Elmore Leonard, at work in his Bloomfield Village home, still has plenty of steam with the new novel, “Raylan,” debuting Sunday at No. 7 on the New York Times bestseller list, and the FX series “Justified” based on his Raylan Givens character. (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)
Peter Leonard knows the exact moment that he wanted his father Elmore Leonard's job. It was after a long, tense day at the ad agency, dressed in a suit, making pitches to a room of bored suits. Peter had gone over to his father's house to find the eminent crime writer lounging around dressed in a black Nine Inch Nails T-shirt, jeans and sandals. "I said, I have to have a job like this."
And so a second generation of Leonards went into mystery/crime writing.
The elder Leonard is, of course, the acknowledged master of the genre after 44 novels ("Swag," "Get Shorty," "Killshot," "LaBrava"), countless screenplays, novellas and short stories in a writing career that spans 60 years. His finely honed sentences can sound as flinty/poetic as Hemingway or as hard-boiled as Raymond Chandler. His ear for the way people talk — or should — is peerless.
Peter Leonard was talking about his career epiphany in a meeting room in the basement of the Baldwin Library in Birmingham, appearing with his father at a standing-room-only dual book signing Jan. 19. (Peter's latest: "Voices of the Dead.")
It was a rare appearance, one of only three the elder Leonard did to celebrate the release of his latest novel, his 45th, "Raylan: A Novel" (William Morrow, $26.99). The book makes a splashy debut Sunday at No. 7 on the New York Times best-seller list.
A longtime Bloomfield Village resident, Leonard could have moved to Hollywood several times over, he has so many fans and friends there. But he stayed in Detroit — why? "I like it," Leonard said. "Great music … lot of poverty. I wouldn't move anywhere else. Now, it's too late. I'd never be able to drive in San Francisco or Los Angeles."
The new novel, "Raylan," and the success of the hit FX series "Justified," in which actor Timothy Olyphant plays coal-miner-turned-U.S. marshal Raylan Givens, marks yet another career high for the author. "Justified" took the character of Givens from an earlier Leonard novella, "Fire in the Hole" (2000).
It's apparent that the series has sparked something in the 86-year-old, who you'd expect to be somewhat blasé by now about seeing his fiction made into a TV series or film ("Hombre," "Out of Sight," "Get Shorty" and "Be Cool" being just a few of the films based upon his work).
But he clearly takes great delight in "Justified," and it prompted him to write the new book.
"I can't just sit around on a set," Leonard said, although they'd probably be happy to have him do that. The "Justified" writers think so highly of the author, they wear "WWED" (What Would Elmore Do?") wristbands.
But, he continued: "I've always been active in any production. (On 'Justified') they have eight or nine writers, so I thought, I've got to contribute something."
That "something" is the characters, plotlines and just about anything else in "Raylan."
"If they want to use something, OK; if they don't, they don't," Leonard said, shrugging.
At the Baldwin Library last month, it was old home week as school friends of his children (he has five), relatives (among them Leonard's daughter Katy Leonard Dudley, grandson Alex Leonard and Peter's wife, Julie Leonard) and his longtime researcher Gregg Sutter watched as the author sat at a table answering questions from his son and fans, speaking in the same clipped, intense rhythm of his writing.
In the new novel, Raylan is on the trail of backwoods Kentucky dope dealers who have branched out from meth and marijuana distribution into harvesting and trafficking human organs. As in any Elmore Leonard novel, the characters have snappy names — Dickie and Coover Crowe are the moronic, pot-selling brothers and Cuba Franks is the ex-con, former chauffeur who tires of their nonsense.
Leonard counts not only Hollywood stars among his fans, but also his fellow authors.
"He's such a great guy, and I really like his writing," said author Walter Mosley, who saw his friend "Dutch" in New York last week.
"I love that series 'Justified'; I'm very happy with him and with it," said Mosley, creator of the Easy Rawlins mystery series. "He's so funny, he said to me, 'Oh yeah Walter, I only write one book a year now. I've really slowed down.'" Mosley laughed. "So many literary writers take five years to write a novel!"
Early years in Detroit
He was born in New Orleans, and Leonard's family moved around in the South before ending up in Detroit in 1934, when he was 9 years old and "in the fourth or fifth grade." He attended the Blessed Sacrament School on Belmont and was teased about his Southern accent. "The kids used to say, 'Say "sugar chile" for me.' I'd say, 'Why are they asking me that?'"
He majored in English at the University of Detroit, graduating in 1950. An advertising career consumed him during the 1950s, the peak "Mad Men" years.
