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Elmore Leonard, best-selling novelist of schemers, clever conmen, dies

Elmore Leonard, a former adman who later became one of America's foremost crime writers, has died. He was 87. His researcher, Gregg Sutter, says Elmore died Tuesday morning from complications from a stroke.

books Updated: Aug 21, 2013 10:40 IST

Elmore Leonard, a former adman who later became one of America's foremost crime writers, died Tuesday. He was 87. His researcher, Gregg Sutter, said Leonard died from complications from a stroke he suffered a few weeks ago.

Leonard won an honorary National Book Award in 2012.

His more than 40 novels were populated by pathetic schemers, clever con men and casual killers. Many of the novels - notably "Out of Sight," ''Get Shorty" and "Be Cool" - were made into films. Critics adored his simple, direct language.

His millions of fans made all his books since "Glitz" (1985) best-sellers. When they flocked to watch John Travolta in the movie version of "Get Shorty" in 1995, its author became the darling of Hollywood's hippest directors.

Elmore Leonard smiles during an interview at his home in Bloomfield Township, Michigan. (AP Photo)

His novels were characterized by moral ambivalence about crime, black humor and wickedly acute depictions of human nature.

"When something sounds like writing, I rewrite it," Leonard often said. As author Ann Arensberg put it in a New York Times book review, "I didn't know it was possible to be as good as Elmore Leonard."

One remarkable thing about Leonard's talent is how long it took the world to notice. He didn't have a best-seller until his 60th year, and few critics took him seriously before the 1990s.

He had some minor successes in the 1950s and '60s in writing Western stories and novels, a couple of which were made into movies. But when interest in the Western dried up, he turned to writing scripts for educational and industrial films while trying crime novels.

The first, "The Big Bounce," was rejected 84 times before it was published as a paperback in 1969.

Elmore works on a manuscript at his home in Bloomfield Township. (AP Photo)

Leonard followed up with several more well-written, fast-paced crime novels, including "Swag" (1976). Leonard was already following the advice he would later give to young writers: "Try to leave out the parts that people skip."

Hollywood rediscovered him. It took Barry Sonnenfeld to finally show Hollywood how to turn a Leonard novel into a really good movie. "Get Shorty" was the first to feel and sound like an Elmore Leonard novel.

Then Quentin Tarantino took a turn with "Rum Punch," turning it into "Jackie Brown," a campy, Blaxploitation-style film starring Pam Grier. But Steven Soderbergh stayed faithful to Leonard's story and dialogue with "Out of Sight."

Elmore Leonard, one of America's foremost crime writers, sits by his typewriter at his home in Birmingham. (AP Photo)

Leonard married three times: to the late Beverly Cline in 1949, the late Joan Shepard in 1979 and, at the age of 68, to Christine Kent in 1993. He had five children, all from his first marriage.

In 2012, after learning he was to become a National Book Award lifetime achievement recipient, Leonard said he had no intention of ending his life's work.

"I probably won't quit until I just quit everything - quit my life - because it's all I know how to do," he told The Associated Press at the time. "And it's fun. I do have fun writing, and a long time ago, I told myself, 'You got to have fun at this, or it'll drive you nuts.'"

Elmore works on a manuscript at his home in Bloomfield Township. (AP Photo)
* Elmore Leonard's rules for writing

Elmore Leonard laid out his 10 rules for writing in a 2001 essay in the New York Times.

He said they helped him "remain invisible when I'm writing a book" and summed up his approach by saying, "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

While acknowledging there were exceptions, these are the guidelines Leonard worked under:
1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said."
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

First Published: Aug 20, 2013 19:51 IST