Elmore Leonard Jr. (1925 — 2013) is noted for his extraordinary dialogue and quirky characters. A writer of westerns in the 1950s who turned to the crime novel in the late 1960s, Leonard says that he has been more influenced by his study of Hemingway, Steinbeck, and O’Hara than by his contemporaries, but that his goal in writing is to efface “style.” If it looks like “writing,” he has said, cross it out.
Though born in New Orleans, Leonard is associated with Detroit, where he grew up and where many of his novels are set. His father was an auto executive, and Leonard has lived and worked in Detroit almost continuously. After serving in the Navy from 1943 to 1946, Leonard married his first wife (of three) in 1949. He graduated from the University of Detroit in 1950, becoming an advertising copywriter for the Campbell-Ewald Agency, a job he held for eleven years. Though he disliked copy-writing, Leonard found time to do his own writing by rising at five a.m. “Sometimes I would write a little fiction at work, too,” he told an interviewer. “I would write in my desk drawer and close the drawer if somebody came in.” 1
Intending to become a popular rather than a “literary” author, Leonard began to write Westerns, because he read them and he liked Western movies. His first sale was “Apache Agent” to Argosy magazine in the early 1950s. He published five novels and thirty short stories in the Western genre, eventually winning acclaim for Hombre (1961), which was selected by the Western Writers of America as one of the twenty-five best westerns of all time in 1977. Two of his westerns were sold to Hollywood: 3:10 to Yuma (starring Glenn Ford, 1957, Columbia) and The Tall T (starring Randolph Scott and Richard Boone, 1957, Twentieth-Century Fox).
The Western genre dried up the early 1960s, however, and Leonard became a freelance copywriter. He specialized in Hurst gear-shifters for hot-rods and educational movies for Encyclopaedia Britannica. In 1965, movie rights to Hombre sold for $10,000, and Leonard was able to devote himself full-time to writing; he chose crime fiction because it was hot. After this eight-year gap, his first crime novel — The Big Bounce (1969) — was rejected by eighty-four publishers before being accepted as a paperback original. Then Doubleday accepted The Moonshine War (1969), which sold to Hollywood. But Leonard was doubtful about his future in hard-boiled fiction and returned to the western with two novels in the early 1970s (Valdez Is Coming, 1970; Forty Lashes Less One, 1972). Only when movie rights to The Big Bounce sold for $50,000 did he commit himself. His next two novels were among his best – Mr. Majestyk (1974) and Fifty-Two Pickup (1974). Leonard also wrote the screenplays for The Moonshine War (1970) and Mr. Majestyk (1974), but he gradually distanced himself from movie work.
For City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit (1980), one of his best-known works, Leonard camped out in the homicide squad room for months to pick up the slang and speech rhythms of police, lawyers and criminals. Dialogue had been a strength, but now it became his distinguishing feature. “Peculiarities of speech mark each of his characters as a one-of-a-kind individual,” writes scholar Thomas Wiloch. 2 In fact, Leonard has said that he begins with the character’s name and phrases that will define each character’s speech. “Usually it’s the name. If I get the name right, the character will talk.” He adds, “I may very well write down a character’s background or the way the character talks. Or, for example, in Bandits, the way Lucy Nichols referred to her father. Her attitude about her father I put into dialogue in a notebook, trying to get her style.” 3 Leonard continues, “I see my characters as being most important, how they bounce off one another, how they talk to teach other, and the plot just sort of comes along.” 4 But if dialogue and character are Leonard’s trademarks, plotting is his weakness. He admits to beginning his novels with only a basic situation and relationships between the characters, but “no idea how it will end.” Ben Yagoda of the Chicago Tribune wrote that Leonard’s novels are “smoky improvisations grouped around a set of reliable elements.” 5
Besides his hometown of Detroit, Leonard’s novels are sometimes set in south Florida, where he vacations and his mother owns a motel, and New Orleans, his birthplace. His seedy characters inhabit the seedy sides of these towns and fall into a plot that, as Michel Kernan wrote in the Washington Post, typically involves “guns, a killing, or two or three, fights and chases and sex… And, just below the surface, an acute sense of the ridiculous.” 6
After writing for twenty years, Leonard was “discovered” with Stick in 1983. Then, in 1983, LaBrava won an Edgar Award for best mystery novel of the year, and his next novel, Glitz (1985), was selected by Book-of-the-Month Club, as was Freaky Deaky (1988). Get Shorty (1990) continued the trend, but Maximum Bob(1991) is considered Leonard’s most interesting plot. A Florida judge decides to drive away his wife, who believes she is the reincarnation of a girl eaten by an alligator a century earlier, so that he can pursue another woman. Reversing the genre formula of beginning with a murder, this novel presents possible victims and possible murderers and keeps the reader guessing about who will kill whom.
Besides his eight westerns, Leonard has now written thirty-some crime novels, nine screenplays and contributed to a non-fiction book on alcoholism. The most recent are the children’s book A Coyote’s in the House (2003), Mr. Paradise (2004), The Hot Kid (2005) and Up in Honey’s Room(2007). While originally noted by Los Angeles Times reviewer Grover Sales for his “pace and his inexhaustible flair for the nervous rhythms of contemporary urban speech,” Leonard now wins praise from literary writers such as Martin Amis, who says “[He] possesses gifts – of ear and eye, of timing and phrasing – that even the most indulgent and snobbish masters of the mainstream must vigorously covet.” 7
1. Elmore Leonard, Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, vol. 53, 286. 2. Ibid. 287. 3. Elmore Leonard, interview, Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, vol. 28, 285. 4 Contemporary Authors, New Revision series, 53, 287. 5 Contemporary Authors, New Revision series, 28, 284. 6 Ibid. 283. 7 Grover Sales, Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, 53, 286; Martin Amis, ibid, 289.