BY LAWRENCE GROBEL
About 15 years ago, I flew to Michigan to do a story on Elmore Leonard, the crime writer Time magazine had called the “Dickens of Detroit” and Newsweek labeled “the best American writer of crime fiction alive, possibly the best we’ve ever had.” Leonard lived in an exclusive suburb called Bloomfield Village and some of his neighbors were professional basketball players and heart surgeons. I remember him smiling at the television as he listened to the ramblings of the loquacious boxing promoter Don King. It wasn’t what King was saying that made Leonard happy, but the way he said it. “Man, listen to the rhythm of those words,” he said as I joined him in his living room.
It was the sound that impressed Elmore Leonard; just as it was the sound that impressed critics who admired the virtues of his books. The sound of Elmore Leonard is the sound of the street, the sound of the hustler and the con man, the drinker and the drunkard, the cop and the killer. It’s the sound of people talking and dealing in Detroit, New Orleans, and South Florida. Listen as Leonard describes the lower end of Miami Beach: “the neighborhood taken over by junkies, muggers, cutthroats, queers…Cubans off the boat-lift, Haitians who had swum ashore when their boats broke to pieces, old-time New York Jews once the backbone, eyeing each other with nothing remotely in common, not even the English language. The vampires came out at night and the old people triple-locked their doors and waited for morning—ass-end of Miami Beach down here.”
And what do these “vampires” talk about? “Shooting a woman and understanding a woman are two entirely different things,” says one of his bad guys in Killshot. “If I notched my gun butt you’d get splinters running your hand on it, you dink,” says another in Gold Coast. And in City Primeval, his bad guy, Clement, gets his lawyer Carolyn to pay him: “‘What you think I’m gonna do to you huh? Tell me.’…Clement drew his right hand out of [her] caftan, bringing it down past his own hip, curled the hand into a fist and grunted, going up on his toes, as he drove the fist into Carolyn’s stomach.”
If you’re not familiar with Leonard’s world you probably haven’t been reading much crime fiction in the last four decades. Elmore Leonard’s been around since the early ’50s, but it wasn’t until Newsweek put him on its cover in 1985 and he made a multi-million dollar book deal soon after when his books began to attract national attention and reach the best-seller lists.
“The New York Times has said that my books are about decent men in trouble,” Leonard says. “I suppose that’s as good a description as any. I don’t analyze my work other than to know that the good guy is not always good or he has weaknesses, and the bad guy can behave normally at times. The only premise I begin with is that my characters are human beings and I’m going to treat them honestly, despite their inclinations—not approving of those who commit criminal acts, but rather accepting the fact impersonally, without making moral judgments.”
Leonard is a champion of the blue collar worker. He describes men who are as handy with a 30-pound impact wrench as with a hammer and saw. Like his heroes, the photographer and ex-secret service man Joe La Brava, in La Brava, Leonard has felt himself attracted to street life. “It was a strange feeling, he was at home, knew the people; saw more outcast faces and attitudes than he would ever be able to record, people who showed him their essence behind all kinds of poses.”
He writes knowingly of towing barges and building skyscrapers, of wiring explosives to cars and how many incisions are needed to embalm a body. His books detail his fascination with guns, comparing Belgian FN-FAL’s to AK-47s, or discussing how to convert an AR-15 Colt into an M-16. His good guys often walk the edge between ambivalence and temptation; and his bad guys are not without ambition. Some want to con millions from their employers; others want to rob a bank in every state of the union except Alaska.
One might think that a man who writes about such things grew up in tough neighborhoods, had a father who was either a cop or a hood, fought his way through school and probably spent some time behind bars where he picked up the lingo he uses with such a sure hand. But it wasn’t like that at all for Elmore Leonard, who was born in New Orleans on October 11, 1925.
His father worked for General Motors and the family moved between Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan and Tennessee six times in nine years, finally settling in Detroit in 1934, when Elmore was 9. In high school a friend teased him about his first name and started calling him Dutch, after the knuckleball pitcher for the Washington Senators. The nickname stuck. When he was 17 he tried to enlist in the Marines but was rejected because of an eye problem. A year later he joined the Navy reserves and wound up maintaining airstrips in New Guinea. In 1949 he enrolled at the University of Detroit and married his college sweetheart, Beverly Cline. By 1965 he was the father of four.
Leonard had various jobs before he could live off his writing. He worked for an advertising firm, became a copywriter, and wrote for industrial movies and short films for the Encyclopædia Britannica. Before his early novels started appearing in 1954-56, he wrote for pulp magazines like Dime Western and Zane Grey’s Western. And what he learned about writing he never forgot. “I think the mistake most beginners make—they’re more concerned with creating something that sounds like writing, with clever images, descriptive passages, than they are with discovering their own basic attitude about putting words on paper. They want to have written before they know why they want to write or realize it’s going to take at least 10 years to begin to learn how and to realize that style comes out of attitude, not the clever arrangement of words.”
Over time, Elmore Leonard’s attitude caught on.
