Crime writer Elmore Leonard died Tuesday at his home in Bloomfield Township, Mich. He was 87.
Leonard had movies, television shows and 45 novels, many of them best sellers, to his credit. Among his awards were the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award and the Grand Master Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.
His works are read around the world, but he holds a special place in Tucson’s heart: He attended the first Tucson Festival of Books in 2009, giving it a legitmacy and popularity that generally comes with time.
“When I look back and look at the people who made a difference for the festival, he was one of them,” said Bill Viner, one of the co-founders of the annual event.
“It was such a boost to our confidence to get a writer’s writer, someone of that stature, to come to the festival’s first year.”
Leonard, whose nickname, “Dutch,” was given to him in high school, also attended the annual festival in 2010 and ’12. He missed the 2011 festival when his plane had mechanical difficulties. That was the year Leonard was the recipient of the festival’s first Founders Award. Every time he attended, lines were long and slow-moving at his signing booth and it was standing room only at the talks he gave.
“I remember hearing a number of young, well-published authors giddy about being in the same room with him,” said Viner. “They’d whisper, ‘That’s Elmore Leonard. Can you believe it?’”
Best-selling mystery and thriller writer Brad Meltzer shared a stage with Leonard in 2011 for a discussion about writing.
“It’s something to be sitting next to a legend,” recalled Meltzer in a recent phone interview from his Florida home.
“Though we were billed together, I was the one taking notes and he was giving them.”
Leonard’s generosity with other writers and his fans is especially moving to Meltzer.
“His characters and what he embodied was cool,” he said. “But he never thought he was cooler than anybody else, and that’s the ultimate cool.”
Meltzer said it is Leonard’s rules on writing that still guide his hand when he writes a book. Those rules include “never use a word other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue” and “never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said.’”
“To this day, when I search for an adverb, I hear Dutch in my head (saying), ‘Don’t use that word, schmuck.’ He taught me to let my characters do the talking.”
One of the reasons Tucson was a draw for Leonard was his son, Chris, a writer and musician who has lived here since 1977. He left Tucson to be with his father on Aug. 15, when the elder Leonard took a turn for the worse. Before leaving, he left this message on his Facebook page:
“Flying to Michigan tomorrow morning to say good-bye to my father. He had a massive stroke and is not going to improve.
“Besides the fact that he is one of the great writers of the last 80 years, he is one of the great fathers of all time. I adore my dad and wish I could be half the man that he is. He had more cool in his baby finger than all of the world. We can all learn from him. Thanks, Dad.”