For Elmore Leonard, Crime Pays

After 30 years of near-obscurity, the prolific author is enjoying success at the typewriter and in Hollywood

Elmore Leonard Credit: Julie Bennett/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Birmingham, Michigan...where's that? Oh. One of those suburbs outta Detroit, eh? So that's where you live, huh? In a little two-story house, geraniums on the front stoop. I got the picture. Take the cans out once a week, I bet, put 'em out there by the curb. But look, tell me. You got this movie Stick coming out in April, and a new book...Glitz, is it? And you got this TV pilot in the works, and Universal wants a series, any series, and your next book, you're working on that. So what I gotta know is this. You made the switch yet from the typewriter to the computer?

Elmore Leonard, on the other end of the line, hesitating now, saying, "I haven't even made the switch to a typewriter yet." Sounding apologetic.

I'm thinking, Huh? I'm saying, You write in longhand?

He's saying, "I am not that confident to presume to use a typewriter."

It's been over a year now since the world discovered Elmore Leonard and his distinctive novels of suspense. All this time, thirty years maybe, he's been working out of his den in Birmingham, first churning out Westerns, patiently, unceasingly, waiting for someone to catch on. He wrote Hombre in 1959, but it took two years to sell it; he got $1250. They made it into a movie with Paul Newman; he got $10,000 more. Not bad, but he had four kids. He turned to crime — novels, that is. Still, nobody caught on. Only Hollywood. Moguls saw in his books, structured in scenes and heavy with dialogue, what amounted to prewritten screenplays. They bought his books, possibly even read them. Fiction writers began buying his books, having stumbled upon them somehow, and were astonished by his ear for the spoken word and the real-life feeling he gave his characters.

Still, nobody had caught on.

He considered romance —  novels, that is. "I bought some," he says. "Those historical ones where the women get raped. I thought, Why don't I just write one of those to make some money? But I couldn't even read the first five pages. I thought, How can I write what I can't read?"

Back to crime. Reviewers discovered him.

Still no luck.

Writing in The Village Voice three years ago, Ken Tucker said, "Elmore Leonard strikes me as being the finest thriller writer alive, primarily because he does his best to efface style, and has done this so successfully that few readers know about him at all."

Which was the point, precisely.

Leonard was not writing a series with the same continuing hero, a guy you got to know and looked forward to encountering again — Travis McGee in John D. MacDonald's books, or Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer, or Spenser of the Robert B. Parker series. No, Leonard had no such character. One book, the hero is a process server. Another, the guy owns a small Miami motel. In LaBrava, we have a former Secret Service man turned freelance photographer. Moreover, Leonard was writing with an invisible voice. There appears to be no narrator at all: as if a bunch of honest, hard-working guys and a parade of deadbeats had run into each other in Detroit or South Florida and begun talking; as if, by chance, this Elmore Leonard, lurking in the shadows, had turned on his tape recorder, getting it all.

And because he wrote out of Birmingham, he was not going to become anybody's media hero. Which left Elmore Leonard alone in his den, just grinding 'em out, some of the best unknown fiction in America.

Until 1983. When the world finally caught on.

What strikes you about Leonard's stories right off is the dialogue, the way he picks up the rhythms of contemporary urban speech. Listen:

In LaBrava, the protagonist finds himself chasing a Cuban refugee who kills people. He hires a Nigerian cabdriver to get some information.

"You saw the driver of the Pontiac."

"Yes, a Cuban man."

"What'd he look like?"

"I told you, a Cuban man. That's what he look like."

LaBrava wondered if Nigerians told jokes and if they were funny. "Was there anything different about him?"

"My friend, you have to be different to go in there. I told you that already."

"I apologize." Maybe they had a sense of humor if you got to know them. "You didn't by any chance get the license number of the Pontiac."

Johnbull Obasanjo said, "You have a pen? You have the paper, something to write on when you ask such a question?"

Fucking Nigerian.The guy delivered, though, didn't he?

Elmore Leonard, known as Dutch, is sitting in his den in Birmingham, ten o'clock in the morning, crisp autumn day. It is very quiet in the house. His pretty, blond wife, Joan, whom he married five years ago, is upstairs sewing. His deaf dog, Emma, a Lhasa apso, barks only when someone coughs. And he himself is quiet, speaking softly, listening carefully — and watchful, always watchful, looking out from behind those big, round glasses.

