Crime novelist Elmore Leonard, whose work inspired ‘Justified,’ ‘Jackie Brown,’ dies at 87

The widely acclaimed and hugely successful crime novelist Elmore Leonard died at home Tuesday of complications from a stroke. He was 87. Leonard’s prose changed how the crime genre was perceived by readers and writers alike:

His early Western novels “Hombre” and “Valdez is Coming” carried all the hallmarks of his later crime fiction and reimagined the traditional idea of heroes and bad guys and how they interacted. A run of movies based on his Westerns and early crime novels kept his name out there, but it wasn’t until he turned his focus from Detroit to South Florida that his fortunes began to match his talent.

The run of novels from 1983’s Edgar Award-winning “La Brava” to 1996’s “Out of Sight” not only transformed the crime novel, it transformed how they were perceived. Instead of attracting fringe actors, his books “Get Shorty,” ‘’Rum Punch” and “Out of Sight,” among others, drew A-list stars such as Samuel L. Jackson, George Clooney and John Travolta. Top directors like Quentin Tarantino and Barry Sonnenfeld wanted in. And TV eventually came calling about a number of ideas, including “Justified,” which brought a favorite character, Marshall Raylan Givens, to a wide and adoring audience.

It was an incredible run that not only put Leonard permanently on the best-seller lists but transformed other writers and their writing.

Associated Press

For more on Leonard’s death, watch the Associated Press broadcast below.

Elmore Leonard, the crime novelist whose acclaimed best-sellers chronicled the violent deaths of many a thug and conman, has died. He was 87. (Associated Press)

Imitating Leonard’s style, Neely Tucker describes his friendship with the novelist:

You’d meet him, and you’d never know what he did for a living. He was that modest, that humble. He never robbed a bank or shot anybody, at least that I heard about, but he wrote the best bank-robber, guy-about-to-shoot-somebody dialogue ever.

Elmore, you say? How does an old guy named Elmore get the street vibe, the hip black Detroit crook, the charming Miami Mafioso, the cop who ain’t that good but ain’t that dumb, that smart chick who’s got a good-looking leg up on all these dudes — how does he do that?

I never figured it out, and I profiled Elmore “Dutch” Leonard twice. Went through all his notes, his little boxes in the basement with his files on each book, interviewed him at length, and we were friends, besides. Sure, he had a researcher, Gregg Sutter, who was great at getting him the details, the forms a cop would fill out after a robbery, the traffic flow at rush hour in Palm Beach, Fla. But if it was that simple, a lot of writers would have hired researchers as good as Gregg, and then they’d all have been as good as Dutch. Except that nobody was.

You know how smart guys are always saying that talent, like water, finds its own level? Dutch found his, brother, and the water was high.

Neely Tucker

After an itinerant childhood and service in World War II, Leonard taught himself to write:

Elmore John Leonard Jr. was born in New Orleans on Oct. 11, 1925. His father, a dealership scout for General Motors, moved the family from city to city before settling in Detroit. The young Elmore was nicknamed “Dutch” after a Washington Senators knuckleball pitcher with the same surname.

Mr. Leonard went on to serve in World War II. His bad eyesight consigned him to a job as a store manager for the Seabees, doling out beer for the troops.

After graduating from the University of Detroit in 1950, Mr. Leonard married his college sweetheart, Beverly Cline, and took a job with a local advertising agency. He nurtured his fiction habit in private. He woke at 5 a.m. every morning and churned out pulp westerns for two hours before heading to work.

“I’d come down in the dark into the living room — that Michigan cold — and I wouldn’t even let myself heat the coffee water until I’d started writing,” he told People magazine. “I’d write in longhand, one word after the other in pencil on a yellow pad, then rewrite on the typewriter. I’m so damned glad I did it. I studied hard, I worked hard, I learned what I could and couldn’t do. I can’t do description well, so now I don’t do it at all.”

In 1951, he published his first short story in Argosy magazine for $1,000. His first novel, “The Bounty Hunters,” came out in 1954. Two of his early stories became popular western movies, “The Tall T” with Randolph Scott, and “3:10 to Yuma” with Glenn Ford (both in 1957), and the latter was remade in 2007 with Russell Crowe.

By the end of the 1950s, the western market was saturated, so to support his wife and five children, Mr. Leonard turned to writing scripts for educational films.

Then, in 1967, 20th Century Fox bought the rights to his novel “Hombre” for $10,000. The resulting film, starring [Paul] Newman as a white man raised by American Indians, was only a moderate box office success, but it gave Mr. Leonard the financial cushion he needed to reboot his fiction.

His next book, “The Big Bounce,” the story of an ex-con falling into the clutches of a psychotic young seductress, was rejected 84 times before finding a publisher. It found devoted readers, though, and it placed Mr. Leonard for the first time in his natural milieu — the modern American underworld — while planting the seeds for the outstanding work of the 1970s and early 1980s, including “City Primeval,” “Split Images,” “Stick” and “52 Pick-Up.”

Louis Bayard

See photographs of other celebrities who have died this year in the gallery below.

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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