DETROIT — He was the master of his genre, the Dickens of Detroit, the Chaucer of Crime.
Pretty much every novel Elmore Leonard wrote from the mid-1980s on was a best-seller, and every fan of crime stories knew his name. George Clooney was an admirer. So were Quentin Tarantino, Saul Bellow and Stephen King and millions of ordinary readers.
Leonard, who died Tuesday at age 87, helped achieve for crime writing what King did for horror and Ray Bradbury for science fiction. He made it hip, and he made it respectable.
When the public flocked to watch John Travolta in the movie version of “Get Shorty” in 1995, its author became the darling of Hollywood’s hottest young directors. Book critics and literary stars, prone to dismissing crime novels as light entertainment, competed for adjectives to praise him. Last fall, he became the first crime writer to receive an honorary National Book Award, a prize given in the past to Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller.
Few writers so memorably traveled the low road. His more than 40 novels were peopled 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 were turned into dozens of feature films, TV 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.
Critics loved Leonard’s flawlessly unadorned, colloquial style, as well as how real his characters sounded when they spoke.
“People always say, ‘Where do you get (your characters’) words?’ And I say, ‘Can’t you remember people talking or think up people talking in your head?’ That’s all it is. I don’t know why that seems such a wonder to people,” he told The Associated Press last year.
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.
He died at his home in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Township, where he did much of his writing, from complications of a stroke he suffered a few weeks ago, according to his researcher, Gregg Sutter.
Crime novelist James Lee Burke said Leonard was a “gentleman of the old school” whose stylistic techniques and “experimentation with point of view and narrative voice had an enormous influence on hundreds of publishing writers.”
Leonard’s work contained moral and political themes without being didactic, Burke said. “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 didn’t have a best-seller until he was 60, and few critics took him seriously before the 1990s. Now the Library of America, which publishes hardcover editions of classic American writing, is planning a three-volume set of his work.
He had some minor successes in the 1950s and ’60s 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 many 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.”
He followed up with several more fast-paced crime novels, including “Swag” (1976). Leonard was already following the advice he would later give to young writers: “Try to leave out the parts that people skip.”
In 1978, he was commissioned to write an article about the Detroit Police Department and shadowed police officers for nearly three months. Starting with “City Primeval” in 1980, his crime novels gained a new authenticity, with quirky but believable characters and crisp, slangy dialogue. But sales remained light.
Donald I. Fine, an editor at Arbor House, thought they deserved better and promised to put the muscle of his publicity department behind them. He delivered: In 1985, “Glitz,” a stylish novel of vengeance set in Atlantic City, became Leonard’s first best-seller.
Hollywood rediscovered him, churning out a succession of bad movies, including “52 Pick-up” starring Roy Scheider.
It took Barry Sonnenfeld to finally show Hollywood how to turn a Leonard novel into a really good movie. “Get Shorty” was the first to feel and sound like a true Leonard story.
Then Quentin Tarantino took a turn with “Rum Punch,” turning it into “Jackie Brown,” a campy film starring Pam Grier. But Steven Soderbergh stayed faithful to Leonard’s story and dialogue with “Out of Sight.”