By Pam Christensen
Michigan lost a literary treasure when author Elmore Leonard died in August. Leonard was 87 years old and one of Michigan's most successful authors. His success was not without challenges. He was born in New Orleans in 1925. He was raised in Michigan and graduated from the University of Detroit Jesuit High School in 1943 and immediately joined the Navy. He served as a Seabee for three years in the South Pacific. It was during this period he received the nickname Dutch after pitcher Dutch Leonard.
Following his military service, he enrolled at the University of Detroit and pursued his writing career. He graduated in 1950 with a BA in English and philosophy. He then accepted a job as a copy writer with the Campbell-Ewald Advertising Agency.
His writing career started in the 1950s writing short stories and pulp Westerns. He would get up at 5:00 a.m. in order to write before going to work. During the 50's and 60's five of his Westerns were made into films-The Tall T, 3:10 to Yuma, Hombre, Vladez is Coming and Joe Kid. During his lifetime, 17 of his novels were adapted into film.
Leonard's first crime novel The Big Bounce was made into a movie in 1969. His breakout novel Glitz made Elmore a household name. Many of the mysteries were set in Detroit and featured wisecracking characters who do violent and stupid things in offbeat settings. Plot twists and sparse narrative are hallmarks of a Leonard novel. Called the "Dickens of Detroit", Leonard spent time with Detroit homicide detectives, but said "If I lived in Buffalo, I'd write about Buffalo".
Leonard was working on his 46th novel at his death. The PWPL has most of his novels. Some are even in audio book format. The best of Leonard's western fiction is collected in The Tonto Woman and Other Western Stories. Nineteen of Leonard's best short stories are featured in this paperback. The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard contains 30 of his western short stories. Either book would be a great introduction to his writings about the American frontier.
Many of the settings for Leonard's books are far-flung and play as much a role in the novels as do his wacky characters. Tishomingo Blues is set in Mississippi and features Dennis Lenahan, a high diver, who witnesses a mob hit from his diving platform. If this wasn't enough, the characters get drug into a deadly Civil War reenactment with a colorful cast of characters.
Glitz follows Lt. Vincent Mora, a Miami police detective who is visiting Puerto Rico to recover from a gunshot wound. He has seen everything there is for a cop to see, but he has to escape the vengeance of ex-con Teddy. Mora travels to Atlantic City where he meets up with Teddy and the mob in a crazy battle against good and evil.
Set in Detroit, Freaky Deaky features Detroit police detective Chris Mankowski as he leaves the bomb squad for the sex crimes division. Unfortunately, his first case is filled with explosive twists as a-not-so-successful actress walks into his office claiming that one of Detroit's leading citizens raped her.
Get Shorty was a hit film, and follows the fortunes of Chili Palmer, a Miami loan shark. Palmer travels to Las Vegas and then Hollywood in an effort to get horror-film producer Harry Zimm to pay up on $200,000 in gambling debts. Readers can follow along as hustlers get hustled and the ins and outs of Hollywood get revealed.
Chili Palmer ends up in Be Cool as the partner to LAPD's Detective Darryl Holmes. Chilli has a hit on his tail and the two men dive into the seamy underside of the music industry in an attempt to wrest singer Linda Moon away from her dangerous promoter.
U.S. Marshal, Raylan Givens is one of Leonard's more popular heroes. In Riding the Rap, he is chasing fugitive felons. When Harry Arno escapes again, Givens feels obligated to join the search. Unfortunately, he finds that Arno's disappearance is not all his doing, but part of a complicated hostage and ransom scheme where the hostage must pay up or be killed. Raylan is pretty sure he knows where Arno is being held, but can he get there in time?
Detroiter Harry Mitchell thinks he is meeting his mistress but instead he is treated to a "this is your life" home movie and blackmail scheme that threatens to destroy his marriage, his reputation and his multi-million dollar company. The three psycho thugs who set him up in Fifty Two Pick Up, don't realize how tough their mark can be, even when it involves murder.
When the Women Come Out to Dance is a collection of Leonard's short stories; many featuring his favorite characters. For a quick glimpse into the style of this accomplished author, this collection of short stories is a good place to start.
If you are an Elmore Leonard fan, this is a good time to reread some of his westerns or mysteries. If you haven't ever read a Leonard book, this is a good time to see why Michigan lost one of its best writers ever.