DETROIT — Elmore Leonard, the beloved crime novelist whose acclaimed best-sellers and the movies made from them chronicled the violent deaths of many a thug and conman, has died. He was 87.
Leonard, winner of an honorary National Book Award in 2012, died Tuesday morning at his home in Bloomfield Township, a suburb of Detroit, from complications of a stroke he suffered a few weeks ago, said his researcher, Gregg Sutter. Leonard was surrounded by family, Sutter said.
Leonard's millions of fans, from bellhops to Saul Bellow, made all of his books since "Glitz" (1985) best-sellers. When they flocked to watch John Travolta in the movie version of "Get Shorty" in 1995, its author became the darling of Hollywood's hippest directors. And book critics and literary lions, prone to dismiss crime novels as mere entertainments, competed for adjectives to praise him.
His more than 40 novels were populated by pathetic schemers, clever conmen and casual killers. Each was characterized by moral ambivalence about crime, black humor and wickedly acute depictions of human nature: the greedy dreams of Armand Degas in "Killshot," the wisecracking cool of Chili Palmer in "Get Shorty," Jack Belmont's lust for notoriety in "The Hot Kid."
Leonard's novels and short stories have been turned into dozens of feature films, television movies and series, including the current FX show "Justified," which stars Timothy Olyphant as one of Leonard's signature characters, the cool-under-pressure U.S. marshal Raylan Givens.
"When something sounds like writing, I rewrite it," Leonard often said — and critics adored the flawlessly unadorned, colloquial style.
As author Ann Arensberg put it in a New York Times book review, "I didn't know it was possible to be as good as Elmore Leonard."
On Tuesday, crime novelist James Lee Burke said Leonard was a "gentleman of the old school" who went out of his way to help him with his career even though the two had not met.
"His stylistic techniques and his experimentation with point of view and narrative voice had an enormous influence on hundreds of publishing writers," Burke said in an email. "His work contained moral and political themes without didactic, and he was able to write social satire disguised as a crime novel, or he could write a crime novel disguised as social satire."
Leonard spent much of his childhood in Detroit and set many of his novels in the city. Others were set in Miami near his North Palm Beach, Fla., vacation home.
One remarkable thing about Leonard's talent is how long it took the world to notice. He didn't have a best-seller until his 60th year, and few critics took him seriously before the 1990s.
He had some minor successes in the 1950s and '60s in writing Western stories and novels, a couple of which were made into movies. But when interest in the Western dried up, he turned to writing scripts for educational and industrial films while trying his hand at another genre: crime novels.
The first, "The Big Bounce," was rejected 84 times before it was published as a paperback in 1969. Hollywood came calling again, paying $50,000 for the rights and turning it into a movie starring Ryan O'Neal, that even Leonard called "terrible."