Dan Borris/The New York Times, via Redux
Elmore Leonard’s Rocky Road to Fame and Fortune
It took him 30 years of writing to make it big. Maybe his drinking slowed him up. Or publishers didn’t know how to sell him. But no one ever said Leonard didn’t know how to write.
Before he hit the best-seller list for the first time with Glitz in 1985, Elmore Leonard spent more than 30 years writing pulp crime novels and westerns that sold in paperback racks in drug stores and bus stations. After Glitz, he’d keep writing for 28 more years, until he died last summer at 87. He became a mainstay on the best-seller list, praised by critics for his lean prose and colorful, propulsive stories, and above all for his mastery of the rhythm and melody of American speech. But well before he became our most famous crime novelist, Leonard was doing all the things for which he would later be celebrated. It just took people a while to catch on to how good he really was.
Now Leonard is being canonized by The Library of America, which is collecting his novels in what will eventually be a 3-volume set. The just released Volume One features Leonard’s early Detroit crime novels (Fifty-Two Pick Up, Swag, Unknown Man No. 89, and The Switch). Volume II appears next year, Volume III in 2016. If you haven’t read Leonard’s work from the ’70s, you have no idea how much fun you’re going to have.
For more on the “overnight success” of a working writer, let’s turn to this fine profile of Leonard by Mike Lupica. “St. Elmore’s Fire” originally appeared in the April 1987 issue of Esquire and is featured here with the author’s permission.
There he is at Tigers Stadium in Detroit on a September baseball night hanging on to summer. He is getting ready to watch Jack Morris, the Tigers ace, go for win number nineteen against the Toronto Blue Jays. Elmore Leonard looks just like what a drunk mistakenly called him once in his drinking days, back at this joint called Stan’s in Fort Lauderdale: little Princeton s.o.b. Tweed jacket, highforeheaded, soft voice, round tortoiseshell glasses, corduroy slacks. Not anything like a tough-guy novelist who works the street the way Updike works the suburbs.
“You know who you look like?” says an usher.
He’s stopped next to Leonard’s seat on the aisle. The usher is from the Bismarck Food Service, wearing a blue Bismarck jersey, carrying a Bismarck bucket filled with soft drinks. Name tag says MARK, IRVING. He is fifty maybe.
Leonard says, “Who?” Then he does what he does about every ten minutes, which is light up a True green and smoke it down to his wrist.
“Elmore Leonard the writer.” It is one though to Irving Mark of Bismarck, no commas.
“Well, I am.”
“No kidding?” Mark puts down the bucket.
“I just bought your book, Glitz. The one in Atlantic City with the cop and the hooker and the crazy guy and so forth. Five bucks.”
“Well, thank you.”