Elmore Leonard 1925–
The following entry presents an overview of Leonard's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 28, 34, and 71.
The author of such best-selling novels as Stick (1983) and Get Shorty (1990) Leonard has been lauded as one of the finest contemporary crime writers in the United States. His gritty accounts of urban life feature the exploits of lower-class characters trying to make fast money and are often set in the locales of southern Florida and Detroit. Although he began writing during the 1950s, Leonard did not receive widespread attention until the 1980s. Since then he has enjoyed a broad and loyal readership. The film adaptations of his novels, including Mr. Majestyk (1974), Fifty-two Pickup (1974), Stick, and Get Shorty, have further enhanced his popularity. Biographer David Geherin noted: "Leonard's fiction represents a major achievement in crime writing…. In their artistry, originality, and impact, Leonard's novels deserve a permanent place beside those of [Dashiell] Hammett and [Raymond] Chandler on the shelf marked simply Outstanding American Fiction."
Leonard was born in New Orleans and grew up in Detroit. During the 1950s, while working as an advertising copywriter, he began writing western stories for pulp magazines and eventually published several western novels, of which Hombre (1961) is the best known. Also during this period he sold the film rights to his western short stories "3:10 to Yuma" and "The Tall T," thus beginning a long and lucrative relationship with the Hollywood film industry. By the early 1960s, however, public interest in westerns had waned, and Leonard turned to writing mystery and suspense novels, the first of which, The Big Bounce, was rejected eighty-four times before being published in 1969. Discouraged by this apparent lack of interest in his suspense fiction, Leonard returned to writing westerns but abandoned the genre again after the film rights to The Big Bounce sold for $50,000. He published several crime novels in the years that followed, including Fifty-two Pickup, Cat Chaser (1982), and Unknown Man, No. 89 (1977), but did not achieve major success until the publication of Stick in 1983. Favorable reviews by respected critics in the New York Times and the Washington Post fueled interest in Stick, and in 1985 the novel was made into a film directed by and starring Burt Reynolds. Although Leonard disavowed the film, citing Reynolds's refusal to remain faithful to the plot and tone of the original work, it solidified his status as a talented and bankable crime writer.
Critic Michael Kernan has observed that the typical Leonard novel is distinguished by "guns, a killing or two or three, fights and chases and sex. Tight, clean prose, ear-perfect whip-smart dialogue. And just beneath the surface, an acute sense of the ridiculous." Many of these elements can be seen in Glitz (1985). In this work, Miami cop Vincent Mora travels to Puerto Rico to recover from a bullet wound and meets Teddy Magyk, a murderer and rapist whom he once put in prison. Their cat-and-mouse chase leads them to Atlantic City, where they tangle with mobsters and drug dealers before their final confrontation. Leonard's other works incorporate variations of the elements praised in Stick, namely memorable characters, sharp dialogue, and suspenseful plot. Bandits (1987) follows the adventures of Jack Delaney, an ex-hotel thief who is persuaded by an ex-nun to steal five million dollars from a Contra leader in order to help the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. In Touch (1987), a former seminarian who heals the sick and exhibits stigmata tries to free himself from the influence of con men and unscrupulous religious leaders who want to exploit his powers; this novel was adapted for film in 1996. Killshot (1989) revolves around a working-class couple who, after witnessing a murder, must elude a hit-man and a psychopath. Get Shorty, which served as the basis for the highly successful 1995 film starring John Travolta and Danny Devito, centers on Chili Palmer, a small-time hoodlum who becomes involved with movie producers, actors, and the mafia. The protagonist of Maximum Bob (1991) is Bob Gibbs, a bigoted judge known for his tough prison sentences; throughout the course of the narrative, he becomes the target of several assassins. Rum Punch (1992) which was adapted for the 1997 film Jackie Brown directed by Quentin Tarantino, concerns a group of criminals attempting to smuggle money into the United States; the characters include Florida gunrunner Ordell Robbie, ex-con Louis Gara, and flight attendant Jackie Burke. In Pronto (1993), small-time criminal Harry Arno flees to the Italian Riviera to escape threats from both the FBI and the Miami syndicate; a U.S. Marshal, Raylan Givens, pursues Arno and tries to prevent his murder at the hands of the mob. Both Arno and Givens reappear in Leonard's next novel, Riding the Rap (1995), in which the former character is held hostage by seasoned gambler Warren "Chip" Ganz and his accomplice, Louis Lewis. In Out of Sight (1996), which was adapted for a film starring George Clooney, Leonard departs somewhat from his traditional plotlines and presents a narrative driven in large part by a love affair between the two main characters, bankrobber Jack Foley and U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco. In Cuba Libre (1998), which is set just before the Spanish American War, Leonard combines elements of his western and crime novels. The narrative includes such characters as cowboy Ben Tyler, who robs banks at which the people who owe him money hold accounts; Tyler moves on to exporting horses to Cuba with businessman Charlie Burke, and both men become acquainted with their buyer, the dangerous Roland Boudreaux. Be Cool (1999) marks the return of Get Shorty's Chili Palmer, who again seeks box office success, this time directing sometimes perilous events in his own life and the lives of others in order to establish the best plot for his screenplay.
While he is often compared to crime writers Ross Macdonald, Chandler, and Hammett, Leonard acknowledges Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and John O'Hara as his literary influences. The lean prose style of these authors is evident in such works as Killshot, Touch, and Glitz. Leonard has been praised particularly for his ability to capture the nuances and rhythms of conversation. Time magazine called Leonard "Dickens from Detroit" because of his strong character portrayals and realistic dialogue. Minimizing narration and description, Leonard allows his characters' conversations to tell the story. Of Leonard's writing technique, Diane K. Shah observed: "There appears to be no narrator at all: as if a bunch of honest, hard-working guys and a parade of deadbeats had run into each other in Detroit or South Florida and begun talking; as if, by chance, this Elmore Leonard, lurking in the shadows, had turned on his tape recorder, getting it all."