He does not look like a man familiar with crime, guns, sickies and insouciant Nigerians. Nor does he look like Dutch Leonard, the guy who once pitched for the Washington Senators. More like a history professor: little beard, not a big guy, five eight, five nine, slender, no one you would pick out of a crowd or necessarily even see. But slowly he emerges, a negative in developing fluid, his humor, irony and perception of the absurd. It's all there in the writing, too.

He says, "What I write is not new or different. I'm getting by, writing at the top of my form. I have found my sound and perfected it." He pauses. "My sound is the absence of me."

Leonard peers at his visitor, smiles.

He says, "I can't write metaphors, I am terrible at writing metaphors. Any time I see an adjective or adverb, I cross it out. The only way I can make a story sound real is to stay out. You must never hear me."

But listen carefully to his writing: you hear his eye, which is always casting about for life's little jokes. Like in Glitz, one of the characters staying at a big Atlantic City hotel  the casino and the hotel lit up like radiation twenty-four hours a day  noticing the little card in his suite: "Please turn off the lights when you're not in the room."

Or page one of Glitz, the cop Vincent Mora, off duty, coming home one night, walking from his car to his apartment building, when he is approached by a guy with a gun who demands his wallet.

Vincent turned his head to look at the guy and there was a moment when he could have taken him and did consider it, hitting the guy as hard as he could. But Vincent was carrying a sack of groceries. He wasn't going to drop a half gallon of Gallo Hearty Burgundy, a bottle of prune juice and a jar of Ragú spaghetti sauce on the sidewalk.

Vincent gets shot. Through the bottle of Hearty Burgundy.

Leonard never misses an opportunity, on paper or in real life. In 1983, The Detroit News named him Michiganian of the Year. The man presenting the award said, "True to your nickname, derived from a fabled baseball pitcher, you deliver the high, hard one."

"Unfortunately," said the author, accepting the honor, "Dutch Leonard threw knucklers. He threw junk."

Usually he is more subtle. Out back in the garage, well, go take a look. Two cars. A turbocharged Saab and a Mercedes. In Detroit. Leonard slips into the Saab. Grins slyly, says nothing. He has found his sound and perfected it.

The sound is finally paying off.

For the movie rights to Stick, Leonard was paid $350,000. He got $400,000 for LaBrava and $450,000 for Glitz. The paperback rights to LaBrava went for $363,000. Fourteen of his books are now being reissued. Glitz was the last of a two-book deal with Arbor House. Over dinner one night in Los Angeles, Leonard's agent, H.N. Swanson, told two Arbor people he didn't think the $40,000 advance for Glitz in Leonard's original contract was enough. Two weeks later a new contract arrived for $200,000.

Now that he is beginning a new book, publishing houses all over New York are jumping up and down, trying to entice Leonard. So are TV producers. During a visit to Los Angeles, Leonard was introduced to David Gerber of Gerber-MGM TV. Gerber suggested he ought to think about coming up with a crime series. "I thought it was social," Leonard says. "A week later I get a contract in the mail for a one-hour series."

Walter Mirisch of Universal also called. He wanted a series, too. Leonard said he was on his way down to Puerto Rico to finish research on Glitz.

Mirisch: "While you're in Puerto Rico, you can research the series."

Leonard: "What are you going to call it, P.R.P.I.?"

Nine-thirty in the morning is when Leonard starts to write.

The den, a small room to the left of the foyer, is ferociously neat. Big dark desk, 200 years old, stack of special-order yellow writing sheets, 5000 for sixty dollars, right there in the middle. Next to the desk, on a table against the wall, a secondhand Olympia. The writing begins in longhand on the yellow sheets; the writing and the rewriting; rewriting again. When he likes the pages, he copies them on the typewriter.

"Some days I might write a paragraph, I might write eleven pages," he says. "Then I reach a point where it stops. I don't know my next line. That's when I type the pages. Once in a while I am typing and I think of a line to add. So I type that, too. Otherwise everything is done in longhand first. I feel a lot closer to the story when I'm touching it."

