Elmore Leonard was born in New Orleans, but he would always be associated with another city, the one his family moved to in 1934: Detroit, his longtime home and the setting for many of his novels. Leonard, who died this morning at age 87 from complications of a stroke he suffered in late July, was brought there by his father’s job with General Motors, and after serving in the Navy in World War II, he returned there to work for an ad firm. But he also had a hobby: writing Western stories. During his mornings before work, Leonard penned novels and short stories inspired by Hemingway and the Western films he loved. The films, however briefly, started to love him back, and two of his short stories became memorable Western movies themselves in 1957: the Delmer Daves-directed, Glenn Ford-starring 3:10 To Yuma, and The Tall T, one of the best of a string of Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott (adapted from the Leonard story “The Captives”).
Four years later, Leonard decided to become a full-time writer, just in time for the market for Westerns, both on the big screen and in print, to diminish. (Though his 1961 novel Hombre made it to the screen in 1967, courtesy of director Martin Ritt and star Paul Newman.) After some time away from writing, he reinvented himself as an author of crime fiction with The Big Bounce, published in 1969 and adapted into a film that same year. Though the film wasn’t a hit with audiences or critics, it began a second phase of Leonard’s career, in which he earned praise from critics, a dedicated readership, and constant attention from Hollywood. He also evolved as a writer, working toward a leaner, more efficient prose style and bringing elements of dark humor to his work. In novel after novel steeped in local flavor (often, but not always, that of Detroit), Leonard created one colorful character after another, often with a minimum of detail and always with a feel for the peculiar ways people talk to one another. (A 2001 piece for the New York Times in which he lays out 10 rules for writing remains a must-read for writers of all types.)
Hollywood often bought Leonard’s books without realizing what made them work. A look at Leonard’s IMDB page reveals a checkered history with a few terrific standouts, starting with Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1995 adaptation of Get Shorty. Though its screenwriter, Scott Frank, has an impressive résumé of his own, his great contribution—to the film and to future Leonard adaptations—was to show how easily Leonard’s dialogue and colorful tough guys translated directly from page to screen. Adapting Rum Punch as Jackie Brown two years later, Quentin Tarantino, whose previous films were deeply influenced by Leonard’s novels, took a similar approach while putting his own directorial spin on the material, as did Steven Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight the following year. All three recognized Leonard’s writing as a solid foundation on which they could build the modifications they needed to suit their taste. The terrific FX series Justified continues to follow their example.
Big-screen success inspired an even larger readership, and Leonard remained productive up to his death, with a 46th book reported to be in progress at the time of his stroke. Whether that book will be published in any form remains to be seen, but there’s no question Leonard’s work will live on via his books and the films and television shows adapted from them, but also via his influence as a master of crisp, stylish stories that mix the crackle of Hollywood dialogue with the grit of everyday life. Leonard’s is a formidable legacy that few can claim to match.