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Elmore Leonard, Best-Selling Author of Crime Novels, Dies at 87

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Aug. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Elmore Leonard, who wrote “Get Shorty,” “Be Cool” and dozens of other best-sellers praised for their lean style and gritty dialogue, has died. He was 87.

His death was confirmed by the Associated Press. He died today at his home, after suffering a stroke last month, according to Leonard’s official website. He lived in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit.

British author Martin Amis called Leonard the “Dickens of Detroit” and said several of his books were on Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow’s bookshelves, clear evidence that he was a writer’s writer.

“There was no one quite like Elmore Leonard” for providing “narrative pleasure in a prose miraculously purged of all false qualities,” Bellow said, according to Amis.

Leonard was irked by what he saw as backhanded accolades, such as the New York Times dubbing him “the greatest living writer of crime fiction.”

“I don’t know what that means,” he told Time magazine in 2005. “To tell you the truth, I don’t read much in my field. I didn’t learn anything from Raymond Chandler or the other guy, Dashiell Hammett,” two writers to whom he was often compared.

Ernest Hemingway’s declarative sentences and spare prose were a greater influence on him, Leonard said.

“I’d open ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ and start reading anywhere for inspiration,” he told the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper in 1998. “I loved his work -- the short dialogue, all that white space, his constructions, his use of participles.”

Tough Guys

As for the “realistic” language of his low-life criminals and tough guys, “I just make it up,” Leonard said. After creating a character, his attitude and the way he talks, Leonard said, “you know what his angle is going to be, what his beef is or if he’s funny.”

Renowned as an author of crime fiction, Leonard started as a writer of Westerns. His short story “3:10 to Yuma” became a 1957 movie, and was remade in 2007. His 1961 novel “Hombre” was made into a film starring Paul Newman six years later.

Elmore John Leonard Jr., born in New Orleans on Oct. 11, 1925, had a nomadic childhood. His mother, Flora Rive Leonard, organized family moves as his father, an executive with Detroit-based General Motors Corp., took jobs in various U.S. cities before settling in Detroit in 1934.

Nicknamed “Dutch” as a youth after a 1930s baseball pitcher, Leonard played ball in high school before enlisting in the U.S. Navy in World War II.

‘Commercial Approach’

After the war, he went to the University of Detroit where he entered a short-story contest on a professor’s promise that students who did would receive at least a “B” grade in English.

“I’ve always been inspired in this somewhat commercial approach toward writing,” Leonard said.

After graduating in 1950, he took a job at a Detroit advertising agency and wrote at home before heading to work.

He married Beverly Cline in 1949 and sold his first story, a Western, to Argosy magazine in 1951.

Leonard said he chose Westerns because he “liked Western movies and “wanted to sell to Hollywood.”

“I approached this with a desire to write but also to make as much money as I could doing it,” he said.

He sold the screenplays to “Hombre,” “3:10 to Yuma,” and “Joe Kidd,” which starred Clint Eastwood, though it was years before he could afford to stop writing ad copy.

From the start, Leonard’s stories had characters with snappy lines that appealed to film makers and movie stars.

“I’ve been able to sell my books because they look easy to shoot,” Leonard said. “‘They’re written in scenes, and stories move through dialogue.”

Movie Making

More than 30 of Leonard’s books or stories became feature films or TV movies. He wrote scripts for about a dozen of them, though he came to dislike the movie-making process and sometimes the final product even more.

He so disliked the 1985 movie version of his book “Stick,” directed by Burt Reynolds, that Leonard ordered his name removed from the credits.

At a movie-theater showing of “The Big Bounce,” his first non-Western novel, he sat behind a couple and heard the woman say, “This is the worst picture I ever saw in my life.” Leonard agreed with her. “The three of us got up and left,” he said.

There was a notable exception to Leonard’s negative feelings about Hollywood.

“The movie of ‘Get Shorty’ has done more for me than 35 books,” he said. The 1995 film, starring John Travolta, stayed true to the book’s characters, said Leonard, crediting director Barry Sonnenfeld.

Details Matter

Leonard attributed his mastery of crime fiction mostly to his imagination, though he did some research. He hung out at a Detroit police station for a month or so, and was familiar with the various locales he used in his work. Later, he hired a Detroit magazine writer, Gregg Sutter, as a researcher.

Sutter scouted locations and videotaped people in certain jobs or situations, focusing on how they talked. For Leonard’s “Cuba Libre” (1998), set in the Spanish-American War, Sutter found the cost of transporting horses from Arizona to Texas and then to Havana.

In “Bandits,” a 1987 book about a jewel thief who tries to go straight as a mortician, Sutter provided local color in New Orleans while Leonard learned how corpses are prepared for funerals.

To be sure, most people “have no real idea of what goes on in funeral parlor embalming rooms, just the same as we have no real idea of how hit men or small-time crooks talk,” wrote Paul Challen in his biography of Leonard, “Get Dutch” (2000).

Sounds Real

“No matter how often the critics and casual fans blather on about ‘authentic’ dialogue or setting,” Challen wrote, “we’re really just taking Leonard’s word about this authenticity -- it sounds real to us, so we say it’s real.”

Leonard wrote four pages every morning while holding down an advertising job. Years later, he still wrote daily in longhand, though a full day’s work might yield only two pages.

It got harder, though it was still “the most satisfying thing I can imagine doing,” he said. “The notoriety that comes later doesn’t compare to the doing of it.”

After a marriage of 28 years and five children, Leonard and Cline divorced in 1977. In 1993 he married Christine Kent.

In addition to his novels and screenplays, Leonard produced a pithy “10 Rules of Writing,” the most important being, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” And, almost as important: “Try to leave out the parts readers skip.”

To contact the reporter responsible for this story: Felix Kessler at fkessler1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Charles W. Stevens at cstevens@bloomberg.net