Remembering Elmore “Dutch” Leonard

The death of Elmore Leonard this past summer was a shock that took us all by surprise. He was a mighty Oak on the world lit scene, perhaps the greatest crime novelist of all time and a treasured loyalist of Detroit. His roots in the city ran deep and we watched and applauded each new novel, film adaptation, and accolade. He was an epitome of cool; laid back, unpretentious, and an intense observer of life. He used the minimum language to maximum effect. One of his favorite often repeated phrases was Take it easy. He was a natural.

Late in his life, the television production of Justified, based on the short story “Fire in the Hole”, seemed to renew his excitement for writing. His publishers recently began to reprint his older out-of-print books, many of them Westerns he wrote in the 1950s.  Before he died, he was working on a second novel about his character Raylan, the US Marshall featured in Justified. This novel was later finished by his son Peter. 

“There’s a wicked backbeat in his urban novels that pulses through cities like Miami, Detroit, New Orleans and San Juan… “The bad guys are the fun guys,” Mr. Leonard said in a 1983 New York Times interview. “The only people I have trouble with are the so-called normal types. Their language isn’t very colorful, and they don’t talk with any certain sound.”

U.S. Senator Carl Levin made a statement on the house floor on September 17, 2013 in memory of Elmore Leonard. He said: “Mr. President, when Michigan novelist Elmore Leonard passed away on August 20, the world lost an irreplaceable voice, a witty creator of unlikely and unforgettable characters who, like their creator, knew the value of brevity.”

Leonard’s novels took place in the American West, in the Everglades, in the Horn of Africa or the streets of Havana, but they always carried a little of hometown Detroit. His protagonists were tough and gruff, but also loveable, flawed, and good-hearted. Midwestern folks with few words and bold actions. And like his hometown, Leonard’s writing was without pretense or formality. “If it sounds like writing,” he said, “I rewrote it.”

The New York Times  described Leonard as “A Man of Few, Yet Perfect, Words.” In 2001, he wrote for The Times a short essay on his tips for writers, titled, “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.” The aim, he said, was to “remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story.”  Senator Levin also said, “His rules for writing are useful for anyone who writes and wants to be read, and I ask unanimous consent that they be placed in the record. The world has lost a great writer. I have lost a friend.”

On his process of writing, Leonard compiled his hard-and-fast guidelines in book-form: “These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.” —Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.


Peter Leonard, Elmore Leonard, and U.S. Senator Carl Levin meeting for the first time at Book Beat’s 30th anniversary party in August 2012.

At Book Beat’s 30th Anniversary party in 2012, we invited Elmore and Peter Leonard to sign books along with about 30 other authors. We hadn’t heard back and didn’t expect them, but It was a pleasant surprise when they stopped by. This was also the first time Senator Carl Levin was able to meet the author. Elmore was always a sincere, darkly humorous and humble man, there for his friends and the public that loved him. 

As you wander through Leonard’s badass, often hilarious, and fast paced novels, the realism and voice of the characters holds you in their spell and glued to the page. Martin Amis once called him “a literary genius who writes re-readable thrillers.”

Arts patron and founding member of MoCAD, Julia Reyes Taubman, introduced Leonard to Book Beat. They became close friends while she was working on her book of photographs, Detroit: 138 Square Miles. Leonard was Taubman’s neighbor and she convinced him to write an introduction for her book. According to The New Yorker, she “spent years chasing Elmore Leonard, to persuade him to write a forward.”

Hearing Leonard speak in his soft gravelly voice, telling tales about his books and Hollywood connections was a delight that many people can recall who’ve attend his intimate area signings. The memories and thoughts in his head were fascinating and filled with laughter. npr radio did a wonderful 5 minute life story, combined with interview material, where he said, “People ask me about my dialogue, I say, ‘Don’t you hear people talking?’ That’s all I do.” Elmore wrote a total of 46 novels, an amazing legacy for anyone to explore. His created a vital new landscape for American crime fiction. Pick up any one of his novels and dig in. And always remember, as Dutch says, Take it easy.

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One comment on “Remembering Elmore “Dutch” Leonard
  1. Dutch was the Best. Not just a great writer, but a great guy too. He was humble and nice and friendly. One of the best people I ever knew..

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