Even if you hadn’t read any of his early pulp Western stories or his later crime thrillers, there’s a good chance that you are still familiar with his works. The 1995 comedy/crime thriller film Get Shorty with John Travolta and Danny DeVito? That was his. Or maybe the 1998 film Out of Sight with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez caught your eye. That was his, too. His short story 3:10 to Yuma has been made into a film a couple of times. Or maybe you are enjoying the FX television show Justified, now in its 4th season and nominated for seven Emmy awards. Yup, that’s his, too.
But Elmore was loved for more than just his screenplay successes. Considered one of America’s premier crime writers (in 2012 he was presented with the National Book Award’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution for his lifetime of work), Elmore was a prolific writer. He wrote 46 novels between 1953 and 2012, often completing two books year. Additionally, he wrote short stories, screenplays, and works of nonfiction, including 2007’s influential 10 Rules of Writing, in which he said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” In an article in the New York Times in 2001, he added, ““If proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”
In a touching article celebrating Elmore in Tuesday’s New York Times, writer Marilyn Stasio wrote:
Technically, he never aimed to write the kind of “high plains” westerns popularized in Hollywood movies, but grittier mysteries set in the border states of Arizona and New Mexico and featuring Apaches and Mexicans. “I was always dying to write those border voices,” he said, and eventually he began putting characters like Cundo Rey (in “La Brava”) and Nestor Soto (“Stick”) in his crime novels.
As Mr. Amis noted, Mr. Leonard had an ear, and his main objective was to let his chatty characters have their say. “I always write from a character’s point of view,” he said, adding that he couldn’t even begin writing a scene until he had decided which character would be assigned the narrative voice.
More often than not, that character would be among his rogues’ gallery of brutal killers, thuggish gangsters and slick con artists. Guys like Richie Nix, whose ambition in “Killshot” is to rob a bank in every state of the union; or Teddy Magyk, the psychopathic stalker in “Glitz”; or the unforgettable Chili Palmer, the Miami loan shark, who goes to Hollywood to collect on a debt in “Get Shorty” and sticks around to make a movie.
Mr. Leonard called them “my guys” and delighted in their affable amorality and pragmatic professionalism. He took special pride in the technical skills these working-class gun dealers, loan sharks, bookies, thieves, grifters and mob enforcers brought to their trade. They may be criminals, but they know their business and they honor their work ethic.
“He never condescends to these people,” Scott Frank, screenwriter on “Get Shorty,” told The Times in 1995. “He loves these people.”
Unassuming, humble, who (according to the Chicago Tribune’s Dennis McLellan) looked like “everyone’s favorite English professor”, he leaves behind a honored legacy, both as a writer and as a person. As his editor at William Morrow, David Highfill, said of him on Tuesday: “There was, is and will be only one Elmore Leonard. He was the most original in this prolific age of American crime fiction, the original jazz man. His voice — sly, gentle, funny, often startling, always human — will speak to readers for generations to come through Ray Givens, Jack Foley, Chili Palmer and so many other unforgettable characters. I miss him already.”