A Blast of Bullets

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

BLOOMFIELD VILLAGE, Mich. Dutch Leonard, standing over by the typewriter. He's saying to Christine in this loud voice, "Christine!" Calling up the stairs. They're going to be late for dinner.

Christine used to be the gardener. Now she's the missus.

Dutch and Christine Lelich know a lot about life, which is one reason it's good. Even when bad things happen they understand that it's just the way it is sometimes; they're at that stage.

Like, they got cleaned out the other day, while they were down at the other house in Palm Beach, Fla. About $15,000 worth of stuff.

It was no big mystery. The thieves used a key. Took jewelry, clothes, Christine's unmentionables. Left the electronics. Who are the cops going to think did it, two guys with a U-Haul and a panty fetish? It was the maids. They fired the maids.

You'd expect a little more creativity from the criminal class, particularly when they break into a crime novelist's house.

But it's the kind of idea Dutch could use, people that stupid.

"I never had a really brilliant idea," he is saying, coming back into the room. His name is Elmore, but people call him by his high school nickname. "A really great story idea that keeps readers turning the pages. And I just never had one. I always came up with stuff that I'd say, 'Oh, I guess I could make a book about that.' "

Dutch sits down to wait for Christine. He's watching the Tigers on the TV. They're down by two in the first. Dutch has been writing the great quirky endlessly entertaining endlessly violent American novel for half a century, mostly right here in this room, over there at the desk with an unlined yellow legal pad and a typewriter. Some 43 novels, who knows how many short stories and screenplays. He's been hailed as the "greatest living crime novelist," "the king of crime," "the Dickens of Detroit."

He has helped shape an entire body of literature and cinema. He has become, in these later years, an iconic cultural reference point: Any quirky violent crime story with punchy dialogue is Dutchesque. When the new version of the video game Grand Theft Auto came out recently, the New York Times said its street patois could "rival Elmore Leonard's." "Pulp Fiction" is the best Elmore Leonard film not written by Elmore Leonard; director Quentin Tarantino acknowledged a "big debt" to him when the film came out. The New Yorker reviewed the Oscar-winning "No Country for Old Men," and said, "If I want wry lawmen and smart, calculating fugitives, I'll get them from Elmore Leonard." (His own books have been turned into films since God was a baby: "Get Shorty," "Jackie Brown," "Out of Sight," "3:10 to Yuma," "Hombre," "Mr. Majestyk.")

You sit down and wait on Christine, too. You expect a guy with this kind of career to come across as the love child of Joe Eszterhas and Mickey Spillane, spewing ego all over your shirt. Instead you get this skinny guy, little chicken legs, not tall, soft-spoken but funny. He's wearing shorts, for God's sake. T-shirt. Light beard. Says he's 82, but moves around like he's 20 years short of it.

"The second-worst movie ever made," he's saying, "is the first version of 'The Big Bounce.' God, it was awful." This was a book he wrote back in the 1960s that was indeed made into a terrible movie. He pauses to inhale from a Virginia Slim. "The worst movie ever made was the second version of 'The Big Bounce.' I met Morgan Freeman on the set; he's a good actor, I like him, I asked him what he was doing there. He said, 'Well, I'm the law guy.' And I said 'No, not your role. I mean, what are you doing in this thing?' "

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