Authors: Elmore Leonard

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist


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.{$I[AN]9810001699}{$I[A]Leonard, Elmore}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Leonard, Elmore}{$I[tim]1925;Leonard, Elmore}

Elmore Leonard

(Marc Hauser)

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 a.m. every morning and wrote for two hours before leaving for work.

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.

BibliographyAnderson, Patrick. The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction. New York: Random House, 2007. Section on Leonard describes his minimalism, which produced lean, effective books. Contains discussion of LaBrava.Challen, Paul C. Get Dutch! A Biography of Elmore Leonard. Toronto, Ont.: ECW Press, 2001. Uses personal interviews with the author, his personal research assistant, screenwriters, academics, and crime-fiction experts to assess the thirty-six novels that Leonard had published to that point.Delamater, Jerome H., and Ruth Prigozy, eds. Theory and Practice of Classic Detective Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. Collection of essays that examine the purpose and place of detective fiction in contemporary culture, though including references back to the beginning of the subgenre in the early nineteenth century.Devlin, James E. Elmore Leonard. New York: Twayne, 1999. Contains a biography of Leonard as well as criticism of his works.Geherin, David. Elmore Leonard (Literature and Life). New York: Continuum, 1989. A popular biography of the author that was used as the basis for a 1991 British Broadcasting Corporation documentary, Elmore Leonard’s Criminal Records.Leonard, Elmore. “Ten Questions for Elmore Leonard.” Interview by Philip Elmer-DeWitt. Time, June 20, 2005, 6. In this short interview, Leonard says why he writes genre fiction and why he does not have a series character.“Leonard, Elmore.” In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks and Maureen Corrigan. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1998.Millner, C. “Elmore Leonard: The Best Ear in the Business.” Writer’s Digest, June, 1997, 30-32. Many commentators call attention to Leonard’s skill at creating realistic dialogue. Though this article does not offer much in the way of new insights, it is of interest because it is addressed primarily to writers, both professionals and those aspiring to become such.Most, Glenn. “Elmore Leonard: Splitting Images.” Western Humanities Review 41 (Spring, 1987): 78-86. This in-depth scholarly analysis of Split Images suggests some of the hidden psychological and sociological implications of Leonard’s apparently simple writing. It also exemplifies the serious critical attention that Leonard’s work has begun to receive.Silet, Charles L. P. “Elmore Leonard.” In Talking Murder: Interviews with Twenty Mystery Writers. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999. Contains an interview with Elmore by Silet, whose interviews have appeared in Mystery Scene and Armchair Detective.Skinner, Robert E. “To Write Realistically: An Interview with Elmore Leonard.” Xavier Review 7 (1987): 37-46. Less diffuse than most that have appeared in newspapers and magazines, this article deals primarily with Leonard’s realism. The sources of this often praised quality are his extensive preliminary research into potential milieus (including visits and interviews by him or surrogates) and his keen ear for nuances of speech patterns.Wholey, Dennis, ed. “Elmore Leonard.” In The Courage to Change: Personal Conversations About Alcohol with Dennis Wholey. New York: Warner Books, 1986. This interview provides the best available information about Elmore Leonard as a human being. He describes his growing problem with alcohol over two decades and the psychological insights that enabled him to stop drinking. Leonard’s hard-won victory over alcoholism has had an important influence on his writing technique and choice of subjects.Wilkinson, A. “Elmore’s Legs: Where Does Elmore Leonard Get His Atmosphere?” The New Yorker, September 30, 1996, 43-47. Writers for many years focused upon a few notable aspects of Leonard’s novels; his creation of atmosphere is one of them. This piece is one of many, but it offers some different perspectives and insights into a career that spans decades and has produced more than two dozen novels.
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