Obituary: Elmore Leonard

Image caption Leonard published more than 46 novels before his death at the age of 87
  • Never open a book with weather.
  • Avoid prologues.
  • Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.

Three top rules of writing as laid out by Elmore Leonard, the US crime author who has died in Detroit aged 87.

Leonard was born in New Orleans but moved as a child to the Motor City, a place he would call home for the next 80 years. While other less successful writers would gravitate towards New York or Los Angeles, Leonard stayed put in Detroit.

He began his career copywriting for a local ad agency in the 1950s, indulging his passion for writing in his free time, rising from bed at 05:00 to write for two hours before work.

His subject was the Wild West and it was during this time, in 1953, he wrote a short story about a deputy sheriff escorting an outlaw to the train to take him to prison.

It was just four years before the story, 3:10 to Yuma, was made for the silver screen starring Glenn Ford. It was a hit on release and such was its significance, was added to the National Film Registry in 2012.

It was remade in 2007, 50 years after the original, with Oscar-winning actors Christian Bale and Russell Crowe in the main roles.

In 2011, Leonard told the Independent his greatest thrill was selling his first novelette.

"It was a Western for Argosy magazine in 1951, called Trail of the Apaches. I'd done a lot of research about the Apache Indians in the 1880s and they seemed like ruthless individuals out to raise hell, which fascinated me.

"I got paid $1,000 (£640) for it and I thought, wow, I'm going to quit my job in advertising, which I hated."

Pulp crime

As if to balance his first story, in 1961 he wrote Hombre - telling the story of an Apache who leads the passengers of an attacked stagecoach through the desert to safety.

Praised for its conciliatory message of white settlers and natives succeeding through co-operation, it became the second of Leonard's books to be made for the cinema - this time with none other than Paul Newman in the lead role.

But the literary landscape was changing. Westerns were out, now replaced by harder, grittier real crime stories. Violent ex-cons, killers and dames replaced cowboys and Indians and it was here that Leonard - or "Dutch" as he was sometimes called, a nickname from his time in the navy (after left-handed Detroit Tigers pitcher Dutch Leonard) - found his voice.

He gained a growing reputation for his sharply-drawn characters and authentic dialogue - one critic said reading a Leonard book was like overhearing characters talking on the subway and wishing you could miss your stop in order to listen to what they had to say next.

His first entry into the crime world was The Big Bounce, but it wasn't an easy transition. He wrote the book in 1966 and it took three years and more than 80 rejections to get published.

Again, the big screen beckoned and this time Ryan O'Neal played the lead role.

However Leonard was not impressed, telling the Independent: "When I saw the adaptation of The Big Bounce in 1969, I said, this is the second-worst movie I ever saw.

"Then they remade it [in 2004] and I thought, why are they doing that? Now it's the worst. At first that sort of thing frustrated me, but I've since learnt to live with it."

Image caption Travolta was riding the crest of a wave of success after Pulp Fiction

A string of hit pulp-style novels followed and by the mid-1980s not only was his name in the best-seller list, he'd been dubbed "the Dickens of Detroit" by Newsweek magazine.

In 1990, Leonard wrote Get Shorty - a tale of ex-loan sharks, crooked movie producers and drug cartels. If Leonard had been unhappy with the bulk of his work adapted for the big screen until then, the success of the film version five years later must surely have pleased him.

Starring a revitalised John Travolta - fresh off the back of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction - Gene Hackman and Danny DeVito, the film topped the US box office for three weeks.

It fared considerably better than his own adaptations. No fewer than 19 of his novels and short stories were turned into Hollywood feature films but it was with some reluctance that Leonard adapted his own work.

Speaking to the BBC's Front Row programme, he said: "You're working for someone, you're not working for yourself even though you're adapting your own material. Still you're doing what they want.

"It's not always what I want but if you want to get paid, you do what they want. When I write a book I do exactly what pleases me."

Tarantino himself soon embarked on his own adaptation of a Leonard novel - Rum Punch.

The 1997 film Jackie Brown, starring blaxploitation actress Pam Grier in the title role, was another success, commercially and critically. The film garnered Grier's co-star Robert Forster an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor, and Golden Globe Award nominations for Samuel L Jackson and Grier.

Image caption Jackie Brown is still considered one of Tarantino's best films

It was understood to be Leonard's favourite film adaptation as it stuck fairly closely to the original text.

Now a darling of the literary hipster world, Steven Soderbergh followed with a film adaptation of Out of Sight starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez.

Writing process

In 2000 Leonard wrote his, now famous, 10 rules of writing for a speech he was due to give. "They were tongue in cheek," he told the BBC, "but then I began to believe in them."

One of the rules was "avoid detailed descriptions of characters".

He explained it to Front Row presenter Mark Lawson saying: "I think the reader wants to picture somebody and what is described in a book, what the person looks like, the reader might not like it. Let the reader come up with his own idea of the character."

In 1993 Leonard introduced the world to the character Raylan Givens, a US marshal and former marine, appearing again in the 1995 work Riding the Rap. Those books formed the basis in 2010 for TV series Justified, on which Leonard served as an executive producer.

Leonard used Givens again as the central character in his most recent work, Raylan, published last year.

The writer continued to work well into his 80s and - before the stroke which sent him to hospital in August - was in the middle of his 46th book.

In January 2012, he told The Observer about his writing process.

"I sit here, in a suburb of Detroit, writing books by hand on yellow unlined pads with a view from my desk that offers distractions: Disney creatures on the patio, squirrels that come up for a handout and go nuts when I offer pistachios... distractions are good when I'm stuck in whatever it is I'm writing or have reached the point of overwriting."

After learning he was to become a National Book Award lifetime achievement recipient, Leonard said he had no intention of ending his life's work.

"I probably won't quit until I just quit everything - quit my life - because it's all I know how to do," he told AP.

"And it's fun. I do have fun writing, and a long time ago, I told myself, 'You got to have fun at this, or it'll drive you nuts.'"

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