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Crime fiction master Elmore Leonard dies at 87

Elmore Leonard's method for creating bestselling fiction was simple: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

Mr. Leonard, the most influential crime fiction writer of the last 50 years, died Tuesday at his home in Bloomfield Village, Mich., after suffering a stroke earlier this month. He was 87. He is survived by five children, 13 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

In 45 novels — he was reported to be working on a 46th when he fell ill — and a slew of short stories, Mr. Leonard perfected a streamlined, wisecracking style and a slyly skewed view of the culture that won him countless readers as well as the admiration of his peers. Not to mention the attention of Hollywood: 20 movies, nine TV movies and three TV series have been based on his work, starting with 3:10 to Yuma in 1957 and including such hits as Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Jackie Brown. (He wrote screenplays for nine of them.) A 21st, Life of Crime, based on The Switch and starring Jennifer Aniston, Mos Def, Isla Fisher and Tim Robbins, will premiere in September at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Mr. Leonard was a profound influence on many of the top crime fiction writers who have come after him.

Tampa resident Michael Connelly (The Black Box, The Lincoln Lawyer), one of the world's bestselling crime novelists, said, "I'm like many other writers of my generation and after: Everybody kind of stopped by Elmore Leonard's place to get inspiration, if you wanted to write that kind of crime fiction with a social dimension."

Connelly said that Mr. Leonard's books "caught my eye early on, growing up in South Florida. La Brava (set in Miami) is one of the best novels I've read. I love that book." When Connelly's The Black Echo won the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar award for best first novel, Mr. Leonard was president of the organization. "He was the one who called my name and gave me the award. It was the first time I'd met him. Getting it from such a revered character was very cool."

Acclaimed crime fiction writer Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Live by Night), who has a home in St. Petersburg, wrote of Mr. Leonard in an email, "One of the biggest influences on my own work, if not the biggest. He was one of our most underrated satirists and social commentators and the most influential, game-changing crime novelist of the last several decades. When it came to writing dialogue, he sat on the mountaintop while the rest of us wandered in the valley. He's truly irreplaceable, and the world is poorer for his leaving it."

Tampa novelist Tim Dorsey (The Riptide Ultra-glide), a bestselling practitioner of crime fiction set in Florida, said Mr. Leonard "was clearly the reigning king of the American crime novel, influencing a whole generation behind him. Some of his titles such as Rum Punch and Out of Sight became instant Florida classics."

After a writing career that spanned six decades and, according to publisher HarperCollins, sales of 8 million books, Mr. Leonard arguably went out at the top of his game. He was involved in the current FX television series Justified, which is based on his fiction about U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, a character who merges the two genres in which Mr. Leonard made his mark, Westerns and gritty crime fiction.

Mr. Leonard was still writing strongly in his 80s. Here's what I wrote in 2012 in a review of his last published novel, Raylan: "He's simply one of the best writers of crime fiction ever, always hitting that sweet dark spot where crisp patter, steamy sexuality, explosive violence and honor among thieves come together. Pared down, propulsive and unpredictable, Leonard's novels are populated by characters who are the walking definition of badass cool."

In 2007, Stephen King called Mr. Leonard "the great American writer." His books are among the few that bridge the divide between popular genre works and critically acclaimed literature: Last year Mr. Leonard received the National Book Award Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, 20 years after he got the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

Born in 1925 in New Orleans, Mr. Leonard lived for most of his life in Detroit, the setting for many of his books. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, graduated from the University of Detroit with a degree in English and philosophy, then worked as an advertising copywriter while getting his start as an author by writing short stories for pulp magazines.

Early in his career, Mr. Leonard alternated between Westerns such as Hombre and Valdez Is Coming and crime novels like The Big Bounce and Mr. Majestyk. By the 1980s he wrote mostly crime fiction; Glitz, in 1985, was his breakout bestseller.

"Mysteries" would be the wrong word to describe his books, since they focus on the commission of crimes more than their solution.

Unlike many other crime fiction writers, Mr. Leonard did not develop a recurring series character, although he did bring back some characters in multiple books, such as loan shark Chili Palmer in Get Shorty and Be Cool. Mr. Leonard was deft at plot twists, but the real appeal of his fiction lies in his often amoral yet irresistible characters and his wicked sense of humor, epitomized in dialog that crackles like an ice cube dropped in a dry martini.

And then there's this advice, which he offered in Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing:

"Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip."

Times wires were used in this report. Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.

Crime fiction master Elmore Leonard dies at 87 08/20/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 21, 2013 12:44am]
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