Leonard, Elmore (1925—)

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Leonard, Elmore (1925—)

American author Elmore "Dutch" Leonard is often mentioned in the same class as Ross Macdonald and Dashiell Hammett as a writer whose work exceeds the expectations of suspense novels. However, though Leonard is praised as a master of the crime novel—with his fast-moving action, hard-boiled characters, and detailed but not flowery descriptions—his writing style does not fall neatly into the crime or detective genre. Many critics, in fact, decline to peg him as a genre writer due to his skillful craftsmanship. Leonard's realistic, contemporary dialogue reads practically effortlessly, and his story lines often interject social commentary without distraction. Often dubbed the "Dickens of Detroit," Leonard began his literary career writing Westerns in the 1950s and has been writing fiction full time since 1967. He chugged along relatively unnoticed until his works LaBrava (1983) and Glitz (1985) established him as an accomplished novelist. Though at that time he made national news, he did not become a major name until his tale of a starstruck loan shark, Get Shorty, was released as a film in 1995.

Leonard was born on October 11, 1925, in New Orleans, Louisiana, and relocated with his family several times before finally settling in the Detroit area. After high school, he served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, then attended college at the University of Detroit, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Philosophy degree in 1950. Though he aspired to become a writer, Leonard was concerned about making a living, so he took a job at a Detroit advertising agency and rose early in the morning to work on Western stories, which he chose because he thought they would be the most lucrative. In 1951, he sold his first piece, "Apache Agent," to the magazine Argosy, and in 1953 sold his first novel, The Bounty Hunters, following it up with four more over the next eight years.

In 1961, Leonard had a major breakthrough with Hombre, a book about a white man raised by the Apache Indian tribe. It was later named one of the 25 best Western novels of all time by the Western Writers of America in 1977. He quit the ad agency and wanted to begin writing full time, but had a family of five children to support, so he took freelance jobs writing for educational and industrial films, as well as advertising. When Twentieth Century-Fox bought the rights to Hombre in 1967 for $10,000, Leonard finally had the means to pursue fiction as a career. Because Westerns were losing their audience, Leonard switched to crime novels and published his first in this genre, The Big Bounce, in 1969.

Throughout the 1970s, Leonard wrote more suspense fiction and also worked regularly adapting novels—including a few of his own—for the screen. Though these jobs paid well, Leonard longed to return to books, and in 1983 published LaBrava, for which he earned an Edgar Allen Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1984. After that, his 1985 work, Glitz, became a best-seller and Book-of-the-Month selection, thrusting him into the mainstream. Leonard's novels became known for their direct focus on plot and characters' actions, rejecting the psychoanalytical aspect prevalent in so many crime tales. His dialogue was fresh and realistic, the characters quirky and intriguing rather than two-dimensional and formulaic, and the stories satisfyingly gripping.

Though Leonard's books continued to be popular throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, the few that were made into films did not meet with much critical or popular success. By the mid-1990s, however, Hollywood had rediscovered Leonard, and director Barry Sonnenfeld was hired to direct the screen adaptation of Get Shorty, which was released in 1995. This adaptation had a vein of humor running through it that surprised Leonard at first, since his works are not comical, but the new take delighted critics and moviegoers alike. The story involved a loan shark who goes to California to collect on a debt and becomes entranced with Hollywood.

After Get Shorty, hip director Quentin Tarantino in 1997 reworked the novel Rum Punch into Jackie Brown, starring 1970s Blaxploitation queen Pam Grier as a flight attendant who is involved with a petty gun runner. Following that, Leonard made $2.5 million for the rights to Out of Sight, and by 1998, Quentin Tarantino had purchased the rights to three more Leonard novels. In the fall of 1998, ABC created a television series based on the 1991 book Maximum Bob, about a tough Florida judge and his bizarre wife. Meanwhile, Touch was adapted for film as well, and Leonard released his first non-contemporary novel in years, Cuba Libre, a story of horse smugglers set roughly a hundred years ago. Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, who made Raising Arizona and Fargo, immediately showed interest. During this period, Leonard planned a sequel to Get Shorty.

Leonard's knack for creating seedy villains and shopworn heroes does not come from first-hand experience. Living a relatively tame life in an upscale suburb outside of Detroit, Michigan, the author does not prowl the underworld for material, except for an occasional trip to the police station to listen to speech rhythms of cops and crooks; and he has an assistant perform a good deal of his research. Nevertheless, his offbeat hoodlums ring true, and readers have come to enjoy his plot twists and portrayals of people on the other side of the tracks without relying on stereotypes and cliches.

—Geri Speace

Further Reading:

Everson, David H. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 173: American Novelists Since World War II. Fifth Series. Edited by James R. Giles, and Wanda H. Giles. Detroit, Gale Research, 1996.

Prial, Frank J. "It's No Crime to Talk Softly." New York Times Biographical Service. Ann Arbor, MI, UMI Co., 1996, 298.

Yagoda, Ben. "Elmore Leonard's Rogues' Gallery." New York Times Biographical Service, Volume 15. Ann Arbor, Michigan, UMI Co., 1984, 1649.