On the cabinet next to my desk is a quotation from Elmore Leonard’s “The Hot Kid.” Leonard’s hero, a U.S. marshal, is talking about a guy named Nestor Lott, a revenue agent gone bad. The marshal says, “Nestor — Nestor was spooky. He was so serious about being stupid.”
This quotation has been of great comfort in writing about politics. It didn’t help Tuesday when word came that Elmore Leonard had died. He’d had a stroke at his home in suburban Detroit on July 29. He was 87.
Consolation emails immediately arrived from three beneficiaries of my frequent lectures on Leonard’s contributions to American letters. This column is adapted from those lectures.
Leonard was working on his 46th novel when he suffered his stroke. There were screenplays and short stories. He set novels in Detroit and Miami and New Orleans, Cuba, Italy, Rwanda and Djibouti. He wrote about alcoholics (he was one) and lepers and low-rent backwoods peckerwoods, all of it crime fiction, even the one about a guy who bled from the wounds of Christ.
In the early days, he wrote westerns because westerns are what sold and kids have to eat. This was the 1950s, and his day job was writing advertising copy for General Motors. He wrote an ad for Chevy pickups that he knew the bosses would reject, though it would have sold a lot of trucks: One cowboy says to another, “You don’t wear that sonofabitch out, you just get tired of looking at it and buy a new one.”
He was developing his style, lean and laconic. The New York Times obituary called his characters “louche,” which I think he would have turned into a scene.
“The (bleep) is ‘louche’?” he said.
“Dictionary says ‘appealingly disreputable.’”
Leonard’s novels are episodic set pieces. His ear for dialogue, the way people really talk, is unmatched. The action arises out of conversations, among dumb and violent criminals and bemused heroes and grasping side characters. Here’s his friend, Neely Tucker, writing about him in 2008 in The Washington Post: