July 3, 2014 at 8:06 am

'Researcher' sounds like a boring occupation - unless you worked for Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard joined Gregg Sutter in Venice, California, in 2007 to research Leonard's novel, 'Road Dogs.' (Tibby Rothman)

People used to tell Gregg Sutter he had the best job in the world.

“No,” he’d say, “I have the second-best. But I’ll take it.”

For 32½ years, Sutter was Elmore Leonard’s researcher. His leg man, if you prefer a more active term, and that probably fits better.

“Researcher” sounds like someone sitting in a library, getting dusty in the stacks or dizzy at the microfiche machine.

Sutter did plenty of that, but he would also go to Cuba for Leonard, or embed himself with detectives in Atlantic City, or track down a guy from Louisiana who made his living leaping from an 80-foot tower into not much more than a hot tub.

Leonard would join him sometimes, after Sutter found things worth looking at. He was a good researcher in his own right, Sutter says, but Leonard mostly stayed home in Michigan, writing his marvelous crime novels.

That was the best job, and he was on a roll. “Raylan,” revisiting one of his old characters, had spent five weeks as a bestseller. “Justified,” the FX series about federal marshal Raylan Givens, was a hit, and Leonard was the script writers’ golden idol.

Then he died.

That was in August. Leonard was 87, he’d had a stroke a few weeks earlier, and logic told you he wasn’t going to rally. Still, “it hasn’t completely sunk in yet,” Sutter says.

They were collaborators. They were friends. They were as unique in their relationship as Leonard was with his prose.

Now Sutter is … no, not adrift. He’s too busy for that. Unsettled, maybe. But at least he has a title for his memoir, courtesy of a librarian he met when Leonard gave a speech in Denver.

She told him, “I’d kill to have your job.”

Game show fans

Sutter is a Detroit guy, even if he lives in L.A. now, and every three weeks he’d come home for a meeting at Leonard’s house in Bloomfield Village.

They would talk about what Sutter had uncovered or Leonard had written, or Sutter might fill him in on the news; when Leonard was deep into a book, he didn’t pay attention to much else.

Whatever the topic, they would take a break at 7 p.m., because Leonard was devoted to “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!”

Not many people know that. Fewer — probably one — could tell you without checking that the only short story Leonard sold to the Saturday Evening Post was called “Moment of Vengeance” and appeared April 21, 1956.

Sutter, 63, also knows how to break into a car, knowledge gained from Detroit police at Leonard’s behest. It all made him the go-to guy for the Library of America when it decided to add Leonard to its stable of writers, along with the likes of Sinclair Lewis, Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein and James Baldwin.

Lesson from a friend

The nonprofit Library of America publishes what it calls “authoritative new editions of America’s best and most significant writers.” The books’ editors are typically authors or professors.

Less loftily, Sutter had been an industrial liquidator and an auto worker before he wrote a freelance story about Leonard for Detroit Monthly in 1979, which led to permanent employment two years later.

Sutter oversaw “Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1970s,” which comes out Sept. 4 and contributed a 10,000-word chronology that would be worth the $35 even without “Fifty-Two Pickup,” “Swag,” “Unknown Man No. 89” and “The Switch,” from Leonard’s Detroit period.

Two more four-novel collections will follow. So Sutter has that on his plate, and he owns and operates elmoreleonard.com, and he says he’s ready to stop pondering his memoir and start writing it.

His first impulse was to make it a biography. But their combined story is interesting, too, and his recall is so sharp he can still name all the stores near his childhood home at Moross and Harper.

“I want to make this entertaining,” he says. “I don’t want to get bogged down.”

He’ll move it along, and leave out the boring parts.

His friend, Elmore Leonard, taught him that.

nrubin@detroitnews.com
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