Elmore Leonard, the prolific crime novelist whose louche characters, deadpan dialogue and immaculate prose style in novels like "Get Shorty," "Freaky Deaky" and "Glitz" established him as a modern master of American genre writing, died Tuesday at his home in Bloomfield Township, Mich. He was 87.
His death was announced on his website.
To his admiring peers, Mr. Leonard did more than merely validate the popular crime thriller; he stripped the form of its worn-out affectations, reinventing it for a new generation and lifting it to a higher literary shelf.
Reviewing "Riding the Rap" for The New York Times Book Review in 1995, Martin Amis cited Mr. Leonard's "gifts of ear and eye, of timing and phrasing that even the most indolent and snobbish masters of the mainstream must vigorously covet."
As the American chapter of PEN noted, when honoring Mr. Leonard with a Lifetime Achievement award in 2009, his books "are not only classics of the crime genre, but some of the best writing of the last half-century." Last year the National Book Foundation presented him its award for distinguished contribution to American letters.
Mr. Leonard, who started out writing Westerns, had his first story published in Argosy magazine in 1951, and 60 years later he was still turning out a book a year because, he said, "It's fun."
It was in that spirit that Mr. Leonard, at 84, took more than a casual interest in the development of his short story "Fire in the Hole" for television. "Justified," as the resulting series on FX was called, won a Peabody Award in 2011 in its second season and sent new fans to "Pronto" (1993) and "Riding the Rap" (1995), two novels that feature the series' hero, Raylan Givens (played by Timothy Olyphant), a federal marshal from Harlan County, Ky., who presents himself as a good ol' boy but is "not as dumb as you'd like to believe."
Approving of how the show was working out, Mr. Leonard wrote his 45th novel, "Raylan," with the television series in mind. Published in 2012, it featured three strong female villains and gave its cowboy hero license to shoot one of them.
It was a major concession for Mr. Leonard to acknowledge his approval of "Justified"; he had long been candidly and comically disdainful of the treatment his books generally received from Hollywood, even in commercially successful films like "Get Shorty," "Be Cool," "Out of Sight" and "Jackie Brown" (based on his novel "Rum Punch").
His first novel, "The Big Bounce," was filmed twice, in 1969 and 2004. After seeing the first version, he declared it to be "at least the second-worst movie ever made." Once he saw the remake, he said, he knew what the worst one was.
In an interview with Doug Stanton for the National Writers Series in 2011, Mr. Leonard explained why "Get Shorty," the 1995 movie starring John Travolta, was a faithful treatment of his novel of the same title, and why its sequel, "Be Cool," was not. The directive he had given the producers about his clever crooks "These guys aren't being funny, so don't let the other characters laugh at their lines" was heeded in the first case, he said, and ignored in the second.
Amused and possibly exasperated by frequent requests to expound on his writing techniques, Mr. Leonard drew up 10 rules of writing, published in The New York Times in 2001. "Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip," "If it sounds like writing, rewrite it," and other tips spoke to Mr. Leonard's puckish wit, but put into practice, his "rules" do indeed capture the essence of his own spare style.
Mr. Leonard's narrative voice was crisp, clean and direct. He had no time to waste on adverbs, adjectives or tricky verb forms, and he had no patience for moody interior monologues or lyrical descriptive passages.
The Western novels and short stories he wrote before turning to urban criminals attracted their own following, as well as movie producers. "Hombre" was made into a movie starring Paul Newman in 1967, and "3:10 to Yuma" was adapted twice, in 1957 with Glenn Ford and in 2007 with Russell Crowe.
When asked about the vivid landscapes in his Westerns, Mr. Leonard told how he did his "research": from a magazine.
"I subscribed to Arizona Highways," he said, "and that was loaded with scenery."
Elmore John Leonard Jr. was born in New Orleans on Oct. 11, 1925. Nine years later his father, an executive with General Motors, moved the family to Detroit. After graduating from high school in 1943, he did a two-year stretch in the Navy.
Picking up his schooling at the University of Detroit, he graduated in 1950 and became a copywriter for a Detroit advertising agency.
Before going to work in the morning, he would try his hand at writing Westerns. After selling his first story, "Trail of the Apaches," he went on to write Western novels and short stories throughout the 1950s and '60s, including "Hombre" (1961), which was named by the Western Writers of America as one of the 25 best Westerns ever written.
His first crime novel, "The Big Bounce," set in Michigan, was published in 1969.