room at the Savoy Hotel overlooking the Thames. They were there to both applaud his achievement and watch him being presented with the prestigious Diamond Dagger award. But while Leonard was fêted, the conversation of the cream of BritCrime specialists was heading off at various tangents. Ian Rankin mused on the fact that crime fiction has now seen off romance as the most popular of popular genres; Peter Lovesey tried (unsuccessfully) to remember the circumstances of a famous murder at the Savoy in the distant past (he is a specialist in historical crime, after all), while Colin Dexter, the most amiable of éminences grises, was having thoughts of mortality--specifically the prolonging of his own by eschewing drink and cigarettes. Leonard listened to all of this with a wry smile.
In a typically sardonic acceptance speech, “Dutch” noted that his Western story 3:10 to Yuma (previously filmed with Glenn Ford) had been optioned for a re-make--tying in with a new collection of his Western stories from UK publisher Orion. “Tom Cruise wanted to do it,” he said, “but I think there may be a re-write ... a bigger part for a short bank robber, perhaps? Just so long as they don’t wear those dinky Dale Evans cowboy hats ...” (In the event, the film was made with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.) As the evening wound down and the last wine glasses were drained, I asked Leonard if he’d enjoyed all the worshipful attention. “Actually,” he said with a smile, “I still don’t believe it--the fact that I have this ... well, reputation. Oh, I know I can do the job. I'm good at dialogue. But when people call me ‘the King of American crime writers,’ and talk about the literary qualities of my books, I find myself thinking, ‘Hell, I’m just like Chandler, Hammett, and those guys knocking it out for the pulp magazines were--writing whatever the market wants to put food on the table.’ On the other hand ...”--he looked around the room at his fellow writers, still casting admiring glances his way--“I can’t argue it isn’t damned nice to be so well thought of ...”
Todd Robinson (aka “Big Daddy Thug”), bartender, editor of ThugLit, and the author of The Hard Bounce:
Do you want to know what “impact” means?
Do you want to know what “influence” is?
Elmore Leonard’s Glitz was the first crime fiction I ever read. It not only changed my life, but is indirectly responsible for changing the lives for a dozen more. It may even have some credit for creating one.
Glitz blew me away with it’s raw dialogue and characters etched in a gritty realism that I’d never seen before. It made me want to do the same thing ... or at least it made me want to try.
In 2004, I got to meet the man at Coliseum Books in New York. I handed him a copy of my first published story and just said, “This doesn’t exist without what you do.”
ThugLit wouldn't exist if Elmore Leonard hadn’t done what he did, written what he wrote.
Subsequently, my novel would never have existed without Elmore Leonard having done what he did, written what he wrote.
It was just having finished my novel that gave me the conversational “in” with the pretty girl who worked at a local bookstore. The pretty girl who would become my wife--who would then give me my son, Sam.
So, yes ... Sam Drake Robinson might not be here if Elmore Leonard had never written a word.
Last year, a fellow bartender came in, toting a few copies of Mr. Leonard’s books. He looked at me and said; “Hey, you know this guy?”
I thought about my answer for a moment while I considered simply head-butting him in the face for even asking me that. After I decided to allow him to keep all of his blood on the inside, I said, “I don’t want to overstate or exaggerate who Elmore Leonard is, so I’ll just say that he’s THE FUCKING GOD of what I do.”
A couple of months ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Leonard’s granddaughter, who kinda laughed at me, and whom I think I slightly creeped out with my knowledge of her grandfather. My heart goes out to her and her family this week.
So here I am, a 41-year-old man with a lump in his throat, writing a eulogy for a man that I met for about 22 seconds almost a decade ago. Mr. Leonard was 87 years old, and by all accounts lived a full, long, successful life. But goddamn if I’m not mourning the loss of the man deeply right now.
THAT, my friends, is impact.
THAT is influence.
And THAT is what you call a fucking legacy.
Gary Phillips, creator of the Ivan Monk private-eye series and the author of The Underbelly as well as The Warlord of Willow Ridge:
“He didn’t have to stay here. He didn’t have to be a town constable. He didn’t have to work for the stage company. He didn’t have to listen to Mr. Beaudry and Mr. Malson and smile when they said those things. He didn’t have a wife or any kids. He didn’t have land that he owned. He could be anywhere he wanted.” -- From Valdez Is Coming
This passage to me is quintessential Leonard, describing the essence of his character. Depending on which of his books you pick up, that character could be cresting a hill on a paint horse or tooling through the wintry streets of Detroit in a maroon-and-white Cougar bought at police auction with four bullet holes in the driver’s door, as in Unknown Man #89.
