Elmore “Dutch” Leonard died this week of complications from a stroke he suffered two weeks ago. He was 87. Leonard was the author of 47 novels and several collections of short stories. Nearly everything Elmore Leonard wrote was optioned by Hollywood. The more notable of which were Get Shorty, Jackie Brown (based on the novel Rum Punch), Out of Sight, and most recently, the FX series Justified (based on the short story Fire in the Hole). Leonard was sometimes happy about how these adaptations turned out.
Born in 1925, Leonard began his career as an advertising man. His first novel, 1953’s The Bounty Hunters was handwritten on yellow legal pads, a habit he never lost. The Bounty Hunters, like most of Leonard’s early works was a western. With 1969’s The Big Bounce Leonard took his gritty characters out of period pieces and into a modern setting. In many ways Leonard reinvented the crime thriller, taking it to a place beyond the dime store pulps.
I first discovered his work on a $0.50 used paperback shelf in my local bookstore. After reading Killshot, I devoured everything Elmore Leonard I could get my hands on. Like many of his readers, I was enamored of the realistic dialogue and the desperately relatable characters. Beyond the wonderfully intricate plots was an ability to allow the dialogue to drive the story. When asked about his dialogue Leonard responded “Don’t you hear people talking? That’s all I do.” It was that dialogue that allowed Leonard to write re-readable thrillers while most are viewed as disposable.
In addition to the gift of his stories, Elmore Leonard offered some advice for the rest of us. Leonard’s Ten Rules for Writing published in 2007 was a list of common sense rules for aspiring authors. With simplistic rules like “Never open a book with weather” and “Never use a word other than “Said” to carry a conversation” The pamphlet offered some insight into his success.
Elmore Leonard, sometimes called the Dickens of Detroit, gave depth to all of his characters. He treated the antagonists with the same care as the protagonists and showed the same concern for each of his stories. Leonard wrote westerns and thrillers with the same attention to each aspect of the narrative. He allowed for humor and depth in each. Leonard’s style and career are best explained by what I believe is the most important of his ten rules: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”