© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Crime Novelist Elmore Leonard Dies At 87


Elmore Leonard, sometimes called the Dickens of Detroit, created some of the most memorable characters in modern crime fiction. The 87-year-old writer died after suffering a stroke several weeks ago. Until then, he had never stopped writing. His first book, published in 1953, was a Western. Later, he turned to crime novels and left an indelible imprint on that genre. NPR's Lynn Neary has this remembrance.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Elmore Leonard lived in or near Detroit for most of his life. He wrote about his hometown, but his characters could also be found in cities across the country, from Atlantic City to L.A., spewing out dialogue both funny and crass and stumbling on trouble wherever they went. In an interview with NPR, Leonard said he auditioned his characters in the first 100 pages of his books to figure out who would live and who would die.


ELMORE LEONARD: If I have several bad guys and I only want to end up with one of them, then I have to decide which one I want in the end. And normally it's the one who is the most interesting talker.

NEARY: And Leonard's characters were great talkers. He wrote more than 40 novels: "The Big Bounce," "Get Shorty," "Rum Punch," "Glitz," just to name a few. Many of them were made into movies. All of them were peopled by a rogue's gallery of hired killers, petty thieves, thugs and con artists. But, says writer George Pelecanos, Leonard never treated them like they were just criminals.

GEORGE PELECANOS: It's not good guys and bad guys; it's all these people that exist in a gray area. And he knew that criminals were not masterminds like they're often portrayed. Because if they were smart, they wouldn't be caught, but they don't know that. They think they're smart, and that was the genius of Elmore Leonard is that it was so hilarious to listen to these guys speak, you know, as he created them.

NEARY: Pelecanos says for his generation of crime writers, Leonard was the guy, the one they all wanted to be. And, Pelecanos says, Leonard wasn't just a crime writer. Any way you look at it, he says, Leonard was a great American writer.

PELECANOS: Anybody who takes their writing seriously is trying to do something that's impossible, and that is to achieve some kind of immortality through your work - and you're never going to do it, OK. But people are going to read his novels in hundreds of years, the way we still read Dickens. I'm convinced of that.

NEARY: Leonard's last novel, published last year, was "Raylan," about a character he created, which inspired the TV series "Justified." He was working on a new novel before he died. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.