“I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative,” he declared in Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.
I only met him once, briefly, but his writing still teaches me a lot. Elmore Leonard is an example of why crime fiction, Western writing, genre writing in general, has always enthralled readers. It’s not about rising above the genre label and being accepted in the so-called mainstream, but about why he and others, like Donald E. Westlake and Ross Macdonald, set the bar high for other genre writers to reach in their work in their own way.
Elmore Leonard’s sad passing at age 87 marks another literary icon gone. It reminds me of the deaths of such fiction giants as James Crumley and Robert B. Parker. I enjoyed reading Mr. Leonard’s Westerns, which he wrote earlier in his long, distinguished career. The Western title that stands out for me is Hombre, published in 1961. I liked the narrator’s voice (it’s written in first-person point of view), as well as the story’s brisk pace, steady buildup, and gut-felt climax. Paul Newman played the Apache-raised white protagonist, John Russell, in the movie based on that book. I’ve always seen Paul Newman and Elmore Leonard as being the tops in their respective artistic fields. I’ll make it a point to soon revisit both the novel and film Hombre, just for the sheer pleasure of doing it.
Elmore Leonard will be greatly missed for so very many reasons. Perhaps, sadly, those who were familiar with Leonard’s work were familiar with his genius as a result of some superb film adaptations and television productions--Hombre, Mr. Majestyk, Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, Out of Sight, and most recently the Sony/FX adaptation Justified--more than they were with his novels. From his early 1950s Westerns to the unforgettable Chili Palmer, Leonard infused every page he penned with a hard realism, the plot carried forward by a striking ear for dialogue, pitch-black humor, and razor-sharp irony. Leonard was a consummate expert in so many aspects of novel-writing, so much so that his Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip ethos, quipped in jest perhaps, belied a stunning sense of plotting and narrative skill. There was no one like Leonard. There will never be another like Leonard. I can only hope that his tragic passing brings him closer to the forefront of the genre, giving ever greater numbers of people the chance to enjoy the unique talent that was exemplified in each and every one of his published works. R.I.P., Elmore. We celebrate a long and wonderful life, and a magnificent canon of work.
Tony Black, author of the Gus Dury thrillers (beginning with Paying for It) and the soon-forthcoming His Father’s Son:
It’s impossible to overstate the influence of Elmore Leonard on several generations of writers and also filmmakers. I suppose I myself came to his work relatively late and somewhat in awe of the mighty reputation. I remember thinking that no one could live up to such plaudits, and being very quickly put straight by the freshness of Leonard’s writing. Crisp, lean prose and the much-lauded snappy dialogue were there in abundance, but it was the way he disguised plot, made you forget this was a story, and at once dragged you into this very real, and yet unreal, world that really impressed. As a writer you always read with one eye on figuring out the author’s technique--I never did that with Leonard, because I was always too engrossed in the storytelling, which was always among the finest of the modern greats.
The literary world (and I say “literary” rather than crime fiction, deliberately) has lost a powerful voice. Elmore Leonard was one of the most prolific, diverse, and humorous authors I’ve ever read. Between his crime fiction, Westerns, and other novels, it’s impossible to choose a favorite, but Get Shorty and Djibouti come pretty close for me. In fact, his craft was at such an extraordinary level that I use the first eight pages of Be Cool when I teach dialogue to writers. And who among us doesn’t refer (often) to his 10 Rules of Writing? I did not know him personally, but it’s heartbreaking to think there will never be a “new” Elmore Leonard novel to look forward to.
Maxim Jakubowski, a British editor, crime novelist and critic, and the man behind The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 11:
After I posted the sad news of Elmore Leonard’s passing on my Facebook page earlier this week, Jack O’Connell--both a wonderful and so underrated writer himself and a lifelong fan of Leonard’s--enquired what were my favorite novels of his. I came up with Glitz and Stick, although to be honest once I wracked my memories and shelves, I could have mentioned almost any of his books, including the Westerns. He never disappointed. A laconic master of fluid prose, action, and wry, memorable characters, he made writing look so easy, although even with the support of his famous “10 Rules for Writing,” none of us could even approach his level of simple artistry. Better literary critics than me will now praise him and beyond, but I’d rather remember the man. A unique writer and a gentleman.
