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Best-selling author Elmore Leonard dies at 87
First Published Aug 20 2013 09:36 am • Last Updated Aug 20 2013 09:40 am

Detroit • Elmore Leonard, the beloved crime novelist whose acclaimed best-sellers and the movies made from them chronicled the violent deaths of many a thug and conman, has died. He was 87.

Leonard, winner of an honorary National Book Award in 2012, died Tuesday morning at his home in Bloomfield Township, a suburb of Detroit, from complications of a stroke he suffered a few weeks ago, said his researcher, Gregg Sutter. Leonard was surrounded by family when he died, Sutter said.

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His millions of fans, from bellhops to Saul Bellow, made all of his books since "Glitz" (1985) best-sellers. When they flocked to watch John Travolta in the movie version of "Get Shorty" in 1995, its author became the darling of Hollywood’s hippest directors. And book critics and literary lions, prone to dismiss crime novels as mere entertainments, competed for adjectives to praise him.

His more than 40 novels were populated by pathetic schemers, clever conmen and casual killers. Each was characterized by moral ambivalence about crime, black humor and wickedly acute depictions of human nature: the greedy dreams of Armand Degas in "Killshot," the wisecracking cool of Chili Palmer in "Get Shorty," Jack Belmont’s lust for notoriety in "The Hot Kid."

"When something sounds like writing, I rewrite it," Leonard often said — and critics adored the flawlessly unadorned, colloquial style. As author Ann Arensberg put it in a New York Times book review, "I didn’t know it was possible to be as good as Elmore Leonard."

Leonard spent much of his childhood in Detroit and set many of his novels in the city. Others were set in Miami near his North Palm Beach, Fla., vacation home.

One remarkable thing about Leonard’s talent is how long it took the world to notice. He didn’t have a best-seller until his 60th year, and few critics took him seriously before the 1990s.

He had some minor successes in the 1950s and ‘60s in writing Western stories and novels, a couple of which were made into movies. But when interest in the Western dried up, he turned to writing scripts for educational and industrial films while trying his hand at another genre: crime novels.

The first, "The Big Bounce," was rejected 84 times before it was published as a paperback in 1969. Hollywood came calling again, paying $50,000 for the rights and turning it into a movie starring Ryan O’Neal, that even Leonard called "terrible."

He followed up with several more well-written, fast-paced crime novels, including "Swag" (1976). Leonard was already following the advice he would later give to young writers: "Try to leave out the parts that people skip."


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In 1978, he was commissioned to write an article about the Detroit Police Department. He shadowed the police officers for nearly three months. Starting with "City Primeval" in 1980, his crime novels gained a new authenticity, with quirky but believable characters and crisp, slangy dialogue. But sales remained light.

Donald I. Fine, an editor at Arbor House, thought they deserved better, and he promised to put the muscle of his publicity department behind them. He delivered: In 1985, "Glitz," a stylish novel of vengeance set in Atlantic City, became Leonard’s first best-seller.

Leonard never looked back.

Hollywood rediscovered him, churning out a succession of bad movies including the humorless "51 Pick-up" starring Roy Scheider. Its director, John Frankenheimer, failed to capture the sensibilities of Leonard’s work, and his ear missed the clever dialogue.

It took Barry Sonnenfeld to finally show Hollywood how to turn a Leonard novel into a really good movie. "Get Shorty" was the first to feel and sound like an Elmore Leonard novel.

Then Quentin Tarantino took a turn with "Rum Punch," turning it into "Jackie Brown," a campy, Blaxploitation-style film starring Pam Grier. But Steven Soderbergh stayed faithful to Leonard’s story and dialogue with "Out of Sight."

Writing well into his 80s, Leonard process remained the same.

He settled in at his home office in Bloomfield Township, Mich., around 10 a.m. behind a desk covered with stacks of paper and books. He lit a cigarette, took a drag and set about to writing — longhand, of course — on the 63-page unlined yellow pads that were custom-made for him.

When he finished a page, Leonard transferred the words onto a separate piece of paper using an electric typewriter. He tried to complete between three and five pages by the time his workday ended at 6 p.m.

"Well, you’ve got to put in the time if you want to write a book," Leonard told The Associated Press in 2010 of the shift work that was befitting of his hometown’s standing as the nation’s automotive capital.

Leonard had sold his first story, "Trail of the Apache," in 1951, and followed with 30 more for such magazines as "Dime Western," earning 2 or 3 cents a word. At the time, he was working in advertising, but he would wake up early to work on his fiction before trudging off to write Chevrolet ads.

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