Peter Leonard first figured out his father was cooler than most anyone else at an early age, when he was crawling around under the church pew and noticed Elmore Leonard’s ultra-mod ankle boots — you know, the kind with the zipper on the side — back in the 1960s.
That realization was confirmed again and again over the decades as the elder Leonard grew into one of the most recognizable writers in the world, a balding, bookish, bespectacled man whose books resonated in American pop culture decades after they appeared like spotlights in a pitch-black sky. Even his nickname — “Dutch” — had style.
“I remember at times leaving my office after having come back from a meeting … and I’d be wearing gray pants and a blazer and a tie, and I’d stop over and see Elmore and he would be wearing jeans and sandals and a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt,” Peter Leonard recalled in a 2009 interview. “In the background, you could see the pool and the tennis court, and I’d be like, ‘This guy has got it. He’s got it all.’”
That was the assessment of every crime writer in the game beginning in the 1980s. Long a cult figure known to a small but devoted fan base, Leonard, who died Tuesday at 87, eventually became the writer every author wanted to be and every film producer wanted to know.
His books and characters — usually anti-heroes of the kind your mother might grudgingly approve — were effortlessly hip. His words and plots moved smooth and easy like a vintage Cadillac with new shocks. And his characters always knew what to say and how to say it in situations that would reduce most tough guys — or leading ladies — to monosyllabic wobbliness.
Yet if you asked Leonard how he managed to pull it off, he had no answer. He never once tried to be cool.
“I think I’d just fall on my face,” Leonard said. “When you’re trying to be cool, it isn’t really cool. One who imitates cool is far off what it really is. He’s just showing off.”
It was there almost from the beginning, though. His early Western novels “Hombre” and “Valdez is Coming” carried all the hallmarks of his later crime fiction and reimagined the traditional idea of heroes and bad guys and how they interacted. A run of movies based on his Westerns and early crime novels kept his name out there, but it wasn’t until he turned his focus from Detroit to South Florida that his fortunes began to match his talent.
The run of novels from 1983′s Edgar Award-winning to “La Brava” to 1996′s “Out of Sight” not only transformed the crime novel, it transformed how they were perceived. Instead of attracting fringe actors, his books “Get Shorty,” ”Rum Punch” and “Out of Sight,” among others, drew A-list stars such as Samuel L. Jackson, George Clooney and John Travolta. Top directors like Quentin Tarantino and Barry Sonnenfeld wanted in. And TV eventually came calling about a number of ideas, including “Justified,” which brought a favorite character, Marshall Raylan Givens, to a wide and adoring audience.
It was an incredible run that not only put Leonard permanently on the best-seller lists but transformed other writers and their writing.
“All the guys from my generation when they were just thinking about becoming writers, that’s one of their leading lights because he just turned everything on its head,” author George Pelecanos said in a 2009 interview. “I know I didn’t want to write traditional detective novels or anything like that, but I saw what he was writing and I thought, ‘Well, he’s doing something different, completely different.’ I mean he invented a whole new subgenre of crime fiction.”
And that subgenre became suddenly profitable. Until he came along “cool” and “crime” were rarely uttered in the same sentence by publishers. But after Donald I. Fine at Arbor House helped him become a best-seller, crime became a trend that’s continued to grow.
“He made the endeavor seem profitable to publishers, too,” author Daniel Woodrell said Tuesday. “So that may have had something to do with why they were willing to stick with me as long as they did, because they all hoped to have their own Elmore.”
Crime had always been a big part of the publishing industry. But it was genre fiction, relegated to the dark corner near romances and Westerns, and rarely taken seriously.
He elevated its pulpy public image from dime stories and first-person detective narratives and made it part of the public discussion about books.
As discussion turns from Leonard’s life to his legacy, the question remains: Will he be given his proper place in American letters? We already know he’ll be mentioned in the same breath as Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and Dashiell Hammett. But why not in the same group as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Cormack McCarthy?
If history is left to be written by all those authors who owe him a debt, the answer will be a simple one.
“At 87, he remained the coolest and hippest of all American writers,” author Ace Atkins said Tuesday in an email. “His work never got old or dated. He wrote about cops, cowboys, and criminals but to define him as anything else but a great American novelist doesn’t do him justice. His comic touches, effortless style and social commentary were unmatched.”
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