“If proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go,” Leonard wrote in The New York Times in 2001. “I can't allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It's my attempt to remain invisible …”
In dozens of crime novels, Leonard immersed readers in a sea of urban sleaze that was simultaneously brutal and funny, dark and light. Frequently set in Detroit or South Florida, his stories showcased Leonard's love for down-and-out characters and his flair for pitch-perfect dialogue. A line from his novel “Be Cool” makes its point in typical Leonard style: “‘Chili Palmer's a talker,'” Nick said. “‘That's what he does, he talks. You should've hit him in the mouth.'”
Leonard, a bearded, slightly built man who looked a little like everyone's favorite English professor, wrote such novels as “Glitz” and “Get Shorty,” both of which were turned into popular movies. He started his career with a string of Westerns, some penned in early morning writing sessions before his day job as an advertising copywriter in Detroit.
In Hollywood, most of his novels were optioned or bought for films.
“You have to put him up there with the greats, like Jim Thompson and James M. Cain,” screenwriter Robert Towne told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “His stories have an economy of language that gives his dramatic situations an incredible sense of ballast and gravity.”
Director William Friedkin went even further, saying in the same article: “Nobody who writes crime fiction is even in the same league with him.”
Leonard was newly married when he launched his literary career in 1951, moonlighting as a writer of Western short stories for the then-thriving pulp magazine market.
His first Western novel, “The Bounty Hunters,” was published in 1953. Four more of his Western novels were published over the next eight years, while two of his short stories were being turned into movies — “The Tall T,” starring Randolph Scott; and “3:10 to Yuma,” starring Glenn Ford (and remade in 2007 with Russell Crowe).
After the market for Westerns dried up in the 1960s, Leonard switched to writing contemporary crime novels, the literary genre that made him a worldwide critical favorite and earned him fans ranging from Nobel laureate Saul Bellow to President George W. Bush to director Quentin Tarantino.
Beginning with “The Big Bounce” in 1969, Leonard turned out a string of crime novels, including “Mr. Majestyk,” ”Swag,” “Gold Coast,” “Split Images” and “Stick.” His 1983 novel “La Brava” earned him an Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America.
But it wasn't until “Glitz,” his 1985 novel about a psychopathic ex-con who wants revenge on the Miami Beach cop who put him behind bars, that Leonard cracked the prestigious New York Times best-seller list.
Time magazine dubbed the then-59-year-old author “The Dickens of Detroit,” an unabashedly alliterative accolade that the self-effacing Leonard once wryly dismissed by asking, “Do you think if I lived in Buffalo, I'd be Dickens?”
“When I first hit The New York Times best-seller list in 1985 with ‘Glitz,' I was worried about the pressure,” he told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in 2004. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I've got to do it again.' Then I thought, ‘I've written 20 books already. I'll just continue to do what I've always done.' So I didn't have to worry about that anymore.”
On why his novels sold so well, Leonard simply would say: “I leave out the parts that people skip.”
Despite the popularity of his novels among filmmakers, Leonard was seldom pleased with the results.
He often recalled going to a theater in Manhattan to see “The Big Bounce,” the 1969 crime drama starring Ryan O'Neal as a maverick Vietnam vet: “About 15 minutes or so into it, the woman sitting in front of me turned to her husband and said, ‘This is the worst picture I ever saw.' I agreed wholeheartedly and all three of us got up and left.” (Neither did Leonard find kind words to say about the 2004 remake.)
Leonard had a change of heart about Hollywood with “Get Shorty,” the hit 1995 film adapted from his acerbic novel about Miami loan shark Chili Palmer (John Travolta), who arrives in Hollywood to collect a gambling debt and winds up becoming a movie producer. The film, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and written by Scott Frank, “had my sound. I could hear my characters on the screen,” Leonard said.