Obituary: Elmore Leonard, writer

Elmore Leonard. Picture: AP
Elmore Leonard. Picture: AP
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Born: 11 October, 1925, in New Orleans. Died: 20 August, 2013, in Detroit, aged 87

More than 60 years after his first stories were published Elmore Leonard was not just an elder statesman of popular fiction – he remained one of the coolest names in the American literary pantheon.

His Westerns and latterly crime stories, including Get Shorty, appealed to both high-brow and mainstream readerships. Stephen King called him “the great American writer”, but his stories were gritty and naturalistic – if he felt something looked too literary, he would rewrite it.

Leonard was first and foremost a great storyteller and he probably reached his widest audience through the film versions of his books. He wrote almost 50 novels and about half were filmed.

Unlike most writers, Elmore Leonard never really seemed to go out of fashion. His short story Three-Ten to Yuma was first published in 1953. It was filmed a few years later and remade in 2007 with a whole new dynamic and Russell Crowe as the black-hearted outlaw and Christian Bale as the family man who has fallen on hard times and accepts the high-paid, but decidedly dangerous, task of getting him on the train.

Leonard made his name with Westerns, but went on to enjoy even greater success with crime fiction, including Get Shorty, Rum Punch and Out of Sight, which all came out in the 1990s when he was beyond the age at which most people would have retired. All three were quickly turned into Hollywood blockbusters, with Quentin Tarantino filming Rum Punch as Jackie Brown.

His tales had action and violence. But they also had strong characters and compelling plots, which in the early Western days were sometimes almost lyrical in their simplicity and their dedication to a sense of what is right and wrong, and the price a man will pay to stand up for that, a price that generally meant being ready to die for what you believe in.

His crime stories had more humour, snappier dialogue, more ambivalent characters, and Elmore Leonard wove those elements together in a masterly fashion to which few other writers could aspire and fewer match.

He was born Elmore John Leonard Jr in New Orleans in 1925, but his father’s job with General Motors meant they moved repeatedly and he had spells in Dallas, Oklahoma City and Memphis. In 1935 the family settled in Detroit, where GM is still based and where Leonard would live for most of his life. Many of his later stories were set there.

During the Second World War he served in the US Navy in the South Pacific. Subsequently he studied English Literature at the University of Detroit and worked as a copywriter with various advertising agencies. In his spare time he wrote short stories and novels, mainly Westerns, a hugely popular genre both in terms of publishing and films at the time.

The year 1957 saw the release of two classic feature films adapted from his stories, The Tall T, starring Randolph Scott, and 3:10 to Yuma, with Glenn Ford as the outlaw and Van Heflin as the man determined to get him on a train to justice.

It was a lean 92 minutes (the remake clocked in at over two hours), with the emphasis on the characters and the relationship that develops between them as they wait in a hotel room for the arrival of the train, as Ford’s men gather outside and Heflin’s isolation intensifies.

In the end the only friend he may have is the man he is holding at gunpoint. It remains a classic both of the Western genre and of psychological drama.

Leonard took classic situations and scenarios and gave them a fresh spin, often holding up a mirror to contemporary American society, for anyone who might want to look at it that way. Hombre was a novel about a man raised by Apache, on his way to back to white civilisation, ostracised by other white people until they are attacked by outlaws and they need his skills to save them. It was filmed in 1967 with Paul Newman.

Valdez is Coming is the story of an old Mexican lawman, forced by a rich rancher to kill an innocent man. Valdez demands compensation for the man’s widow, is beaten up and crucified by the rancher’s men, but refuses to give up, and book’s title becomes its chorus. Burt Lancaster starred in a 1971 film version.

In the 1970s Leonard began writing screenplays, including Joe Kidd, an original story, with Clint Eastwood as a bounty hunter, and Mr Majestyk, which was filmed with Charles Bronson as a Vietnam veteran and farmer who insists on hiring migrant Mexican workers and who comes into conflict with local lawmen and criminals.

The majority of the film versions of his stories were scripted by other people and he was dismissive of most of them, though he praised the film of Get Shorty.

He reached new heights of popularity and acclaim in the 1990s. And Hollywood was keener than ever to get his work on screen. Get Shorty was a crime comedy with John Travolta as Chili Palmer, a small-time Florida crook who ends up getting involved in the film business in Hollywood. It grossed more than $100 million.

It was followed by Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, with Pam Grier as the air stewardess smuggling money between Mexico and the US. Tarantino and Leonard actually go way back to the 1970s, long before Tarantino was famous.

Tarantino had his first experience with Elmore Leonard and the crime genre when he was arrested for stealing Leonard’s latest novel The Switch from K-Mart. Years later Tarantino said: “I didn’t know who he was, it just sounded like a good book.”

Miramax bought the rights to four unfilmed Leonard novels for Tarantino and Rum Punch was the one he chose to make.

There was strong emphasis on humour again in Out of Sight, with its famous “meet cute” opening with George Clooney’s bank robber and Jennifer Lopez’s US marshal, locked together in a car boot while Clooney’s buddy rescues him from jail.

Leonard remains as popular as ever with film-makers. The Big Bounce, Be Cool – a sequel to Get Shorty – and Killshot have all been filmed in recent years. The TV series Justified, about an old-style marshal in rural Kentucky, is based on his Raylan Givens stories. And The Switch, the novel that Tarantino stole back in the 1970s, has recently finished shooting as Life of Crime, with Jennifer Aniston and Tim Robbins.

He was married three times and is survived by five children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.