Aug. 22--EDGAR ALLAN POE is credited with inventing the detective genre and fathering the modern mystery with his short story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," in 1841.
Elmore Leonard took that form to noirish places Poe could not have imagined. The crooks, cops, and other characters in his gritty world can be good-hearted, spectacularly violent or both. They are imperfect and sometimes are misguided, but they always seem real. He kept readers entertained for the last half of the 20th century and into the 21st. Through his books and the movies they spawned, he had as great an impact on American popular culture as any writer today.
Mr. Leonard suffered a stroke earlier this month and died Tuesday at the age of 87, leaving behind a staggering body of work that earned him the Mystery Writers of America's highest lifetime achievement award (the Edgar, named after you-know-who), a National Book Award and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Award for outstanding achievement in American literature. The last of these was especially appropriate, because Mr. Leonard, more than anyone else, raised American noir detective stories and mysteries to the level of literature.
Before he was stricken, he was working on his 46th novel. Twenty-six of his novels and short stories have been adapted for either the movies or TV. Hombre, Get Shorty, Mr. Majestyk, Glitz , Jackie Brown, and Out of Sight are among the films for which his writing was the genesis, as is the FX television series Justified.
Mr. Leonard's eminence as a writer was achieved in large part because he was a master of something that eludes most writers: He created great dialogue. His characters speak the way they would if they were flesh and blood, putting the reader in a good approximation of John Gardner's "fictive dream," where we aren't aware there is even a writer there, just us and the story. In "Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing," he said the most important one was, "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite."
Mr. Leonard grew up in and around Detroit. He was a World War II vet, a Seabee. He did his early writing while working for an ad agency, putting in two hours of fiction writing each day before he went to the office. His early works were westerns. The classic "3:10 to Yuma" was adapted from one of his stories.
Later, when he had the "luxury," he would write from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. in a cinder-block basement office. Unlike other great and not-so-great American writers, he eschewed the charms and hazards of Hollywood. He never moved from the Detroit area.
Generations of readers and viewers have loved his fiction. Generations of writers have tried to emulate it. What Poe created, Elmore Leonard darn near perfected.
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