When it came to writing about crooks, cops and the bizarre predicaments in which they can find themselves, Elmore Leonard was the Stephen King of his genre – or perhaps, as Time magazine once described him, “The Dickens of Detroit.” Leonard published 45 novels, starting with The Bounty Hunters in 1953 and ending with Raylan in 2011. His work inspired scores of hit movies, including Fifty-Two Pickup, Mr. Majestyk, Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Jackie Brown. The hit cable TV series Justified is based on two of his novels, Pronto and Riding the Rap.
But Leonard, who died on Aug. 20 at age 87 in Bloomfield Village, Mich., was more than just a brand name on bookshelves and movie and TV screens. He may have been the last of the great old-fashioned pulp novelists, a breed of humble, low-rent literati who eked out a living in the 1950s by pounding out the prodigious amounts of prose required to keep bus-station newsstands stocked with dime novels.
Here are a few of the details about the man who was perhaps America’s greatest crime writer:
- His nickname, Dutch, was a reference to a now-obscure 1930s major league journeyman pitcher, Emil “Dutch” Leonard.
- While working at a Detroit advertising agency in the early 1950s, he began writing western fiction on the side. He sold more than 30 short stories to magazines such as Argosy and the Saturday Evening Post.
- A literary agent once admonished him in a letter, “DON’T GIVE UP YOUR JOB TO WRITE.”
- After turning to crime fiction, he waited eight years before selling his first crime novel, The Big Bounce, which was published in 1969. It wasn’t particularly successful (a 1969 movie version starring Ryan O’Neal also was a flop). He hit the top of the New York Times bestseller list in 1985 with Glitz.
- According to biographer Paul Challen, for decades Leonard religiously maintained a writing schedule of 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Early in his career, he could produce a page of typewritten prose per hour, but later on, slowed a bit to four pages a day.
- Leonard never owned a computer, preferring instead to write in longhand on legal pads and then transcribe his work with a typewriter.
- His characters and settings seemed so realistic because he based them on extensive research. While working on City Primeval, for example, he spent a lot of time with Detroit homicide detectives, studying their mannerisms and speech. “What impressed me the most was that his writing depicted the way that we talked to each other,” detective Jimmy Harris later told Leonard biographer Challen. “That’s his greatest asset.”
Here’s a 2006 interview with Leonard in which he gives his 10 tips for good writing:
Photo of Leonard in 1989: MDCarchives via Wikipedia
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