Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction Part 3 – Elmore Leonard

This post is the third in a series that I’ve been writing about the individuals that I view as the masters in my genre of choice, crime/detective fiction. I am a firm believer that you become better in whatever field you pursue by following those that excelled and paved the way before you.

Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction

Part 3 – Elmore Leonard

My introduction to Elmore Leonard was an interesting one. My first book had come out and I had my first review in a literary magazine. The reviewer liked the book and compared my writing to that of Elmore Leonard. I thought that was quite interesting based on the fact that I had never read any of his work.

Being the true book nerd that I am, I started reading his work beginning with his very first book. To my amazement, it wasn’t crime fiction. It was a western. In fact, his first five books were all westerns. They were written over an eight-year period from 1953 to 1961 and truly showed his evolution as a writer. These books seemed to feature a strong, silent, flawed main character. They also had abrupt endings in common.

Leonard’s 1969 novel, The Big Bounce, was a crime fiction book that introduced his Jack Ryan character. Ryan is a flawed hero with a checkered past and a very shrewd character. He appears in several of Leonard’s books.

Other recognizable titles you might recognize from Leonard’s writing include Mr. Majestyk, Get Shorty, Maximum Bob. Leonard also created the character of Raylen Givens, featured in three novels, who became the basis for the television series Justified. Overall, Leonard had 26 of his works adapted as either films or television series.

Many of Leonard’s stories feature Detroit as a backdrop. When he was nine, his father moved the family there and took a job with General Motors. Leonard went on to be a Seabee in the US Navy and studied writing when he returned.

Leonard wrote 49 novels over a 59-year career. He also wrote many screenplay adaptations for his work. Key among his works is a nonfiction book from 2007 titled 10 Rules for Writing. In this book, he revealed one of my favorite writing tips, if it sounds like writing, rewrite it. He preaches the practice of leaving out the parts that readers tend to skip.

Leonard’s own work lives by this premise. He writes sparingly. His dialog is crisp and to the point, just as the type of character he writes about would speak. He has masterful twists and turns in his stories and his endings often leave the reader wanting more.

I’ve gone back and have looked at my own writing in view of what the early reviewer said about it. It is quite flattering and I aspire to write like Mr. Leonard and would love to have even a modicum of his success. I also admire the longevity of his career. He died in 2013 at the age of 88, one year after completing his final novel and 50 years after completing his first. That is truly a long and fruitful career.

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