Elmore Leonard, the crime novelist often called "the Dickens of Detroit," has passed away at the age of 87, after having suffered a stroke earlier this month. His death was announced on the Facebook page maintained by his longtime research assistant Gregg Sutter.
Leonard is the author of popular crime novels like Get Shorty ("a masterpiece," according to Martin Amis) and Out of Sight, as well as Rum Punch — better known, perhaps, by its cinematic name of Jackie Brown, the 1997 faux-blaxploitation flick directed by Quentin Tarantino. Get Shorty had been made into a film two years earlier, one that starred John Travolta, Danny DeVito and Rene Russo.
One of Elmore Leonard's most delightful qualities was his belief that most mean people are too narcissistic or stupid to be nice.— Matt Zoller Seitz (@mattzollerseitz) August 20, 2013
In an obituary for The New York Times, crime book reviewer Marilyn Stasio has what is, by most accounts, an accurate assessment of Leonard's oeuvre:
To his admiring peers, Mr. Leonard did not merely validate the popular crime thriller; he stripped the form of its worn-out affectations, reinventing it for a new generation and elevating it to a higher literary shelf.
Throughout his long and prolific career, Leonard managed to sell books without selling out. You could read his smart page-turners on the beach, but you wouldn't be ashamed to read them on the subway or even a Brooklyn bar. In a lengthy, highly worthwhile appreciation for The Guardian last year, Philip Henscher argued Leonard was "the greatest American crime writer, surpassing even Raymond Chandler," suggesting that to call him a "genre" novelist was to devalue his artistry:
In his analysis through laughter of money, crime, spectacle and the play-acting of the powerful, he has created something entirely his own. In his 40-odd novels, his examinations of the way people manipulate language and stories have both recorded and created an aspect of human behaviour. He is just the great American novelist of the great American comedy.
Indeed, Leonard was a thoughtful craftsman. His beloved, much-cited ten rules for writers reveal an unpretentious approach to telling stories, one with no concern higher than the reader's interest. Leonard himself wanted to "remain invisible."
Elmore Leonard, who passed away today, shared his idea of happiness with VF:“Being with my best friend, who’s a girl” http://t.co/5TFeLQJ3JX— VANITY FAIR (@VanityFair) August 20, 2013
Leonard was born in New Orleans but after serving in the Navy and graduating from the University of Detroit, settled in the Motor City as an advertising copywriter, much later ending up in the posh suburb of Bloomfield Hills. He published his first story in 1951 and his first book in 1953. The Bounty Hunters, a cowboys-and-Indians tale set in Arizona, was called by The New York Times "a first novel and a good one." They would get better yet.
Leonard's fiction about the American West remains fruitful terrain for film and TV adaptations. His Raylan Givens novels, about a Kentucky lawman, recently became the basis for the FX show Justified, while the 2007 Russell Crowe and Christian Bale shoot-'em-up 3:10 to Yuma was based on a Leonard story of the same name.
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” -- Elmore Leonard.— Timothy McSweeney (@mcsweeneys) August 20, 2013
In 2012, Leonard received a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation. At the time, he said to The Associated Press, "I probably won't quit [writing] until I just quit everything — quit my life — because it's all I know how to do. And it's fun."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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