Over on the wall is a photograph of Ernest Hemingway, autographed, to a guy named Joe, December 1937. A friend gave it to Leonard. He says: "That's how I learned to write, studying Hemingway. I studied very, very carefully how he approached a scene, used points of view, what he described and what he didn't, how he told so much just in the way a character talked. When I was writing Westerns, it struck me." He grins. "For Whom the Bell Tolls was a 1940 Spanish Western."

Leonard's characters take on most of the burden of telling the story. "I don't want it to sound like writing," he says. "I want you to get right into it and not be aware of me telling the story. My attitude toward the characters gives them a sound. I like all the people, think of them as kids. Or I think of a bank robber who's dominated by his wife. Here's this tough guy who at home is totally a wimp."

In Glitz, we encounter the bad guy who goes around killing folks for fun. The creep lives with his mom and her parrot in New Jersey, is totally cowed by the old woman and is always asking her for money, which she won't give him. In The Switch, the whole premise of the book is an irony. Two guys kidnap a well-to-do country-club mom and phone her husband with the ransom demand: $1,000,000 or you'll never see your wife again. Except that her husband has just filed for divorce and doesn't give a damn if he does see her again.

It took a while for reviewers to see what Leonard was up to. "I was always thrown into the Chandler-Hammett-MacDonald school," Leonard says. "I wasn't influenced by them at all. I was influenced by other guys — Mark Harris, Richard E. Bissell and Kurt Vonnegut  their attitudes and how they see absurdities."

Parts of Leonard's own story seem filled with absurdities, or at least ironies. Read a few of his books, you imagine this tough guy hanging around hoodlums, picking up their jargon, examining their psyches. Forget it. You know how every so often some housewife in the Midwest, fifty years old, goes to the public library, does a bunch of research, sends off an unsolicited manuscript...and wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction?

That's Leonard. The first time he saw the West was after he had written four books and thirty short stories set in the West.

He started writing pulp westerns in 1950. Two cents a word, a hundred dollars maximum. "I subscribed to Arizona Highways," he says. "The pictures told me what everything was, what kind of cactus was growing up through the shale. And I researched a lot of Apaches, cavalry and guns. Apaches, cavalry and guns were big then."

Leonard had grown up everywhere, but not out West. His father had scouted locations for new General Motors dealerships, taking the family from New Orleans to Dallas to Oklahoma City, back to Dallas to Memphis and finally to Detroit in 1935, where the family settled in. Elmore was ten.

"In the fifth grade, I wrote a play," he says, "a World War I play. I used the rows of desks as barbed wire." That effort, a short story in high school and two in college were the extent of his literary efforts. "Except I knew I wanted to tell stories," he says. "In grade school, I used to tell movies. I'd get with friends and tell Captain Blood and anything Errol Flynn was in."

By 1950, he had served in the Navy during World War II, had graduated from the University of Detroit, degree in English, had married his first wife and was working as an office boy for the Campbell-Ewald Advertising Agency. And he still wanted to tell stories.

"I started selling to Argosy magazine," he says. "I'd get up at five in the morning and write two pages, quit at seven, go to work. At first, I'd get up, put on the water for the coffee, start reading the paper, not getting anything done. So I made a rule. I had to start writing before I put the water on."

In 1953, he wrote his first book, The Bounty Hunters, put out by Houghton Mifflin and Ballantine. This was the first book, and one of many stories, that he wrote between five a.m. and seven a.m. And in a drawer: "I'd go to work, put my hand in the drawer of my desk and write," he says.

As for the ad copy, that was more of a problem. He couldn't bring himself "to do all that cute writing," he says. "So what I did was, I specialized in trucks."

In 1958, he got an idea for a book. In his mind, he saw just one scene. All those Westerns where the bad guy is holed up and the good guy approaches with a white flag. Makes a deal, walks away, problem solved. "That never happens in real life," Leonard says, "the guy with the flag just walking away."

The book became Hombre. The scene has the bad guy, Richard Boone, making the deal, and Paul Newman saying: "I've got a question. How you going to get down the hill?" And Newman shooting him. The first of the Leonard ironies, the twists. "What I don't understand is that so many popular writers don't have a sense of humor," he says. "Harold Robbins, Judith Krantz. They're so serious. I can't read any of them."

Not long after completing Hombre in 1959, Leonard quit his job at Campbell-Ewald. "I took my profit sharing and ran," he says. "With four kids at the time, it was quite a decision to go on my own. But I'd been dying to since the early Fifties."