Famously, Leonard started writing Westerns from 5-7 a.m. at home before going to work at Campbell-Ewald, where Chevrolet trucks was one of his accounts. He developed a ferocious work ethic, writing every day in a cinder-block basement office that looked, to son Peter, like a prison cell. After he quit advertising, he wrote from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., without a lunch break.
"But you can take a lunch break," Leonard offered helpfully to any prospective authors.
For him, it was Ernest Hemingway's clean, crisp sentences that made him want to be a writer, although Leonard noted with regret that Hemingway had no sense of humor. He had to find other literary idols for that.
And it's the wit at the heart of his bleakest crime stories that is vintage Elmore Leonard. "Most of my characters don't know that they're funny," he said.
Some do. In the new novel, Raylan Givens is being threatened by a coal company thug who offers to meet him outside and "teach" him respect for the company.
"I'll meet you out here after, you want," Raylan said, "practice falling down till I get here."
Following Detroit cops
Both Leonard and his son credited stints following Detroit homicide detectives around as vital, giving them firsthand knowledge of the way police and perpetrators speak. In Leonard's case, it was a 1978 assignment from The Detroit News' Sunday magazine to ride around with homicide detectives and write about it. The story that resulted, "Squad 7": Impressions of Murder," was published in November 1978.
Leonard enjoyed himself immensely.
"One time I was at an exam for this guy who ran a dope house in Detroit and had shot three people," Leonard said of his time with Detroit homicide. He laughed and said, "He pointed me out in court as one of the cops who were present when he was questioned!"
The author was only supposed to shadow the homicide cops for several days, but he stayed a month, "because this was so good I couldn't leave. They got used to me."
That time with Detroit homicide yielded fictional gold for years.
In the '78 News story, Leonard quotes one of the detectives talking about the "freaky-deaky," an overtly sexual 1970s dance that led to a shooting. "Man, I got to see this dance, makes people kill each other," the cop said. Elmore's book "Freaky Deaky" came out 10 years later.
"Freaky Deaky" will actually be the next feature film based on a Leonard book. It was filmed by Charlie Matthau (director son of Walter) in Metro Detroit last year and is set for a summer release.
"Charlie said he's anxious for me to see it," Leonard said. "He did say he used every line from the book, which is encouraging."
'No' to Bruce Willis
The back and forth with readers at the Baldwin Library in Birmingham yielded some vintage Leonard lines, delivered deadpan for maximum effect.
Had he ever turned down anyone who wanted to option one of his books?
"Bruce Willis," Leonard said. "He wanted to buy 'Killshot.' I said, 'I don't want to sell it to you, because you'll change the ending.' In the book, a woman shoots the bad guy in the end. But if Bruce Willis is in it, he's got to shoot the bad guy. I didn't sell it to him."
He paused for a beat. "I should have, though."
Out of all the films made from his books, who was his favorite actor?
Leonard doesn't hesitate — George Clooney, who starred in "Out of Sight." "He never went in his trailer! He would be out shooting baskets or hanging out."
On the subject of his researcher Sutter, Leonard said his associate always gives him reams of material, "always too much, but I read every word. It's interesting!"
One fan had already read "Raylan" and loved the peripheral character of Loretta, a Kentucky teenager whose self-assurance unnerves the federal marshal.
"Will you bring back the character of Loretta?" the fan asked.
"Well, no!" Leonard said, sounding peeved. "There are all kinds of characters that you make up. You use them, and then you forget about them!"
Leonard’s Detroit News article
In 1978, Detroit News editors commissioned a story by Elmore Leonard for the Sunday magazine about Detroit Homicide’s felony murder team, Squad 7. News reporter Norman Sinclair introduced Leonard to his Detroit homicide police sources, and the author ended up spending many weeks following the squad on calls and at police headquarters.
The result, "Squad 7: Impressions of Murder," a rare foray into journalism for the author, ran in the Nov. 12, 1978, magazine.
In this excerpt, homicide detectives Tim Dowd and George Taylor have gone to a house in the Grand River-Plymouth area to pick up a suspect in a double murder.
"There were sounds inside the house, voices. Tim Dowd knocked again and waited. No one had drawn a gun.
The young man who opened the door was buttoning his shirt, his fly open. His hair was braided in tight corn rows.
Dowd and George Taylor waited for a search warrant to be delivered while the suspect was cuffed and taken to 1300. Dowd and Taylor stood on newspapers the family living here had spread over the floor to keep the carpeting clean. They looked at the vivid, almost day-glo tapestry of "The Last Supper;" at the lighted, sweet-scented novena candles placed at the four corners of an open Bible (Psalms, 19-23). On the glass of one of the votive lights was inscribed, "Run Devil Run."