Remembering Elmore Leonard

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Elmore Leonard with Joe Kidd Eastwood Poster

1972: Leonard wrote several screenplays, including Joe Kidd, which starred Clint Eastwood.

In the mid-80s I found a whole new genre of reading. Tired of the “classics” often assigned in English class, I desperately looked for something more intriguing.

Enter: 52 Pick-Up, by Elmore Leonard. I remembered seeing advertisements for the film, which starred Ann-Margret and Roy Scheider (of JAWS fame). It was the story of Harry Mitchell, a Detroit businessman, who was having a mid-life crisis. After being caught on film having an affair, blackmailers wanted $100,000 to keep the story quiet. A few years after reading it I saw the film. Though done very well, nothing on the screen could compare to Leonard’s brilliantly simple writing style.

In college, I was all about the studies, work and reading. On the mile-long trek to the campus each day I would read while walking slowly on the sidewalk. It was there that I literally fell in love with Leonard and his stories. Glitz. Freaky Deaky. Killshot. Get Shorty. Maximum Bob. Even during the ’90s his books had a certain retro-feel in respect to character development and easy speak. And I just couldn’t get enough.

There’s no argument that Leonard’s writing style was unique. He mastered snappy dialogue and clever plots in the crime genre.

Born October 11, 1925 in New Orleans, his family settled in Detroit in the mid-30s. It was the time that Bonnie and Clyde and the likes were making national headlines. This reportedly had great influence on Leonard, as did the Detroit Tigers, having made it to the World Series in 1934. They say that ever since, Leonard had great fascinations with sports and guns.

After high school, Leonard joined the US Navy, where he served with the Seabees. In 1946 he enrolled at the University of Detroit, during which he submitted short stories to magazines. Just a year before graduating he was hired as a copy writer for the Campbell-Ewald ad agency.

Initially a western writer, Leonard’s first published work was a short story called “Trail of the Apaches” in Argosy, an American pulp magazine. Over the next decade more than 30 of his short stories, Westerns, were published, as was his first novel, The Bounty Hunters (1953).

Leonard’s success in that genre came quickly. In the 1950s two of his novels were adapted to film: The Tall T (1957) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957).

The Big Bounce cover

Leonard started shopping The Big Bounce in 1966. It wasn’t until it was adapted for the 1969 film that it was published. It would later become one of his classics.

The Big Bounce, his first real crime novel (completed in ’66), however, was rejected more than 80 times until it was made into a movie in 1969.

A critically acclaimed writer, Leonard was dubbed “The Dickens of Detroit”. He often wrote about people from Motor City, though argued that it was simply because that’s where he lived.

“If I lived in Buffalo, I’d write about Buffalo,” he once said.

Leonard’s gritty realism and brief dialogue exchanges, and his ability to suck the reader in and keep him there, garnered him much praise amongst his peers. Stephen King has called him “the great American writer.”

Leonard believed in taking liberties with grammar if it sped the story along. When asked how to write, he said the key was to know when to stop.

“I don’t want it to sound like writing,” he said. “Leave out the parts people tend to skip.”

A simple notion from a man who wrote quite simply, though so simply no other author can touch him.

Leonard passed away in the early morning of August 20, 2013, two weeks after suffering a stroke. Unlike so many others, though, he left a huge impact on the world of books, television and film. At the time of his death, Leonard had published 45 novels, 19 of which had been adapted to film, as well as seven others for the television screen. Three of his works: 3:10 to Yuma, The Big Bounce and 52 Pick-Up had been filmed twice. He’d also written nine screenplays.

Some avid readers argue that many of Leonard’s books lack a sufficient ending. Such is the case with The Big Bounce and 52 Pick-Up. I disagree. I think many mistake his succinct writing style as one that lacks completeness. Others argue that the film adaptations are better than the original works. I disagree there, as well.

Either way, no one can argue that the lifelong works of Elmore Leonard make him a true legend.

By the way, for the Tarantino fans, Jackie Brown was an adaptation of Leonard’s Rum Punch.

Are you an Elmore Leonard fan? Which book was your favorite?






Last updated: Aug 22, 2013
Filed under: Retro Memories Tagged with: authors, movies, retro reading