Thriller writer Elmore Leonard died recently at the age of 87. He leaves a huge legacy, including perhaps the best crime show currently on television, Justified, and dozens of classic American suspense novels, a few of which were turned into classic movies— more of which were absolute disasters.
For his early career, Leonard wrote tough, gritty westerns like 3:10 to Yuma and Hombre, both turned into very good films.
But for years even Stephen King could not claim to have been as badly abused as Elmore Leonard when it came to his crime novels. His first, The Big Bounce, was also filmed starring Ryan O’Neal. He wryly said it was “at least the second worst movie ever made.” Then it was remade in 2004 with Owen Wilson and it was even worse.
Overall, I tend to enjoy Leonard’s tight first 25 books more than his talkier next 25. Book 25, Glitz, was his breakthrough bestseller, causing the author to joke he was an overnight success after 25 years.
Get Shorty was the first film to really capture Leonard’s style, and frankly I thought it was even better than the book. In the second half of his career, Leonard added about a hundred pages to the length of his books, mostly of dialogue. Admittedly, it could be great dialogue, but I like the early books that just had a bit less of it. Others disagree.
Out of Sight is a perfect example. The book is too long, and too talky, but still quite good. Cutting it down to film length helps a lot — so does the chemistry between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez which helps sell the outlandish premise of the U.S. marshal and the bank robber’s mutual attraction.
He once called Freaky Deaky his favorite book, but the limp film adaptation of this send-up of the radical ’70s counterculture deservedly went straight to video in 2012.
Leonard was known around Metro Detroit as an unassuming guy. He didn’t play the big celebrity, and was known for his love of the Detroit Tigers and of blues clubs. He was gracious to writers who asked advice, skeptical of whether they would follow through on his emphasis on hard work and routine; and finally published a short book compiling his rules for writing.
So here, submitted for your approval, are 10 good reasons to remember Elmore Leonard, even if you aren’t a fiction reader. Maybe I’ll get to his best 10 books in a future column.