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Elmore Leonard, writer of sharp, colorful crime stories, dead at 87

Elmore Leonard returns with his latest in crime fiction,"Raylan". The character inspired the hit TV show, "Justified". The 86-year-old author has been writing bestsellers for 60 years.
Credit: Courtesy Dermot Cleary

Todd Leopold and Joe Sterling

CNN

(CNN) -- Elmore Leonard -- the award-winning mystery writer whose snappy dialogue, misfit characters and laconic sense of humor produced such popular works as "Get Shorty," "Hombre," "Fifty-Two Pickup" and "Out of Sight" -- has died, according to his literary agent, Jeffrey Posternak. He was 87.

The cause of death was not given, but Leonard had suffered a stroke two weeks ago. According to his website, the author died at his home in Bloomfield Village, Michigan.

Leonard's succinct writing style -- he favored brief exchanges of dialogue leavened with wit and a keen sense of person and place -- made him a favorite of Hollywood, which turned several Leonard novels and stories into films and TV programs. (The newest Leonard adaptation, the film "Life of Crime," based on his novel "The Switch," will premiere at the Toronto Film Festival next month.)

He was also incredibly prolific. At the time of his death, he was at work on his 46th novel.

His style went down easy but could be hard to imitate. The writers on the TV show "Justified," based on a Leonard character, wore wristbands with the initials "WWED" stamped on them, for "What Would Elmore Do?"

Informed of this, he described it as "flattering."

"I have a picture of all them and they're at their desk and they all have a different book of mine and each one is reading to get my sound," he told CNN last year. "That's very flattering, I'll tell you."

Leonard was born in New Orleans but raised in Michigan, where his father worked for General Motors. After college, Leonard went to work for a local advertising agency, where he spent his days writing copy about cars and trucks. His nights, however, were devoted to his own work: mainly westerns in the 1950s. Two of his stories, "Three-Ten to Yuma" and "The Captives," were turned into movies.

But Leonard kept his advertising job until 1961, rising at 5 a.m. to write before heading off to work. Despite his output -- and more movies, including "Hombre" with Paul Newman -- he said he didn't find his style until reading George V. Higgins' classic 1970 crime novel, "The Friends of Eddie Coyle." Higgins' book, which was turned into a 1973 movie, was almost all dialogue, much of it profane.

"I read it and I changed my style somewhat," he told CNN. "Just somewhat. I started to use expletives where they belonged. I started to open my scenes with dialogue. Higgins set me free."

He also spent time with Detroit homicide detectives, where he continued to hone his ear.

All this came just in time. He'd written one crime novel, "The Big Bounce," in 1966. Despite Leonard's bona fides, it was rejected 84 times and didn't see the light of day until being made into a 1969 movie.

The new style gave his books new life -- and new fans. When the movies wanted crime stories with offbeat characters and settings, they knew to turn to Leonard. "Get Shorty" was made into a 1995 film starring John Travolta and Gene Hackman; "Rum Punch," a 1992 novel, was turned into Quentin Tarantino's 1997 film "Jackie Brown." "Out of Sight," which was made into a 1999 Steven Soderbergh film, helped rejuvenate George Clooney's movie career.

In Leonard's stories, characters move from scene to scene, cracking wise while they do stupid, violent things. He thinks most crooks are dumb, and that dumb is funny. He likes a good caper and the violence seems to be almost incidental, more like an occupational hazard.

The plots feature clever twists; the narrative style is so spare it reads like haiku. The simple beauty of it all can put a bullet through your heart.

He created some of popular fiction's most memorable tough guys: trigger-happy federal marshal Raylan Givens, streetwise Hollywood wannabe Chili Palmer and smooth talking bank robber Jack Foley.

In recent years, literary types took notice. Last year, the National Book Foundation awarded Leonard the 2012 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in recognition of his fiction.

"For over five decades, Leonard's westerns, crime novels, serialized novels, and stories have enthralled generations of readers," the foundation said in a statement.

Leonard also received an Edgar Grand Master honor from the Mystery Writers of America and a Peabody Award, among other distinctions.

But to Leonard, writing was just what he did.

"I don't have a trade," he told CNN. "I don't teach or anything. I just love to make up characters and gradually build up a story around them." For example, he said, the "Out of Sight" character Karen Sisco, later the lead of a TV series, was inspired by a newspaper photograph of a shotgun-toting Miami marshal.

He also worked hard. Writing is rewriting, the old saying goes, and Leonard -- who wrote first drafts by hand -- would do three pages to get "one clean, typed page with every word in place."

The key, he said, was to know when to stop. Wise advice from the man who wrote a book called "10 Rules of Writing."

"I don't want it to sound like writing," he said. "Leave out the parts people tend to skip."

CNN's Ann O'Neill and Christian DuChateau contributed to this report

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