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Elmore Leonard, 87; wrote crime novels ripe for Hollywood

Elmore Leonard was quiet and reserved. He had no rap sheet, never owned a gun, and had given up drinking.AP/File

WASHINGTON — Elmore Leonard, a masterful 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 of 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.

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.

In ‘‘Rum Punch’’ (1992), would-be thief Louis Gara spends so much time crafting his ‘‘Do not panic’’ stickup note that the bank he is plotting to rob has closed by the time he gets there. In ‘‘The Switch’’ (1978), two ex-cons abduct the wife of a philandering builder, only to learn he has no intention of paying a 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 Mr. Leonard’s ‘‘Rum Punch’’ into the 1997 film ‘‘Jackie Brown,’’ cited the author as a key influence on his own 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 Mr. 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.

Young Elmore Leonard went on to serve in World War II. His bad eyesight consigned him to a job as store manager for the US Navy’s Seabees, doling out beer for the troops.


After graduating from the University of Detroit in 1950, Mr. 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 morning and churned out pulp Westerns for two hours before heading to work.

In 1951, he published his first short story in Argosy magazine for $1,000. His first novel, ‘‘The Bounty Hunters,’’ came out in 1954. Two of his early stories become popular Western movies, ‘‘The Tall T’’ with Randolph Scott, and ‘‘3:10 to Yuma’’ with Glenn Ford (both in 1957).

By the end of the 1950s, the Western market was saturated, so to support his wife and five children, Mr. Leonard turned to writing scripts for educational films.

Then, in 1967, 20th Century Fox bought the rights for his novel ‘‘Hombre’’ for $10,000. The resulting film, starring Newman as a white man raised by American Indians, was only a moderate box office success, but it gave Mr. Leonard the financial cushion he needed to reboot his fiction.

His next book, ‘‘The Big Bounce,’’ the story of an ex-con falling into the clutches of a psychotic young seductress, was rejected 84 times before finding a publisher. It found devoted readers, though, and it placed Mr. Leonard for the first time in his natural milieu: the modern American underworld.

This was also a time of personal turmoil for Mr. Leonard. His first marriage ended in divorce, and his heavy drinking was a contributing factor.


He quit drinking for good in 1977 and two years later he married Joan Shepard. She died in 1993. His third marriage, to Christine Kent, ended in divorce. He leaves five children from his first marriage; 13 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Hollywood had long warmed to Mr. Leonard’s taut, dialogue-heavy yarns. ‘‘The Big Bounce’’ was filmed twice. (Mr. Leonard hated both versions.) ‘‘Joe Kidd’’ (1972) featured Clint Eastwood as a bounty hunter tracking a Mexican revolutionary, and ‘‘ Majestyk’’ (1974) starred Bronson as a farmer battling the syndicate.

More successful were Barry Sonnenfeld’s ‘‘Get Shorty’’ (1995), about a loan shark who finds little difference between organized crime and the film industry, and Steven Soderbergh’s ‘‘Out of Sight’’ (1998), in which a deputy US marshal fights and eventually resolves her feelings for a handsome jailbreaker.

In recent years, Mr. Leonard’s work inspired the FX television series ‘‘Justified,’’ with Timothy Olyphant as a federal lawman busting heads in Kentucky.

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


The author reacted to his cultural enshrinement with a mixture of pride and puzzlement.

When a professor rhapsodized about his ‘‘patterns of imagery,’’ Mr. Leonard’s initial response was, ‘‘What’s he talking about?’’ Mr. Leonard liked to quote the review from a librarian at a Connecticut prison: ‘‘While you ain’t caught on with the crack and cocaine heads, you have got a following amongst the heroin crowd.’’