Elmore Leonard died Tuesday in his Michigan home surrounded by his family. He was 87 years old and had suffered a stroke three weeks ago.
Leonard was a prolific author, who wrote more than forty books over sixty years, including Three-Ten to Yuma and Other Stories and Get Shorty. Starting out in the early fifties writing pulp westerns, Leonard would rise at five am and write until seven—five days a week—before heading off to his job at an ad agency. He credits the author George V. Higgins for inspiring his decision to write crime novels. In his acceptance speech for the 2012 National Book Award Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Leonard cited his agent H.N. Swanson as pointing him toward Higgins’ novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle. It was a book that would change his career:
I got the book and read the opening sentence in the store: Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns. I finished the book at home in one sitting and felt like I’d been set free. Higgins moved his story almost entirely with dialogue. The conversations of cops and criminals, their voices establishing the style of his writing. I stopped trying to tell what was going on in my books and began to show it from the points-of-view and the voices of the characters—bad guys and good ones—the way George Higgins used his ear to tell what his people were up to.
Leonard raised genre writing to its highest art in part by stripping away its affectations. His much-emailed and passed around 10 Rules of Writing has a cult-like following among authors and editors, many of whom have the ten rules tacked above their desk. Number 8 on the list warns to “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters,” noting that in Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” the only description of the American and the girl is “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” It is their tones of voice that describes them, Leonard points out.
Many of his stories were adapted to the screen. Some projects turned out better than others. During the National Book Award speech, Leonard said of attending a screening for the “The Big Bounce,” based on his novel of the same name, “I came in a little bit late. It was about twenty minutes into the picture and I sat down. Right after that, the woman in front of me said to her husband, ‘This is the worst picture I ever saw.’ And the three of us got up and left.”
He was much more charitable about other film and television projects, including Justified, a TV drama that runs on FX and was recently renewed for a fifth season. Justified features Raylan Givens, a deputy U.S. Marshal who appeared in Leonard’s novels Pronto, Riding the Rap, Raylan, and the short story “Fire in the Hole.”
As his career grew (he didn’t hit the best seller list until the mid-80s), so did Leonard’s stature as an artist. Michael Morrison, President and Publisher of HarperCollins said of Leonard, “Elmore was a true legend- unpretentious, unbelievably talented and the coolest dude in the room.”
Elmore John Leonard, Jr. was born in New Orleans on October 11th, 1925. When he was nine his father, an executive at General Motors, moved the family to Detroit. Leonard graduated from high school in 1943, did a two-year stint in the Navy, and enrolled at the University of Detroit. He graduated in 1950 and was hired as a copywriter at a Detroit advertising agency. He was a longtime resident of Bloomfield Township, Michigan. The Detroit News, in an August 5th report on his stroke, had this to say about why Leonard remained in Michigan:
“I like it,’ Leonard said in 2012. “Great music ... lot of poverty. I wouldn’t move anywhere else. Now, it’s too late. I’d never be able to drive in San Francisco or Los Angeles.”