Leonard still could not afford to write fiction full time for four more years. Through a friend, he got freelance work writing educational films for Encyclopaedia Britannica. One thousand dollars for a twenty-five-minute social-studies film. He wrote films on the French and Indian Wars, settlers of the Mississippi Valley, Julius Caesar and the Danube. One film was called "Boy of Spain." "I took my family to Spain for that one," he says, "my one attempt at real research." Small smile. "It was the only one they rejected."

In 1965, Fox bought the rights to Hombre, and Leonard decided he could afford to get back to novels. His fiction from the Fifties had done well. A 1953 story that appeared in Dime Western, called 3:10 to Yuma, had been sold to Columbia and starred Glenn Ford. The Tall T, from an Argosy novelette, had also gone to Columbia, starred Randolph Scott and Richard Boone.

He spent the next year writing The Big Bounce. It was his first crime novel: the market for Westerns was drying up. When he finished the book, he sent it off to his New York agent, Marguerite Harper. Halfway through reading it, she was hospitalized. She sent the manuscript to H.N. Swanson, the legendary Los Angeles agent (Hemingway, Faulkner, among others), who had made the movie sales of Leonard's earlier work.

Leonard recalls: "Swanie called me and said, 'Did you write this, kiddo?' I said I had. 'Well, I'm going to make you rich.' " Leonard pauses. "We got eighty-four rejections in the next three months."

Eventually, the book was sold as a Gold Medal original, with Warner Brothers buying the rights. The picture starred Ryan O'Neal and Leigh Taylor-Young. "I went to see it in New York," says Leonard. "Got to the movie theater fifteen minutes late. I'm sitting there watching it when the woman in front of me says to her husband, 'This is the worst picture I've ever seen in my life.' The three of us got up and walked out."

Over the next fifteen years, Leonard wrote sixteen books. Twelve were sold to Hollywood; two were optioned. He also wrote three original screenplays and two teleplays. Leonard was obviously onto something. The problem was, book sales were only mediocre.

"Everything Dutch wrote sold to Hollywood," Swanson notes. "As for his books, well, you can't sell something till it's in your hands. I can't mold a writer. I didn't tell Faulkner what to write, or Hemingway, or James M. Cain what to write. A writer is like a cook. He puts some ingredients on the stove, lets it simmer, takes it off. I think it took Dutch a while to figure out the proper mix of ingredients."

And the right publisher.

No one seemed to know how to promote him. In 1977, Delacorte published Unknown Man No. 89. The house took out a big newspaper ad proclaiming that this was another Jack Ryan book, Jack Ryan who had been in two of Leonard's earlier novels.

Except that Jack Ryan had been in only one other novel, The Big Bounce, and that had been ten years ago. Also the ad said, "Imagine Philip Marlowe serving a summons in Motown." Leonard says, "They're promoting my book using Raymond Chandler's character. How do you like that?" He looks indignant. "My character would never say Motown."

Finally, he hooked up with Arbor House and Avon. The books began turning up in bookstores, coinciding with the growing number of rave reviews. Everyone seemed to discover him at once...last winter. He was written up in everything from W to Heavy Metal ("Cat Chaser...an especial pisser") to the National Lampoon. One rock band phoned, begging for Leonard-written blurbs for their album covers. But when avant-garde poets began reading him aloud at St. Marks Church-in-the-Bowery, Leonard was puzzled. "Why?" he asked. "I don't use words." The poets said, "Energy."

In the spring of 1984, he won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for LaBrava. As with most of his other books, he did much of the research in his den, looking at pictures, culling the rest from the recesses of his mind.

In his den sits the 1983 Philadelphia crime commission report.

"Lots of good Mafia dialogue came out of that for Glitz," Leonard says. In City Primeval, Leonard had an Albanian. "You can get lots of good Albanian names from the newspapers. I have to have a name before I can make a character talk." As for prisons, he says, "All you need to know about prisons you can find in a good Sunday magazine article."

Not that Leonard is a shut-in. In 1978, he spent three months hanging around the Detroit police. He does drop in on courtrooms periodically. He knows prosecutors, private detectives. He needs something, he calls them up. This type of research does have its drawbacks, however.