I was lucky enough to spend time with Dutch on four occasions. He enjoyed his first-ever, highly successful UK signing at my Murder One bookstore, and we were later generously invited to dinner along with his wife, Joan, and my wife by a common friend, scriptwriter Neville Smith (author of the screenplay for Stephen Frears’ marvelous 1971 Albert Finney film, Gumshoe), and had a memorable evening full of Hollywood gossip in Soho. He subsequently returned to London, a trip that included an onstage appearance at the National Film Theatre, where I was also to interview the also much-missed Don Westlake just a few weeks later. The following year, he agreed to attend the Frontignan Noir festival in the south of France, and we spent four wonderful days together in the Mediterranean sun, sharing chat, jokes (and how dry his piercing wit was), and lengthy French meals. Dutch enjoyed the trip so much, he agreed to visit Italy and Courmayeur’s Noir in Festival (a film and literature event) six months later at my request, where we gave him the Raymond Chandler Award and celebrated his career. Again a glorious week, this time in the picturesque snow in the shadow of Mont Blanc, with Italian cuisine at its best, which he thoroughly enjoyed alongside his son, Peter, and his sidekick/researcher, Greg Sutter, who'd traveled with him.
I will treasure the memories of our brief time together. He was a most unpretentious, modest man, a lovely guy with that great mischievous glint in his eyes, and so much more than just a crime writer, as literary history will confirm. He will be missed in our hearts and on our bookshelves
Ronald Tierney, creator of the Deets Shanahan detective series and the author of Death in the Haight, the latest of his Noah Lang mysteries:
No other crime writer--living or dead--taught me as much, simply by reading him. The key was dialogue. In his hands, dialogue comes alive and reveals both plot and character masterfully. I spent much of the late ’70s and early ’80s engrossed in his novels. Marathon reads, one after another. I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing him. What is most difficult about singling out just one or a few of his works as the best or most important, is that they are all distinctively Elmore Leonard books. They bear an indelible stamp. No one else could have written them.
As a writer, Elmore Leonard was tremendously influential; I would say the most important stylist in crime fiction since Chandler. He brought the pace (and morality) of the classic Western story to contemporary urban crime, and did it with intelligence and humor. He showed lesser writers like myself how to let characters describe themselves, their motivation and even their surroundings simply by the dialogue they spoke.
As a fledgling mystery writer, I met him in London in 1988 and was bowled over by his charm and patience dealing with a long, long line of fans buying his new novel, Freaky Deaky. He was more than happy to write anything his readers wanted when doing a signing session and in 1991, when some friends in Los Angeles bought me Maximum Bob as a present, they persuaded him to dedicate it as follows: “To Mike Ripley, a.k.a. Fitzroy Maclean Angel, from your fan this side of the pond, Elmore Leonard.”
That book still takes pride of place on my bookshelves, though I’m sure Elmore had no idea who I (or Fitzroy Maclean Angel, my series hero) was. A few years later I was equally proud to see one of my reviews of his latest book being quoted on his official Web site.
He showed his self-effacing modesty, and wit, the last time I saw him, a couple of years ago at the British Film Institute in London where he introduced a showing of the original 3:10 to Yuma. He told the story of how, finding one of his novels was No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, he thought: “I had no idea I could write well enough--or so badly--to make it to No. 1 on the New York Times list ...”
Kelli Stanley, author of the San Francisco historical mysteries City of Dragons, City of Secrets, and 2014’s City of Ghosts:
He was the last of the great pulp writers: a man who learned his trade in the spare, lean prose of cheap paper and illustrated covers, a “genre” writer who disdained the unnecessary and merely ornamental. He practiced an economy of words few authors could match, but oh, what words--what voices--and what an ear.
I never had a chance to meet him in person, but I followed him online, grateful for his Facebook friendship. His Westerns, particularly Hombre and 3:10 to Yuma, impacted me as a reader and a writer, as did City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit, Swag, and many more.
