We note the passing, last month, of Elmore Leonard, acknowledged master of crime fiction and one of the most influential writers of his time. He was 87.
Leonard joined us in Key West twenty-five years ago for the 1988 Seminar, “Whodunit? The Art & Tradition of Mystery Literature.” It was our first foray into crime fiction and Dutch, as Leonard’s friends knew him, was quick to call attention to the oversimplification of his work implied by so-called mystery writing. “I’ve come to accept,” Leonard wrote to program coordinator Les Standiford in the letter included here, “that what I do lies somewhere in the ‘mystery’ field, though there is seldom a mystery as to what’s going on in my plot or who done it—if in fact it’s even done. But I do deal with crime and that’s what we’re talking about really: works in which crime motivates the plot.”
Leonard’s career had taken off in the early 1980s as Hollywood producers discovered the lucrative potential for screen adaptations of his work. But his relationship with Hollywood was an uneasy one. “Dealing with Hollywood can be fun—” Leonard cracked, in preparatory notes for a KWLS panel discussion entitled “Mystery Literature and Adaptation into Film,” “’til you write the first draft. My advice: Refuse to be picked up at the airport in a limo. Otherwise, if you walk out of the meeting you won’t have any transportation.”
Speaking onstage at the seminar with novelist Donald Westlake and film critics Sheila Benson and Richard P. Sugg, Leonard went into more detail on the aesthetic compromises that working in Hollwood required. “The major mistake that producers make,” said the novelist, whose gritty realism earned him a reputation as “the Dickens of Detroit,” “is to cast stars in the role of characters who were never written as stars and were never meant to be stars.”
Leonard continued to create work for television and film throughout his life. But he’ll be remembered as a writer of books, a humbler form that better withstands the mutability of fashion and popular culture. “I’d like to write a good screenplay, but I’m not sure I ever will,” Leonard told us in 1988, with a touch of longing. “But that’s o.k., because honestly, I get lots of satisfaction—actually I get all my satisfaction—out of writing books.”