RIP: Things I Learned Reading Elmore Leonard (1925 – 2013)

Elmore Leonard, the man The New York Times once called “America’s greatest living crime writer” is no longer among the living today, having died early this morning, three weeks after suffering a stroke, at the age of 87. The author bio of my last Elmore Leonard book that I haven’t loaned out (great books never stay on a bookshelf long, you force them on people), which was Tishomingo Blues, from 2002, read:

ELMORE LEONARD has written thirty-seven novels, most recently Pagan Babies, Be Cool, and Get Shorty. He and his wife Christine live in Detroit, Michigan, because they like it.

Though he never had a bestseller before he turned 60, Leonard’s novels were a favorite source material in Hollywood, the latest being Justified lead Raylan Givens, who starred in two Leonard novels in the mid 90s. Everyone from Charles Bronson to Clint Eastwood to Christian Bale to George Clooney to John Travolta played Elmore Leonard anti-heroes at one point. I have to agree with ThePlaylist that the best Leonard adaptation is Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, followed by Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, though Get Shorty and 3:10 to Yuma are decent too.

Leonard was born in New Orleans on Oct. 11, 1925, the son of General Motors executive Elmore John Leonard and his wife, Flora.

The family settled near Detroit when young Elmore was 10. The tough, undersized young man played quarterback in high school and earned the nickname “Dutch,” after Emil “Dutch” Leonard, a knuckleball pitcher of the day. The ballplayer’s card sat for years in the writer’s study on one of the shelves lined with copies of his books.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, he majored in English at the University of Detroit. He started writing copy for an advertising agency before his graduation in 1950.

He married three times: to the late Beverly Cline in 1949, the late Joan Shepard in 1979 and, at the age of 68, to Christine Kent in 1993.

Leonard had five children– all from his first marriage– 12 grandchildren and five great grandchildren. [Fox]

USA is developing a pilot based on Leonard’s short story “When The Women Came Out To Dance,” starring “Miss Bala” breakout Stephanie Sigman, while “Supporting Characters” director Daniel Schechter has wrapped a version of “Jackie Brown” precursor novel “The Switch,” starring John Hawkes and Mos Def in the roles originally taken by Robert De Niro and Samuel L Jackson (with Jennifer Aniston and Tim Robbins also on board). There’s lots more that’s untapped too (among those never made were a version of “Cuba Libre,” one of his best books, [adapted] by the Coen Brothers, and an adaptation of “Tishomongo Blues,” that would have marked Don Cheadle‘s directorial debut and starred Matthew McConaughey), so there’s little sign of Leonard drying up onscreen any time soon. [ThePlaylist]

In 2001, Leonard laid out for the New York Times 10 Rules of Good Writing. While perhaps not as indispensable as George Orwell‘s, they add a few nice wrinkles:

1.  Never open a book with weather.

2.  Avoid prologues.

3.  Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

4.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.

5.  Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

6.  Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

7.  Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

8.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9.  Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

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

Additionally, here are a few things I learned from reading Elmore Leonard over the years.

1. Cops are dumb. The archetypal Leonard cop is Michael Keaton in Out of Sight.

Of course, Leonard’s not a predictable hack, there are exceptions (like the other two cops in the scene). But by and large, Leonard loved the dumb cop character. He almost always wrote a couple characters who were super smart, adrift in a sea of morons.

2. Criminals are superstitious. Leonard loved bad guys with weird quirks – old sports injuries, sexual peccadilloes. Usually something kitschy but believable.

3. Complete sentences are a waste of time. You read Elmore Leonard, when he gets really heated up, it feels almost like shorthand. Kind of like when you dream, and your brain already knows where you’re going with a thought and it skips the connective tissue. ThePlaylist quotes an anecdote: Martin Amis once told him at a live event “Your prose makes Raymond Chandler look clumsy.”

4. If a character walks around like he knows everything, people will believe him – for a while. Leonard loved invincible-seeming Raylan Givens types, though they’re not superheroes. They always have an “oh shit” moment, where they find out maybe they’re not as smart as they thought they were.

5. Everyone loves a hardass.

6. You can never have too many smartasses.

7. Character names should be clever, but not too clever. Raylan Givens, Jack Foley, Chili Palmer, Buddy Bragg, Bones Barboni – no one could write a catchy name that was just believable enough like Elmore Leonard. Writers who copy him always seem to take it a little too far, like Christopher Buckley’s womanizing “Nick Naylor,” or “Roscoe Murfletit.” Elmore Leonard seemed to know the line between clever and too clever better than anyone.

8. You can never have too many double crosses. I don’t know if Elmore Leonard is to blame for the modern action movie’s convoluted, imperfectly imitated plot, but the threads of Leonard’s stories usually ended in a tangle.

9. He loved guns and booze. To my knowledge, Elmore Leonard never wrote a book that didn’t include at least one scene of characters discussing the merits of a type of gun and/or alcohol. Think Karen Sisco getting a piece for her birthday, Samuel Jackson’s AK-47 video in Jackie Brown, the snub shotgun in 3:10 to Yuma, etc. etc.

10. He wrote a lot of “tough broad” characters. There’s a Joss Whedon meme I’ve seen going around, in various forms, with Whedon explaining why he writes strong female characters. Nothing against Whedon, but his “strong women” seem a lot like comic book fantasies still – tight clothes, kung fu, etc. Leonard wrote characters like Karen Sisco and Jackie Burke (Jackie Brown’s name in Rum Punch), who were tough, but still vulnerable. Strong, but not just men with the name changed. And maybe it’s personal preference, but I always found a tough girl who used a gun and her brain more believable than one in leather tights jiu-jitsuing people.

Rest in peace.