"THE QUESTION HERE IS, WHY IS ELMORE LEONARD SO GOOD?" wrote Walker Percy in a 1987 review of Leonard's 1987 novel Bandits. "He is as good as the blurbs say: 'The greatest crime writer of our time, perhaps ever.'"
With his hard-edged, rapid-fire prose, gritty realism, audacious storytelling, dark humor, and true-to-life characters living outside the normal standards of humanity--from lowlife gangsters to demented millionaires, miracle workers, and men who dive 80 feet from a platform into a small tank, all of whom seem perfectly ordinary at first glance--Leonard just may be one of the era's greatest crime writers. Unlike others of his ilk, the cool, clever writer does not judge: It's often hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys, except for the ones who carry out the crime with the most panache.
But even in Leonard's psychopathic world, where most people know the differences between right and wrong but don't often care, his bad guys are not bad guys all the time. George Stade, reviewing Stick (1983) in the New York Times Book Review, called Leonard's villains "treacherous and tricky, smart enough to outsmart themselves, driven, audacious and outrageous, capable of anything, paranoid, cunning and casually vicious, and rousing fun." It is these contradictions that make Leonard's characters and their capers so appealing. Not surprisingly, 26 of his novels and short stories have been adapted for film and television, from the movies Hombre (1967) and Get Shorty (1995) to the 2010 FX series Justified. "My material looks like a movie," Leonard told Esquire. "Then when the studio gets into it, they find out it's not quite as simple as it looks." Therein lies the talent.
Leonard often draws comparisons to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, though he cites as his main influence Ernest Hemingway ("I used to read a lot of him till I learned he had no sense of humor," Leonard told the Los Angeles Times). But without doubt, his best work--nearly 50 novels and dozens of short stories in all--combines the intensity of noir crime fiction with the best of literary fiction. "Leonard has long been seen as the greatest of crime writers, walking all over even Raymond Chandler," writes Philip Hensher of the Guardian (UK), "but perhaps the time has come to drop the qualification of genre. In his analysis through laughter of money, crime, spectacle and the play-acting of the powerful, he has created something entirely his own." The awards committees think so, too: Leonard has received the Mystery Writers of America's grand master award, the National Book Foundation's outstanding achievement in fiction writing, and similar lifetime achievement prizes from PEN USA, the Crime Writers' Association, and the Western Writers of America.
Success didn't come overnight to the 87-year-old novelist and screenwriter. Born in New Orleans and raised in the Detroit area, where he still lives, Leonard served in the navy during World War II. After college, he decided to write fiction. Although his fame rests on later novels such as Get Shorty...