Elmore Leonard: The man who turned crime fiction into literary prose

How did Elmore Leonard write a story? He said, ‘I make the whole thing up as I go along.”

His heroes might solve a crime, and, then again, they might commit one

I read Elmore Leonard religiously. His novels possessed every characteristic I liked in a good mystery: humor, suspense, plot twists, strange turns. And storylines that bordered on the bizarre.

I tried to imitate him.

I failed miserably.

He was a once-in-a-lifetime writer. And he’s not with us anymore.

Nobody ever created characters the way Elmore Leonard. Nobody ever wrote dialogue with the style of Elmore Leonard. Nobody could find humor in the blackest of circumstances like Elmore Leonard. Nobody wrote less and said more than Elmore Leonard.

Nobody, quite simply, wrote novels like Elmore Leonard.

He was an advertising copywriter, but his aim was to write fiction, Westerns in particular. And he was good at it. He wrote 3:10 to Yuma as a fifteen-page short story and watched two adaptions of his work show up bigger than life on the movie screen. He said he was dismayed to realize how easily Hollywood could foul up a simple story.

When the market for western fiction dried up in the early 1960s, Elmore began to write the eccentric contemporary crime novels.

Elmore Leonard’s critics have commended him for his gritty realism and strong dialogue. His characters are odd, bizarre, absurd, and seem to come straight from a carnival freak show. He is probably best known for Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Hombre, and Mr. Majestyk, which, along with 3:10 to Yuma, were all made into motion pictures.

However, he didn’t have a best-seller until he was sixty years old. It was called Glitz. His first published novel, The Big Bounce, had been rejected eighty-four times. Elmore persevered if nothing else. As he said in 1996, “ After writing almost anonymously for decades I am what you call an overnight success.”

Elmore Leonard says he doesn’t own a computer. He simply orders fifty unlined yellow pads at a time from a print shop, because, he said, “You don’t have to be orderly about writing without lines. The re-writing is done as I’m writing. Once I get through a scene, and I don’t know what will come next, I type it and try to clean up the presentation. I always hope for about four or five pages by the end of the day. The next day I rewrite it, pick at it, and add things because it is too spare the first time I add in cigarettes, or a drink, or something going on. I think writing is rewriting.”

About plot structure, Leonard told an interviewer: “I make the whole thing up as I go along. The characters are presented in a situation in the first hundred pages, and then a turn will come. Something’s going to happen. The characters can tell me what they are going to do. Once I know the people, I know what they’re going to do, but they surprise me.”

His heroes were unpredictable.

They might solve a crime, and, then again, they might commit one.

He was hard at work writing his forty-fifth novel when his heart played out, the complications of a stroke. Somebody may finish the story. I’m sure they will. But we will certainly know where Elmore stopped and someone else began.  Nobody could write like Elmore Leonard. He set the standard and then took it with him when he left.

As The New York Times wrote: To his admiring peers, Mr. Leonard did not merely validate the popular crime thriller; he stripped the form of its worn-out affectations, reinventing it for a new generation and elevating it to a higher literary shelf.

Elmore Leonard was 87.

Caleb Pirtle III is the author of Lovely Night to Die. Please click HERE to find the Special Forces thriller on Amazon.

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