"Joe LaBrava was an ex-Secret Service man, and I wanted him to be able to describe Bess Truman's living room," Leonard says. "I called a Secret Service agent who had worked in the room. He said he couldn't give out that information. I'd have to go through Washington. I wrote to D.C. They sent me literature on how wonderful the Secret Service is. Finally, my researcher had a brainstorm. He called the house in Independence, Missouri. A guy answered the phone, described what the living room looked like."

Gregg Sutter is Leonard's legman. For Glitz, he went to Atlantic City, scouted the town, took dozens of photographs. "See, this is where they had breakfast," says Leonard, pointing to the picture of a coffee shop. Leonard himself will then make a brief trip to the locale. Check in with the police. Which jail would you take a guy to? What kind of gun would my guy use?

Leonard recalls one bit of invention that especially pleases him. In his book The Hunted, a guy is hiding out in Israel after testifying against the Mafia. The guy changes his name to Al Rosen. In the book, someone says, "By the way, are you the Al Rosen played for the Indians 1956?"

The man says no, but he knows about Rosen, knows about the fight he had with Hank Greenberg over money, goes into it. After the book came out, Mrs. Al Rosen, the wife of the real guy, called Leonard up. "How did you know all this?" she said. Leonard said he had pretty much made it up out of what he had read in old newspaper clippings. "But everything in the book is true," said Mrs. Rosen.

People who read Leonard wonder why so many of his books are set in South Florida. "I bought my mom a four-unit motel in Pompano Beach," he says. "She lives in one unit, rents out the others. Visiting her, I found Miami a great locale. The high crime rate, the contrast in people — rich retirees, Cubans, boat lifters  all kinds of good things are going on there for me."

Leonard has had to overcome a couple of problems along the way. One was drinking. "I didn't drink two fifths a day," he says, "but what I did drink was a problem. My behavior and personality changed. It didn't interfere with my writing, though I've gotten better since I stopped, January 24th, 1977."

Unlike most people who stop drinking, then go to AA, Leonard attended AA for three years first or, as he puts it, "until I finally got the hang of it."

It was during his attempt to stay on the wagon that Leonard's marriage broke up. He met his second wife, Joan, at a local country club and, as a present, based the lead character in The Switch, Mickey Dawson, on her.

Three years ago he woke up with another problem. A detached retina in his left eye. "It was like someone pulled a shade across it," he says. After two operations, his eye is fine.

In Leonard's library hangs the movie poster for Stick, the film starring Burt Reynolds, Charles Durning, George Segal and Candice Bergen. The words on the poster say, "The only thing he couldn't do is stick to the rules." Leonard crossed out rules and inserted a new word: script.

Leonard: "I saw the picture June 11th at Universal. The next day I was up at six a.m., writing a letter to Reynolds, who directed it. Maybe my material is not adaptable to the screen. It's so subtle, it must be presented deadpan. You can't keep stopping for Reynolds to mug and pan." He adds, "Charles Durning must have gotten his wig at the same place Stacy Keach got his for Mistral's Daughter."

By nine o'clock, Leonard still hadn't "set the tone of the letter." He and Joan went downstairs to the hotel coffee shop. Sidney Poitier stopped by, and Leonard mentioned the letter he was trying to write. "He told me to be honest," Leonard says. "I was honest for four and a half pages. Double-spaced."

At the moment, Leonard is sitting down to write his twenty-fourth novel. It is set in New Orleans. His researcher has already prepared the photo albums. In his den is the New Orleans police department annual report for 1983, and River Trails, Bayous and Back Roads. He says: "Right now I'm clipping a lot of Nicaragua, and Gregg is researching a lot of lepers. I've always liked lepers. And you say, What do Nicaragua and lepers have to do with a big heist in New Orleans? Aha!"

So we'll just have to wait. And if the new book measures up to Glitz and Swag and The Switch and the others, it will be eagerly read. Not just by Hollywood or the reviewers or the poets or the rock musicians. But by all the people who have finally caught on.

It is time to leave. Elmore Leonard is standing on the front stoop with the geraniums in the pot and Emma racing frantically behind the screen door. He says, "Tomorrow is my birthday  I'll be fifty-nine. The thing is"  a pause now, the little grin— "I still feel everybody is older than me."