From noirish haikus to the clip-clopping threat of hooves on a lonesome, dusty road, his prose sang with tension and character, elegantly built. He created dialogue with the understanding of an actor and the ear of a music tuner, and as long as there are words and stories and people to read them, Elmore Leonard’s work will live on.
For what he gave--and for what he taught--I’m forever grateful.
A long time ago, trying to figure out what it was about Elmore Leonard’s work that captured me so completely, the answer came in a phrase that I think I made up. Leonard’s writing takes place where the match meets the scratch. In book after book, he puts his characters and his readers at the friction point and then keeps them there, longer and better than anyone I know. His famous guideline, “leave out the things readers skip,” was part of the secret, but the real power of his writing, for me, was that it threw off sparks all the way. Even the so-called lulls are just pauses in the alternating current. How he did it--how he kept those people there, kept them real, and took us inside their hearts and minds at the same time--I have no idea, but I know that when I read Leonard I hear the sound of that long, long scratch of ignition. There will never be anyone like him.
Jim Napier, a Quebec-based crime-fiction reviewer, a regular contributor to January Magazine and The Rap Sheet, and author of the award-winning crime-fiction site, Deadly Diversions:
Elmore Leonard was a wonderfully complex man and a quintessentially American writer, both in subject and style. His famous “10 Rules of Writing” cut right to the bone in Leonard’s characteristic no-nonsense way. They include “Never open a book with the weather, “Use regional dialect sparingly,” and “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.” The list of first-rate authors who have violated these rules--which includes Tony Hillerman and James Lee Burke, among others--would cause a more tractable man to blush. But not Leonard. His rules worked for him: he managed to combine suspense, dark humor, and hard-hitting dialogue in a spare, gritty prose that perfectly fit the twisted world he was trying to describe. Not everyone’s cuppa, of course, but his influence can be found in some of America’s most original writers, including Joe R. Lansdale and James Sallis. My favorites among his novels include the standalone Maximum Bob, the Chili Palmer classic, Get Shorty, and its sequel, Be Cool.
Elmore Leonard was one of the first crime writers I ever read. Along with Chandler and Lawrence Block, his novels got me hooked on the genre. Nowadays, whenever I’m invited to speak with aspiring writers, I hand out copies of his legendary “10 Rules of Writing.” When I talk about beginning a book with a bang, I read them the opening of Freaky Deaky. And when I get to discussing great dialogue, I read them anything he ever wrote. Leonard was a fiction master--one of the true greats.
Not only was Elmore Leonard the most popular crime writer of his time, but he was the most influential. It’s difficult to find a writer of dark intent whose work doesn’t show Leonard’s influence. His cast of characters gives us a look at some of the most frightening but also comically deranged people in American literature. My favorite Leonard novel is Valdez Is Coming. If I had a chance to teach only two novels, one would be Valdez and the other Gatsby. Leonard was a master of craft.I’d teach Valdez to show how to tell a perfect story.
Barry Forshaw, Elmore Leonard, Ali Karim, and Mike Stotter attend the May 2006 ceremony during which the British Crime Writers’ Association presented Leonard with its Diamond Dagger award for lifetime achievment. (© 2006 Ali Karim)
Ali Karim, a contributing editor of January Magazine and The Rap Sheet’s always-too-busy British correspondent:
As has been the case for so many others, I was devastated by the news of Elmore Leonard’s passing. Having followed his work for many years, I can say that it was his sharply edited writing style that made it stand out. It was hardly surprising to see his stories adapted for the big and small screens. The terse nature of his narrative style suited the camera, but it will be his novels that I’ll most fondly recall. Novels such as 52 Pick-Up (which was adapted twice). His influence on the Western- and crime-fiction genres cast long shadows which included Quentin Tarantino’s adaptation of Rum Punch as Jackie Brown and Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, amongst many others. His ability to carve distinctive characters such as Chilli Palmer from Get Shorty or Maximum Bob (Gibbs) made him a writers’ writer.
I was fortunate to have met Elmore Leonard a few years ago in London, when the British Crime Writers’ Association presented him with its Diamond Dagger award for lifetime achievement. My friend and Shots editor Mike Stotter was excited that day. He had been heavily influenced by Leonard’s work, and it had even given him the confidence to pen his own Westerns, all the way from London.
