Elmore Leonard shoots his way into the Library of America


Elmore Leonard, in his Michigan home in 2012, died in August in 2013 at age 87. The Library of America is releasing the first of a three volume Leonard collection. (Paul Sancya/AP)

The new Library of America volume of four Elmore Leonard novels from the 1970s has a winner on just about every page.

Flipping . . . let’s see . . . here.

From “Fifty-Two Pickup”: Harry Mitchell’s lawyer is asking him about his mistress, an affair for which he’s being blackmailed:

“You score that night?”

“Jim, we were having a nice time, that’s all. I didn’t even think about it.”

“Well, when did you start thinking about it?”

“I guess when I saw her without any clothes on.”

“That could do it.”

See that deadpan thing? In the middle of murderous blackmail?

That’s not easy, brother. Maybe in one line, one book. But to build dozens of violent crime novels based on character, not plot, with a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, often as funny as it is frightening?

It didn’t do anything less than change (and elevate) the way the modern American crime novel is written, and today Leonard’s influence is everywhere from the films of Quentin Tarantino to FX’s hit series “Justified.” The release of the book — one year after Leonard died at 87 — coincides with the opening Friday of “Life of Crime,” starring Jennifer Aniston and Tim Robbins, which is based on “The Switch,” also included in this edition.

Two more volumes will follow in the series. Together, the three volumes will encompass 12 novels written in a 28-year span. Each is being edited by Gregg Sutter, Leonard’s longtime researcher, who compiles an invaluable chronology.

It should serve as a reminder of both the depth and longevity of Leonard’s career that only seven authors have more volumes dedicated to their work by the Library — including Henry James, Mark Twain, Philip Roth, William Faulkner and Edith Wharton. The Library, a nonprofit organization founded in 1979, publishes its distinctive black-jacketed volumes to preserve the nation’s “best and most significant writing.”

Gods of crime and mystery, such as Edgar Allan Poe, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, each have two volumes.

“He’s the giant figure who looms in the second half of the 20th century” in crime fiction, says Max Rudin, Library of America’s publisher. “He’s the one who recharged the American crime novel.”

The National Book Foundation awarded Leonard the 2012 medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, putting him on a pedestal with the likes of Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison and John Updike.

“Mark Twain seems like the most effortless writer,” says Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the foundation, because he “so dominated his technique. Picasso, and maybe Elmore Leonard, did that. He so dominated his technique that it made it seem effortless.”

The famously unassuming Leonard — we were friends for 20 years — always played down the highbrow. In his acceptance speech for the foundation’s award, he noted that he preferred an assessment by the New Musical Express in London, which had dubbed him “the poet laureate of wild a--holes with revolvers.”

After the laughter died down, Leonard said, still dry as a martini, “You hope in vain to see a quote like that on the back cover of your next book.”

The four novels brought together in the 768 pages of this volume — “Fifty-Two,” “Swag,” “Unknown Man No. 89,” “Switch” — are the foundations of his reputation.

In “Fifty-Two,” Mitchell goes after the men blackmailing him. In “Swag,” a car salesman teams up with a car thief for a new enterprise: armed robbery. “Unknown” is about a process server who is trying to stay sober and gets mixed up with a woman trying to collect money from a missing man. “Switch” is about a kidnapped suburban tennis mom whose husband doesn’t want her back.

They were published between 1974 and 1978, and they were dark, violent and not terribly popular. “Switch” went straight to paperback, the hallmark at the time of pulp fiction.

Quiet, with a slender build (he was about 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds), Leonard was born in New Orleans but mostly grew up in Detroit. He served in the Navy, came home to write for an advertising agency and married young.

He wrote westerns in the mornings before work (and sneaked in a few pages at his desk when no one was looking), selling short stories to magazines. His first novel, “The Bounty Hunters,” sold for $3,000 in 1953 (about $26,000 today).

He had solid, if not spectacular, success over the next two decades. A short story, “3:10 to Yuma,” became a classic film starring Glenn Ford in 1957 and was remade in 2007. Paul Newman starred in his “Hombre” a decade later. He wrote “Joe Kidd” for Clint Eastwood, who asked him to write another screenplay. Eastwood passed on the result, which became “Mr. Majestyk,” but Charles Bronson didn’t.

Then, in the winter of 1972, his agent told him to get George V. Higgins’s new book, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” Higgins’s characters were lowlifes and ­working-class cops, none of whom were the brightest guys you ever met.

Leonard loved how Higgins let the characters’ voices dictate the style of the writing, how he moved the story almost entirely with dialogue.

He began a new career phase, with crime novels set in Detroit. His ­character-driven stories were not mysteries — you always knew who did it, because that was the person or people helping narrate the story.

His debt to Higgins was so profound that he read the first sentence of “Coyle”— “Jackie Brown, at 26, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns” — when he accepted the lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation, 40 years later.

“That’s pretty much how I learned to write, in a style that I lifted from Higgins,” he told the audience, “but changed enough that it became my own sound.”

Still, it was hardly riding into the cash-filled sunset after that poetic bit of inspiration.

In the four-year span Leonard wrote the novels in this volume, he was battling alcohol addiction, getting divorced and writing screenplays and two other novels.

He got serious critical notice in 1977, when a New York Times review raved about “Unknown Man,” saying he could “write circles around almost anybody active in the crime novel today.”

By the early 1980s, he’d hired Sutter to do his legwork, a wonderfully quirky gig. “I went to see Iggy Pop with him at St. Andrews one time,” Sutter says, naming a music hall in downtown Detroit. “They kind of hung around a little bit.”

He would not be on the New York Times bestseller list until 1985, when “Glitz” — his 23rd book — went big and he blew up. In the 1980s, Newsweek put him on the cover, naming him the nation’s “greatest living crime writer.” Time magazine dubbed him “the Dickens of Detroit.” The Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley said he raised the suspense novel into “the realm of social commentary.”

He became a literary star after that, augmented by films of his books that finally got his style — “Get Shorty,” “Jackie Brown,” “Out of Sight” — starring the likes of John Travolta, George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez and Gene Hackman. Directors like Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh and Barry Sonnenfeld. Screenwriters like Scott Frank.

“It was something like a championship run, a three-peat,” Sutter says about those three films.

His last novel, “Raylan,” spent five weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

He died last August, three weeks after a devastating stroke. He was working on his 46th novel at the time. The night before his death, his family moved his bed into the open room on the first floor of his house where he’d done most of his writing — by longhand and typewriter — for so many years.

“That was really just right,” says Mike Lupica, the sports columnist and novelist who was one of Leonard’s closest friends. The conversation lapses into memories of Leonard’s off-hand humor, his lack of ego, his kind demeanor. Lupica pauses, then, on the fly, rewords one of his blurbs about Leonard’s work.

“The only thing better than reading him,” he says, “was knowing him.”

Neely Tucker is a staff writer in the Sunday Magazine. He has reported from more than 50 countries around the world and from two dozen of these United States.
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