A diligent, unpretentious writer who worked in relative obscurity for many years, Mr. Leonard went on to influence a generation of crime writers, whose sales may have eclipsed his but whose adoration of him never waned.
His lean, violent stories also served up choice film vehicles for actors including Paul Newman (“Hombre”), John Travolta (“Get Shorty”), George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez (“Out of Sight”), Charles Bronson (“Mr. Majestyk”), Roy Scheider (“52 Pick-Up”) and Pam Grier (“Jackie Brown”).
What made Mr. Leonard stand out among other chroniclers of crime and punishment was his voice — laconic, funny, unsentimental — and his ruthlessly coherent vision of life in the lower depths. As described in a 2008 Washington Post profile, Mr. Leonard’s world is “populated by cops who aren’t exactly good, crooks who aren’t exactly bad, and women who have an eye for the in-between.”
What galvanizes this gallery of rogues and scoundrels, more often than not, is a scheme — a kidnapping, con job or robbery that will bring quick and easy money. As it turns out, the money is neither quick nor easy, and the schemes are doomed from the start, spinning down unexpected tangents and threatened at every turn by absurdity.
In “Rum Punch” (1992), would-be thief Louis Gara spends so much time crafting his “Do not panic” stickup note that the bank he’s plotting to rob has closed by the time he gets there. In “Switch” (1978), two ex-cons abduct the wife of a rich, philandering builder, only to learn that he has no intention of paying the ransom. (They gain an ally in his wife.)
Time and again, bad guys pause in the middle of bad acts for extended bull sessions on music or clothes. Screenwriter-director Quentin Tarantino, who turned Mr. Leonard’s “Rum Punch” into the 1997 film “Jackie Brown,” cited the author as a key influence on his own garrulous movie thugs.
Taken as a whole, the Leonard oeuvre serves to demolish the myth of the criminal genius. And yet what his villains lack in intelligence, they make up for in mayhem. Beatings, torture and murder feature prominently in the author’s pages. The villain in Mr. Leonard’s first bestseller, “Glitz” (1985), is a psychopath who kills prostitutes and rapes old ladies.
Mr. Leonard, in marked contrast, was a quiet, reserved, owlishly bespectacled man who lived in the Detroit suburbs and sported Kangol caps and tweed jackets. He had no rap sheet; he never owned a gun; he gave up drinking in his early 50s after his first marriage crumbled.
Although critics tended to lump him into the hard-boiled detective school of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald, Mr. Leonard resisted the tag of mystery writer, pointing out that his work lacks anything in the way of a puzzle.