A prolific writer who composes in long hand and never uses a computer, Leonard’s novels have been translated into 16 languages including Czech, Greek and Hebrew. All of his work is still in print, and 27 of his stories have been made into movies for either television or features, including the westerns Hombre (Paul Newman), 3:10 to Yuma (Glenn Ford and Van Heflin in 1957; Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in 2007) and the crime films Get Shorty (John Travolta), Jackie Brown (based on Leonard’s Rum Punch, starring Pam Grier), and Out of Sight (George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez). Killshot, starring Mickey Rourke and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and executive produced by Quentin Tarantino is in the can and awaiting a release date.
A former heavy drinker and a member of A.A., it was his personal battle with alcohol that led to the disintegration of his first marriage after 27 years. His experience with the bottle brought out some of his sharpest, most descriptive writing. In Freaky Deaky he describes the ritual upchucking the morning after: “…being sick was part of waking up…cleaning up a bathroom looked like somebody had been killing chickens in it.” Then, once the mess was cleaned, came the day’s first drink: “Vodka sitting on the toilet tank while you took a shower, something to hold you till the bars opened at seven.”
In 1977 he took his last drink and married for the second time to Joan Shepherd in 1979. When she died of lung cancer in 1992, Leonard, acknowledging that he “needed to be married,” found the woman who would become his third wife in his backyard. She was Christine Kent, who was in charge of the gardening crew that took care of his flower beds. He was taken by her knowledge of movies and books, and eight months after his second wife’s passing they were married.
Leonard brought Christine to my house in June 1995 when I invited them to join an “O.J. dinner” my wife and I planned. This was during the O.J. Simpson trial, a time when I’d often find my wife sitting in front of the TV talking back to the lawyers or witnesses—my wife rarely watched TV, but this trial altered her routine. We’d see Lawrence Schiller and Dominick Dunne at the trial—Schiller wrote Simpson’s I Want To Tell You book and would later write his own best-selling book about the trial; Dunne covered it for Vanity Fair—and since I knew both of them, I suggested we invite them for dinner, include Elmore Leonard since he made his living writing about bad guys, and see what we might learn of what was going on behind-the-scenes. When all three accepted I mentioned it to Diane Keaton when we spoke and she invited herself. “I want to hear what they have to say,” she said.
The dinner was entertaining and enlightening. Both Schiller and Dunne are captivating guests, sharing stories about their lives as investigative journalists and about their insights into the Simpson trial. Leonard and Keaton were happy to listen to what was being said, and I knew that Dutch was filing away the stories for future use in his fiction. He also told us about his early years breaking in as a writer.
“Publishers have always liked my work,” Leonard said, “but were unable to sell it because it didn’t fit neatly into a category. At least that’s what they told me, that my work was sort of a hybrid. Not literary, but not pure thriller either; because the people in the story are noticeably more important than the plot. The publishers kept insisting that if they couldn’t label my books, or if I didn’t have a continuing character, they couldn’t sell them.”
This might explain why Leonard kicked around from publisher to publisher since 1953, from Houghton Mifflin to Doubleday to Dell, Ballantine, Bantam, Fawcett Gold Medal, Dodd Mead, Avon, Arbor House, William Morrow, Mysterious Press. He settled down with Delacorte, feeling “more comfortable than I’ve even been” with them.
“Early on I got a good idea of what I could do and what I couldn’t,” Leonard said when discussing his writing. “Based on that, I try to move the story with as much dialogue as possible and concentrate on the characters. I don’t write effectively in the traditional manner of narrative writing, in telling a story with language, with my words. I don’t have enough words to do that, so in lieu of that I approach it from the standpoint of the characters. I’m not sure of my ability to describe what’s going on; to me it’s more interesting to let the characters do it—that way, you not only find out what’s going on, but you also learn something about the character. You’re doing two things at once. I’m not good at imagery, similes and metaphors. If they’re not good they’re very, very distracting. I said that to Joyce Carol Oates once and she said, ‘Well, so much for Shakespeare.’ But Raymond Chandler’s tarantula on a piece of angel food cake—that kind of metaphor distracts you from the story. You’re picturing the metaphor and you are away from the story.”
To maintain his “sound” for the 400 or so manuscript pages that comprise a Leonard novel, he feels he has to lose himself in the story and not think of what he’s doing as writing. “I don’t want the reader to be aware of me as the writer,” he says. “The Village Voice a few years ago said I did this so successfully no one knew who I was.”
Of course since 1985, a lot of people know who Leonard is—especially collectors. First editions of his first three novels: The Bounty Hunters, The Law at Randado and Escape from Five Shadows sell between $2,500 to $6,500. The first edition paperback of Hombre sells for $1,250. The Moonshine War goes for $1,000, Fifty-Two Pickup for $750. Unknown Man 89, The Gold Coast and The Switch are listed over $500 on the AbeBooks website. In other words, collecting Elmore Leonard is a better investment than most stocks. And as long as he is able (he’s 82 now) he appears at bookstores and signs. His next book, called Road Dogs, will be published in June 2009. “Jack Foley’s back,” Leonard told me, “but we can’t get Clooney to read it.”
“If I sell 150,000 in hardcover and a million-and-one in paperback, that’s about it,” he reflects. “I probably reached my peak unless I come up with a real good idea, a story that is just so smashing that everyone will have to read it, something that hasn’t been done. But I’m more happy right now than I’ve ever been. I haven’t compromised much. I’ve stayed with what I wanted to do. And I try to make each book better.”