April 22, 2009 at 1:42 am

Marney Rich Keenan

Elmore Leonard, son share a name, love of writing

Peter, left, and Elmore Leonard attend a signing at Borders in Birmingham for the younger Leonard's new book, "Trust Me." (Marney Rich Keenan / The Detroit News)

When Elmore Leonard, at 83 years old the mastermind of thugs, hit men, loan sharks and other irresistible bad guys, was billed as the special guest at the book signing of his newly-minted crime writer son Peter Leonard, it was somewhat expected the conversation would center on the father acceding the throne to his son.

Instead, the two authors bantered back and forth like a pair of contemporaries.

That may be because Elmore Leonard doesn't look, talk or act his age. Or it may be what happens when good fiction writers get together to talk about storytelling. At once, their shared love of the craft puts them on equal footing.

The senior Leonard, dressed in faded jeans, a crew neck sweater and horn-rimmed glasses, joined his son for the debut of Peter Leonard's second book, "Trust Me," (Minotaur Books $24.95) the other night at Borders Bookstore in Birmingham, the hometown of both authors, who live within a few miles of each other.

With microphones in hand, the two took turns prompting topics and goading each other with humor.

"One of the things that got me into writing was a memory of my driving home from work (in advertising) and I'd drop by Elmore's house," Peter said. "I'd be wearing gray pants and a sport coat, and there you were, my dad, wearing a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt and jeans and sandals, sitting at your typewriter. Looking out at the pool."

Elmore smiled.

"And beyond that, the tennis courts."

Peter continued.

"I mean, writing looked like a good life. You looked like you were having fun."

Finally, Elmore deadpans: "I was." The audience laughs on cue.

"It's true," Elmore explained. "Writing a book is not work for me. At least, I don't think of it as being work. It's not easy, of course, but it's not work. Of course, I did have to learn how to write funny. Now, that's not so easy."

"But, now you've done it," Peter said.

"Well, we'll see," Elmore said, slipping back into self-deprecation mode. "You gotta keep going."

Then, as if it just occurred to him: "I'm on number 43. What number are you on?" Cue laughter again.

"I just finished number three," Peter said with a smile.

Number one for Peter was "Quiver" a fast-paced thriller involving a widow, an ex-con and the requisite cast of assorted killers. "Trust Me" is about a loan of $300,000 and competing efforts by Karen Delaney, her ex-boyfriend, another thug and some hit men to retrieve it. The third book, loosely titled "As The Romans Do," is based on a true story about American students stealing a taxi cab and spending a bit of time in an Italian prison.

As for Elmore, his next book, "Road Dogs," is coming out May 12. Now he's working on a manuscript titled "Djibouti," named for a small country bordered by the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. It's about -- you guessed it -- pirates, lending further evidence that Elmore is on top of his game. Peter announced that he's becoming a novelist full-time. He said the ad agency, Leonard, Mayer & Tocco Inc., is closing June 30.

Both authors describe the process of writing and plot destination as almost magical -- as if the characters take on lives of their own. "By the first 100 pages I've introduced most of the characters," Elmore said. "But, they are still sort of trying out for the part. In my books, they gotta be able to talk. In Peter's books, too. If they can't talk, they get shot (and killed off) early."

Peter talks the same language: "It's interesting how the characters you think are going to develop sometimes don't. So this idea of auditioning characters is true. They almost become real. O'Clair, for example, he was the bad guy, but I couldn't make him bad. I liked him too much."

But just because they talk like equals doesn't mean that there isn't an enormous amount of pride underneath the bravado.

When asked about the title "Trust Me," Peter said: "It's a theme that runs though the book. Everybody in it is bad, pretty much. There really is no honor among them. Everybody wants their money. So there's no trust. But, still, everybody says in the book: 'Trust me.' "

To which Elmore said: "It's a very good title."

He paused and then added, almost inaudibly, but not quite. "Wish I'd thought of it."

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