ADVERTISEMENT

Oct. 11, 1925 – Aug. 20, 2013

Elmore Leonard, a masterly crime novelist whose razor-sharp dialogue and indelibly realized lowlifes earned him an unusual mix of mass-market appeal and highbrow acclaim, died Tuesday at his home in Bloomfield Township, Mich. He was 87.

The cause was complications from a stroke, said his researcher, Gregg Sutter.

A diligent, unpretentious writer who worked in relative obscurity for many years, Mr. Leonard went on to influence a generation of crime writers, whose sales may have eclipsed his but whose adoration of him never waned.

His lean, violent stories also served up choice film vehicles for actors including Paul Newman (“Hombre”), John Travolta (“Get Shorty”), George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez (“Out of Sight”), Charles Bronson (“Majestyk”), Roy Scheider (“52 Pick-Up”) and Pam Grier (“Jackie Brown”).

What made Mr. Leonard stand out among other chroniclers of crime and punishment was his voice – laconic, funny, unsentimental – and his ruthlessly coherent vision of life in the lower depths. As described in a 2008 Washington Post profile, Mr. Leonard’s world is “populated by cops who aren’t exactly good, crooks who aren’t exactly bad, and women who have an eye for the in-between.”

What galvanizes this gallery of rogues and scoundrels, more often than not, is a scheme – a kidnapping, con job or robbery that will bring quick and easy money. As it turns out, the money is neither quick nor easy, and the schemes are doomed from the start, spinning down unexpected tangents and threatened at every turn by absurdity.

In “Rum Punch” (1992), would-be thief Louis Gara spends so much time crafting his “Do not panic” stickup note that the bank he’s plotting to rob has closed by the time he gets there. In “Switch” (1978), two ex-cons abduct the wife of a rich, philandering builder, only to learn he has no intention of paying the ransom. (They gain a new ally in his wife.)

Time and again, bad guys pause in the middle of bad acts for extended bull sessions on music or clothes. Screenwriter-director Quentin Tarantino, who turned Leonard’s “Rum Punch” into the 1997 film “Jackie Brown,” cited the author as a key influence on his own garrulous movie thugs.

Taken as a whole, the Leonard oeuvre serves to demolish the myth of the criminal genius. And yet what his villains lack in intelligence, they make up for in mayhem. Beatings, torture and murder feature prominently in the author’s pages. The villain in Leonard’s first bestseller, “Glitz” (1985), is a psychopath who kills prostitutes and rapes old ladies.

Mr. Leonard, in marked contrast, was a quiet, reserved, owlishly bespectacled man who lived in the Detroit suburbs and sported Kangol caps and tweed jackets. He had no rap sheet; he never owned a gun; he gave up drinking in his early 50s after his first marriage crumbled.

Although critics tended to lump him into the hard-boiled detective school of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald, Mr. Leonard resisted the tag of mystery writer, pointing out that his work lacks anything in the way of puzzles.

The mystery was all in the books’ creation. “I develop characters, and I’m not sure where they’re going until I get to know them,” he told the London Independent in 1998. “In fact, I seldom know before I’m halfway through what the thing is about.”

Elmore John Leonard Jr. was born in New Orleans. His father, a dealership scout for General Motors, moved the family from city to city before settling in Detroit.

Nicknamed “Dutch” after a Washington Senators knuckleball pitcher with the same surname, young Elmore Leonard went on to serve in World War II. His bad eyesight consigned him to a job as store manager for the Seabees, doling out beer for the troops.

After graduating from the University of Detroit in 1950, Leonard married his college sweetheart, Beverly Cline, and took a job with a local advertising agency. He nurtured his fiction habit in private.

He woke at 5 a.m. every day and churned out pulp Westerns for two hours before heading to work.

“I’d come down in the dark into the living room – that Michigan cold – and I wouldn’t even let myself heat the coffee water until I’d started writing,' he told People magazine.

Even as Mr. Leonard’s sales figures and box-office receipts mounted, he began winning kudos (much to his own surprise) from intelligentsia.

Walker Percy and Saul Bellow were fans. George Will gave out Leonard first-editions as Christmas presents. Martin Amis declared that “for an absolutely reliable and unstinting infusion of narrative pleasure in a prose miraculously purged of all false qualities, there was no one quite like Elmore Leonard.” In 2012, Mr. Leonard received the National Book Foundation’s medal for distinguished contribution to American letters.

His ear for American vernacular was unmistakably his own, and he used it in his bare-bones dialogue.

In “La Brava,” a hoodlum tersely accounts for the money from his last heist. “I spent half of it on broads, boats and booze. The rest I just wasted.”

– Washington Post