Elmore Leonard: Reflections on a criminal mastermind

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Reading Elmore Leonard’s genre fiction, you were never sure who the hero was. It could be a mobbed-up loan shark (Chili Palmer in Get Shorty), a badge-carrying U.S. marshal with a felon for a father (Raylan Givens in Pronto), or even a flight attendant smuggling cash for a black-market gunrunner (Jackie Burke in Rum Punch). Leonard, who died Tuesday of complications from a stroke at age 87, never shied away from moral ambiguity. And his zippy, dialogue-driven prose style made him a favorite of readers and filmmakers alike.

Born in New Orleans, Leonard spent a nomadic childhood with his father, a dealership site locator for General Motors. Then in 1934, three pivotal events shaped Leonard’s future: His family settled in Detroit, the Tigers made it to the World Series (and won the title the following year), and the twentysomething gangsters Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow ended their two-year, headline-grabbing crime spree with a deadly police ambush in northern Louisiana. Leonard became a lifelong devotee of crime stories, sports, and the Motor City — which he continued to call home until the end.

After serving in the U.S. Navy in the South Pacific in World War II, he earned a degree in English and philosophy from the University of Detroit and began work as an advertising copywriter, spending his early morning hours composing short stories. “I couldn’t afford to be a literary writer,” he later recalled. So he wrote what he could sell: Westerns like 3:10 to Yuma, mysteries and other genre fare for which he could earn $1,000 paydays. Though Hollywood sometimes adapted his work — the 1961 Western Hombre or the 1969 heist thriller The Big Bounce — it wasn’t until 1985’s Glitz that Leonard hit the best-seller lists.

But even as fame came courting — the ’90s brought successful big-screen adaptations of Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Rum Punch (Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown) — Leonard remained unfussy and down to earth. On the page, he clung to the American vernacular, rules of grammar be damned. “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” he noted. (His widely circulated 10 rules of good writing remain an excellent reference for aspiring novelists.) And while Leonard’s plot-heavy prose was spare of description, his dialogue was rich in specificity and detail. “I didn’t have enough tit to be a star,” recalls the ex-con investigator Debbie of her brief career as a stripper in Pagan Babies. “And really, to do it for a living you have to be on crack.” Lines like that prove that Leonard was not only a buxom talent, but a triple-D star.

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