I managed to grab five minutes with Dutch and I told him that he was my inspiration in writing Westerns, and he was genuinely pleased. I also had with me a hardback copy of The Fatal Frontier, which contained my very first short story (actually an extract from McKinney’s Revenge, my first full-length Western). I asked Dutch to sign it for me. He took a look at the cover, and said, “This is an odd one.” To which I replied, “It’s the first anthology in which I have a story published alongside you.” He laughed and said, “Well, a Brit Western writer. Well done.”
So let us celebrate the legacy Elmore Leonard left us, and as we imagine him riding into the sunset, remember he is leaving behind some wonderful writing and cinematic works for future generations to discover.
Jeremiah Healy, creator of the John Francis Cuddy private-investigator series and (under the pseudonym Terry Devane) the Mairead O’Clare legal-thriller series:
In the early 1970s, I “discovered” Elmore Leonard (Stick, I believe, was the first of his books I read). Thereafter, I went through all of his street thrillers, and then back further to his Western novels/novellas/short stories that had been adapted by Hollywood.
While I met Dutch (the childhood nickname he preferred) a number of times, we actually talked at any length only once, but it was kind of a “literary salon” over dinner after a (S.R.O.) reading and signing he did in 1991 at Kate’s Mystery Bookshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I remember the year because my John Cuddy private-eye novel Right to Die had just been published, and Dr. Jack Kevorkian (like Dutch, a Michigander) had been indicted only a month or two earlier. Dutch, Kate (and even Dutch’s media escort), and I talked about assisted suicide and its many facets: the fears of doctors (losing their licenses, facing criminal prosecution); the qualms of clergy (World War II death camps, slippery slopes regarding “society would be better off without ...”); the squabbling family survivors (grinding frustration versus flip-side anguish); the efficacy and advisability of a judicially supervised “death panel,” etc.
After a while, I noticed I was doing most of the talking (where can those who know me register their surprise?), which at the time didn’t seem all that odd: Thanks to my research on the subject and the buzz about my coincidental novel back then, I'd become a “utility infielder” for TV and radio shows addressing the issue of assisted suicide. And Dutch never seemed bored. He watched me carefully and listened intently, obviously involved in the topic. “Involved,"” that is, until I realized that what he was really doing was something that I as a crime-novelist do, too: This quiet, thoughtful Detroit resident/Florida snowbird was “getting” me (an arrogant, aggressive, articulate Boston trial attorney-cum-law professor) as a character for him to use in a future book.
I don’t know if Dutch ever did “Tuckerize” me, but I’ll never forget how much I enjoyed his company that evening and his books for many years to come.
Elmore Leonard was the modern writer who inspired me to write crime fiction. Get Shorty was the first of his books I read in the early ’90s, then I read all the other crime fiction he’d written to that point. His books are more valuable than any writing program for an aspiring writer. If you want to learn about character, voice, plotting, and suspense, just pick up a Leonard novel.
After I had published several books on my own, I had the pleasure of introducing Leonard at a talk/reading at the Housing Works bookshop in Manhattan. We spoke there for a while and then had a correspondence by snail-mail (his typewritten letters to me on official Elmore Leonard stationary are prized possessions). His anecdotes about writing and working in Hollywood are unforgettable. Even though he was busy on a book in 2006, he was kind enough to give me a blurb for my book Lights Out, which I’ve recycled many times since.
In my opinion, Leonard is up there with James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Charles Willeford, and Patricia Highsmith as one of the best crime writers of the past 100 years. And I think he’ll still be part of the conversation 100 years from now.
R.I.P., the master.
(Part II of our Elmore Leonard tribute can be found here.)
READ MORE: “Why Elmore Leonard Matters,” by Laura Miller (Salon); “A Jersey Crime Novelist Reflects on His Hero Elmore Leonard,” by Wallace Stroby (The Star-Ledger); “Elmore Leonard: Robert Crais Remembers ‘Dutch’” (Los Angeles Times); “R.I.P., Elmore Leonard,” by John DuMond (Nobody Move!); “R.I.P., Elmore Leonard,” by Declan Burke (Crime Always Pays); “Elmore Leonard: Writers Pay Tribute,” by Carolyn Kellogg (Los Angeles Times).