Elmore “Dutch” Leonard’s success did not come easily. It was the result of years of apprenticeship to his craft, painstaking research, self-discipline, high standards, and strong motivation to be independent. His life can be viewed as a study in overcoming obstacles confronting aspiring writers in a precarious, constantly evolving profession.
Leonard was born in New Orleans in 1925, but his family moved to Detroit, Michigan, in 1934. That tough, multiracial metropolis is the setting of many of his crime novels. He attended a Catholic elementary school and the Jesuit-run University of Detroit High School. He was never an outstanding student but loved reading.
In 1943 he was drafted into the U.S. Navy Seabees. Like most servicemen stuck on South Pacific islands during World War II, he had plenty of time for reading. One early literary influence was Ernest Hemingway. After the war Leonard enrolled at the University of Detroit in 1946, majoring in English and philosophy. Upon graduation in 1950 he found an entry-level job with Campbell-Ewald Advertising in Detroit and eventually became a copywriter specializing in creating ideas for publicizing Chevrolet trucks.
Leonard’s interest in creative writing was whetted by joining a writers’ club. After graduation from college he decided to become a professional writer. He was challenged by holding down a full-time job to support a wife and two children. He showed his strength of character by setting up a schedule he was to follow for years. He got up at 5:00
Leonard began by writing Westerns because he liked Western movies. His first sale was a story titled “Trail of the Apache,” for which Argosy magazine paid him ninety dollars. During the 1950’s he sold about thirty short stories and five novels, all Westerns. Two were sold to Hollywood, but the sums paid were not substantial.
Realizing that he was handicapped by his ignorance of the real West, he began doing intensive research. This became a habit he continued when he switched to crime fiction. By 1965 he had acquired a solid reputation as a writer of Westerns. When he sold his novel Hombre to Twentieth Century-Fox for ten thousand dollars, he decided to devote most of his time to writing fiction.
The market for Westerns was shrinking, however, because of overexploitation of the genre in television serials. Leonard demonstrated his adaptability by switching from cowboys to cops and robbers, proving the truth of the adage that problems are opportunities in disguise. Fame and fortune came only after this radical change. Characteristically, he devoted intensive research to his new field, acquiring a reputation for authenticity unusual in a field overrun with hacks.
The year 1974 was another major turning point. He left his wife of twenty-five years and their five children and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. The key to recovering from acute alcoholism, he stated, is “getting outside of yourself.” He projected this insight into his fiction by progressively minimizing his role as a narrator. “I started to realize,” he told an interviewer, “that the way to describe anywhere, anywhere, was to do it from someone’s point of view . . . and leave me out of it.” Beginning in 1974 with Fifty-two Pickup, Leonard started perfecting the objective, cinematic technique that won for him critical acclaim and made him a multimillionaire.
Leonard did not become famous until 1983, with publication of his novel Stick. In 1983, LaBrava won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America and sold more than four hundred thousand copies. Glitz was a best-seller in 1985. Leonard’s novels have been best-sellers ever since.
Leonard’s career has always been closely associated with motion pictures. During the early 1960’s, he wrote scripts for educational and industrial films. He adapted many of his own and other authors’ novels for the screen and had many of his novels adapted by others. He also wrote original screenplays, including Joe Kidd, starring Clint Eastwood, and Mr. Majestyk, starring Charles Bronson. The influence of films, in which the viewer must be shown and not told, can be seen in the “cinematic” style of his novels. They contain action, crackling dialogue, colorful characters, interesting settings–all elements that make good films. The screen adaptation of Get Shorty, set in Hollywood and drawing upon Leonard’s years of interaction with its zany inhabitants, was one of the top box-office moneymakers of 1995.
Though rich and famous, Leonard would continue to write on a rigorous schedule. Married to his second wife in 1979, he settled with her in suburban Detroit, occasionally vacationing in Florida and using that exotic, crime-plagued state as the setting for many crime novels. A lifetime of hard work gained for Leonard financial and critical success, and he is generally regarded as the king of crime fiction writers of the late twentieth century.