August 20

This Day in History

Literary

Aug 20, 2013:

Best-selling crime writer Elmore Leonard dies

On this day in 2013, the prolific, best-selling author Elmore Leonard, whose crime novels include "Get Shorty," "Rum Punch" and "Out of Sight," dies at age 87 in Bloomfield Village, Michigan. Known for his pitch-perfect dialogue, sparse prose and offbeat characters, Leonard penned dozens of novels and short stories, a number of which were adapted for film and TV.

Born in New Orleans on October 11, 1925, Leonard, whose father worked for General Motors, moved with his family to Detroit in 1934. He graduated from high school there in 1943 then served in the Navy during World War II. Afterward, he attended the University of Detroit and worked as a copywriter at an advertising agency. During the 1950s, while keeping his day job in advertising, he began publishing western novels and short stories for magazines. His 1953 story "Three-ten to Yuma" was made into a 1957 film—titled "3:10 to Yuma," it was remade with Russell Crowe in 2007—while his 1961 novel "Hombre," lauded by the Western Writers of America as one of the best westerns ever written, became a 1967 film starring Paul Newman.

When the market for westerns began to evaporate, Leonard turned to crime fiction, publishing his first crime novel, "The Big Bounce," in 1969. During the 1970s and early 1980s, he built his readership with such titles as "Fifty-two Pickup" (1974), "Swag" (1976), "Split Images" (1981), "Stick" (1983) and "LaBrava" (1983). In 1985, he had a breakout hit with his crime thriller "Glitz," about a Miami detective being stalked by a rapist he helped send to prison. Stephen King said of the novel, which landed Leonard on the cover of Newsweek magazine: "This is the kind of book that if you get up to see if there are any chocolate chip cookies left, you take it with you so you won't miss anything."

Leonard followed the success of "Glitz," with such popular titles as "Freaky Deaky" (1988) "Killshot" (1989) and "Get Shorty" (1990), which was adapted into a 1995 hit movie starring John Travolta as loan shark-turned-Hollywood producer Chili Palmer. Other popular big-screen adaptations of Leonard's work include 1997’s "Jackie Brown," directed by Quentin Tarantino and based on the 1992 book "Rum Punch," and 1998’s "Out of Sight," featuring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez and based on a 1996 novel of the same name.

Among Leonard’s accolades was a lifetime achievement award he received in 2009 from the writers’ organization PEN USA, which called his books "not only classics of the crime genre, but some of the best writing of the last half-century." The next year saw the debut of the critically acclaimed TV series "Justified," based on Leonard’s 2000 novella "Fire in the Hole" and featuring federal marshal Raylan Givens, a character who also appeared in the author’s novels "Pronto" (1993) and "Riding the Rap" (1995). Leonard, who famously listed his top rule of writing as "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it," published his 45th novel, "Raylan," in 2012. After suffering a stroke in July 2013, he died at his home the following month.

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