Elmore Leonard, a towering figure in American crime fiction, has died at 87 after having suffered a stroke earlier this month.
Sometimes called the “Dickens of Detroit,” Leonard largely wrote Westerns for the first two decades of his career, which stretched back to 1953’s The Bounty Hunters and included such memorable titles as Hombre, Last Stand at Saber River and Valdez is Coming. He later became known for gritty crime stories rife with snappy, realistic dialogue, many of which were made into films. It was a pair of adaptations in the 1990s, though — 1995’s Get Shorty and Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) — that truly elevated his profile. It is fitting that his last, greatest success is FX’s drama Justified, which is a perfect blend of his talents in Westerns and crime fiction.
Personally, I grew up reading Leonard’s fiction, checking out battered copies of City Primeval and Double Dutch Treat from the library, and I was fortunate enough to get to interview him twice for Justified. For a man who had written more than 40 novels and seen his work adapted countless times — often with disappointing (to him) results — he was incredibly high on the FX series. While it would’ve been easy to write this off as just vigorous promotional savvy on the author’s part, it felt more genuine than that, as he spoke with a sense of joy and long-overdue vindication about the whole process. Incredibly, he told me that with the writers of Justified, it was the very first time he felt any screenwriter had actually listened to, much less valued, his input. “I think when the screenwriter gets the assignment, he wants to show how good he is,” Leonard said. “He’s not really adapting as much as he’s doing his own thing, and then you wander away from the character.”
He was so taken with the series — which follows the exploits of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, who was featured in Leonard’s novels Pronto and Riding the Rap, and the short story “Fire in the Hole” — that he wrote another novel inspired by it. Raylan, released in 2012, mixes elements and characters from the books and the series, and some of the storylines were later used in the series. It could get a little confusing to try to explain how it all meshed together, but even well into his 80s, Leonard had a lock on it. The second time I talked with him, I had to ask how he kept it all straight, not just the Raylan Givens business, but about the vast array of characters he had created, many of which saunter from one book to the next, sometimes as a bit player and sometimes as the lead. Surely he must have an encyclopedia-type tracking system somewhere out there. Nope. It was all in his head. And he was excited about completing his next novel, which would have been his 46th.
Leonard’s work will live on, of course, and adaptations of his work are still coming fast and furious. There’s Life of Crime (adapted from The Switch, which features characters from Rum Punch a.k.a. Jackie Brown, in their earlier days), a pilot for USA Network called The Arrangement, based on his short story “When the Women Come Out to Dance”; and a fifth season of Justified starting in January.