AP: Best-selling author Elmore Leonard dies at 87

Aug. 20, 2013 @ 12:22 PM

He was the master of his genre, the Dickens of Detroit, the Chaucer of Crime.

Every novel Elmore Leonard wrote from the mid-1980s on was a best-seller, and every fan of crime stories knew his name. George Clooney was an admirer. So were Quentin Tarantino, Aerosmith, Saul Bellow and Stephen King, not to mention bellhops, waiters, accountants and millions of others.

Leonard, who died Tuesday morning at age 87, helped achieve for crime writing what King did for horror and Ray Bradbury for science fiction. He made it hip, and he made it respectable.

When the public flocked to watch John Travolta in the movie version of "Get Shorty" in 1995, its author became the darling of Hollywood's hottest young directors. Book critics and literary stars, prone to dismissing crime novels as light entertainments, competed for adjectives to praise him. Last fall, he became the first crime writer to receive an honorary National Book Award, a prize given in the past to Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller.

Few writers so memorably traveled the low road. His more than 40 novels were peopled by pathetic schemers, clever conmen and casual killers. Each was characterized by moral ambivalence about crime, black humor and wickedly acute depictions of human nature: the greedy dreams of Armand Degas in "Killshot," the wisecracking cool of Chili Palmer in "Get Shorty," Jack Belmont's lust for notoriety in "The Hot Kid."

Leonard's novels and short stories have been turned into dozens of feature films, TV movies and series, including the current FX show "Justified," which stars Timothy Olyphant as one of Leonard's signature characters, the cool-under-pressure U.S. marshal Raylan Givens.

Critics adored the flawlessly unadorned, colloquial style, as well as how real his characters sounded when they spoke.

"People always say, 'Where do you get (your characters') words?' And I say, 'Can't you remember people talking or think up people talking in your head?' That's all it is. I don't know why that seems such a wonder to people," he told The Associated Press last year.

Leonard spent much of his childhood in Detroit and set many of his novels in the city. Others were set in Miami near his North Palm Beach, Fla., vacation home.

He died at his home in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Township, where he did much of his writing, from complications of a stroke he suffered a few weeks ago, according to his researcher, Gregg Sutter. The writer was surrounded by family.