Elmore Leonard, veteran crime American author, dies aged 87

Acclaimed American novelist dubbed the 'Dickens of Detroit', credited with reinventing the popular crime thriller and widely respected by his peers, dies after stroke

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 August, 2013, 8:59am

Elmore Leonard, who wrote Get Shorty, Be Cool and dozens of other bestsellers praised for their lean style and gritty dialogue, has died. He was 87.

He died yesterday at his home, after suffering a stroke last month, according to Leonard's official website. He lived in Bloomfield Township, a suburb of the US city of Detroit.

To his admiring peers, Leonard did not merely validate the popular crime thriller; he stripped the form of its worn out affectations, reinventing it for a new generation and elevating it to a higher literary shelf.

Leonard's first story was published in Argosy magazine in 1951, and 60 years later he was still turning out a book a year because, he said, "it's fun".

Elmore John Leonard was born in New Orleans on October 11, 1925. Nine years later his father, an executive with General Motors, moved the family to Detroit. After graduating from high school in 1943, he did a two-year stretch in the US Navy. Picking up his schooling at the University of Detroit, he graduated in 1950 and became a copywriter for a Detroit advertising agency.

His first crime novel, The Big Bounce was published in 1969 and kicked off a series of hard-boiled crime narratives.

Glitz, published in 1985, was Leonard's 25th novel and the breakthrough that flew to the top of the bestseller fiction lists and put him on the cover of Newsweek. But he felt the movie Get Shorty really made his a household name.

British author Martin Amis called Leonard the "Dickens of Detroit" and said several of his books were on Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow's bookshelves, clear evidence that he was a writer's writer.

"There was no one quite like Elmore Leonard" for providing "narrative pleasure in a prose miraculously purged of all false qualities", Bellow said, according to Amis.

Leonard was irked by what he saw as backhanded accolades, such as The New York Times dubbing him "the greatest living writer of crime fiction".

"I don't know what that means," he told Time magazine in 2005. "To tell you the truth, I don't read much in my field. I didn't learn anything from Raymond Chandler or the other guy, Dashiell Hammett," two writers to whom he was often compared.

He sold the screenplays to Hombre, 3:10 to Yuma, and Joe Kidd, which starred Clint Eastwood, though it was years before he could afford to stop writing ad copy.

More than 30 of Leonard's books or stories became feature films or TV movies. He wrote scripts for about a dozen of them, though he came to dislike the movie-making process and sometimes the final product even more.

He so disliked the 1985 movie version of his book Stick, directed by Burt Reynolds, that Leonard ordered his name removed from the credits.

At a cinema showing of The Big Bounce, his first non-Western novel, he sat behind a couple and heard the woman say, "This is the worst picture I ever saw in my life." Leonard agreed with her. "The three of us got up and left," he said.

There was a notable exception to Leonard's negative feelings about Hollywood.

"The movie of Get Shorty has done more for me than 35 books," he said. The 1995 film, starring John Travolta, stayed true to the book's characters, said Leonard, crediting director Barry Sonnenfeld.

Leonard wrote four pages every morning while holding down an advertising job. Years later, he still wrote daily in longhand, though a full day's work might yield only two pages.

It got harder but it was still "the most satisfying thing I can imagine doing," he said. "The notoriety that comes later doesn't compare to the doing of it."

After a marriage of 28 years and five children, Leonard and Beverly Cline divorced in 1977. In 1993 he married Christine Kent.

The New York Times, Bloomberg

Elmore Leonard's 10 rules for writing

Elmore Leonard laid out his 10 rules for writing - which he said helped him "remain invisible" as an author - in a 2001 essay for The New York Times.

1 Never open a book with the weather.

2 Avoid prologues.

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 marks under control.

6 Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose".

7 Use regional dialect and patois sparingly.

8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9 Don't go into great detail describing places and things.

10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.