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U.S. crime writer Elmore Leonard dead at 87

NEW YORK (Reuters) - American author Elmore Leonard, whose ear for gritty, realistic dialogue helped bring dozens of hard-bitten crooks, cops and cowboys to life in nearly 50 novels, died on Tuesday several weeks after a stroke. He was 87.

"Elmore passed away this morning at 7:15 a.m. at home surrounded by his loving family," according to an announcement on his website, elmoreleonard.com. It did not provide other details.

Leonard, who first wrote Westerns when he gave up his advertising agency job in the 1950s before moving on to crime and suspense books, suffered a stroke on July 29.

Known by the nickname Dutch, Leonard had his commercial breakthrough in 1985 with the publication of "Glitz."

His following books, including "Get Shorty," "Out of Sight," "Killshot," "Bandits" and "Freaky Deaky," came out every year-and-a-half or so and were best-sellers.

Leonard's 47th book, "Blue Dreams," was expected to be published this year.

"I don't have any reason to quit," Leonard told Reuters in 2012, referring to his career. "I still enjoy writing."

Hollywood had an affinity for Leonard's books, and more than 25 of his works were made into movies or television shows, beginning with Paul Newman in the 1967 film "Hombre." The Western story "3:10 to Yuma" and the novel "The Big Bounce" were each adapted for film twice.

Movie producers and stars were so anxious to secure rights to his books that they were known to show up on Leonard's doorstep on the publication date.

But audiences and even the author himself were often unhappy with the cinematic adaptations.

Leonard, who spent much of his life in Detroit and its suburbs, said many filmmakers made the mistake of pushing the plots of what were character-driven stories, such as "Get Shorty," which is about a likeable loanshark named Chili Palmer.

"My characters are what the books are about. The plot just kind of comes along," Leonard told London's Guardian in a 2004 interview. "Movies always want to concentrate on the action."

His favorite movie adaptation of one of his novels was director-writer Quentin Tarantino's reworking of "Rum Punch" into the film "Jackie Brown."

The cable television series "Justified," the tale of a U.S. marshal in Kentucky that first aired in 2010, was based on Leonard's work and he served as executive producer of the show.

'DICKENS OF DETROIT'

Born in New Orleans, Leonard moved at age 8 with his family to Detroit, where he became enthralled by the real-life exploits of gangsters Bonnie and Clyde and the fortunes of the city's professional baseball team, the Detroit Tigers.

Reading Erich Maria Remarque's World One tale "All Quiet on the Western Front" as a boy made him want to become a writer.

After a stint in the Navy building bases in the South Pacific during World War Two, Leonard enrolled at the University of Detroit, entering writing contests and selling stories to magazines that featured tales of the Old West.

He would rise before dawn, denying himself a cup of coffee until he had written a page, and then head off to write copy at a Detroit advertising agency.

Leonard switched to crime fiction when the popularity of Westerns faded. His tough characters spoke in a clipped, twisted syntax that led Newsweek magazine in a 1984 cover story to call him "the Dickens of Detroit" - a label he scorned.

Leonard explained his approach in a New York Times essay in which he listed his rules for writing, including, "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

He summed up his technique by saying, "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

Leonard, who overcame a drinking problem in 1977, wrote daily in long-hand on unlined pads in his living room, employing a researcher to enrich his material.

He won the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in November 2012, putting him in the company of such U.S. literary luminaries as Toni Morrison, John Updike, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer.

Leonard was married three times and had five children with his first wife. His son Peter also went into advertising before becoming a writer.

(Reporting by Chris Michaud, writing by Bill Trott; Editing by David Brunnstrom and Paul Simao)

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