How I met the late, great crime novelist Elmore Leonard

'The coolest guy': Why crime novelist Elmore Leonard should’ve won a Nobel Prize

Elmore Leonard and Author’s Events Director Andy Kahan are pictured at the event. | Image: Courtesy of Free Library of Philadelphia/Author’s Events

“I have an affection for all of my characters, even the bad guys, because they’re so dumb,” I recall the late, great crime novelist Elmore Leonard telling the audience at the Free Library in Philadelphia on May 14, 2009.

Sadly, one of the things the COVID-19 pandemic has stopped is the author events at the Parkway Central Library in Philadelphia. Acclaimed national authors, like Leonard, used to come to Philadelphia and speak about their work and themselves. Leonard, the author of “Get Shorty,” “Raylan,” “Out of Sight,” and other classic crime novels, was a hugely popular writer then, as well as now.   

I’m an Elmore Leonard aficionado, and I attended the Leonard event with my friend and former editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Frank Wilson. Wilson, the Inquirer’s book editor for many years, began his popular literary blog, “Books Inq” (booksinq.blogspot.com), soon after retiring from the newspaper. The blog was selected by the London Sunday Times as one of the “Top 100 Best Blogs” in 2009.

“Good writing is like a person’s signature: It doesn’t look like anybody else’s. No one would mistake Chekhov for Dostoyevsky or Graham Greene for Evelyn Waugh. Read any page of any good writer and, right away, you know where you are and who you’re with,” Frank Wilson said in introducing Elmore Leonard to the Philadelphia audience. 

“Case in point: ‘They put Foley and the Cuban together in the backseat of the van and took them from the Palm Beach County jail on Gun Club to Glades Correctional, the old, red brick prison at the south end of Lake Okeechobee.’

“That sentence, which happens to be the first one in ‘Road Dogs,’ will signal to any reader who’s been there before that he is once again entering ‘Elmoreland,’ a region whose inhabitants speak a language not taught in the schools: American,” Wilson said. 

“Once you find yourself in Elmoreland, you also find yourself hanging on those inhabitants’ every word. You just can’t help noticing that what they say and the way they say it is smooth and tangy, like good bourbon. 

“These are people who say things like, ‘I’m an ordained minister of the Spiritualist Assembly of Waco, Texas, but I started out doing nails.’ When you come upon a sentence like that, you realize that when language is alive, it packs a wallop. You don’t have to take my word for any of this. The man who discovered Elmoreland and who has been exploring its environs lo these many years is with us tonight. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Elmore Leonard.”

Elmore Leonard signing books. | Image: Courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia

Frank Wilson’s introduction that night was perhaps Elmore Leonard’s best review. 

Leonard came out and read from “Road Dogs” and spoke of his work habits, his influences (Ernest Hemingway, Richard Bissell, George V. Higgins) and how he visited prisons and spent more than a month with Squad 7 of the Detroit Police Department’s murder section. He said he often revisited the squad and used their methods and dialogue in his novels, but not specific murder cases.

Leonard struck me as having the cool insouciance of an elderly jazz musician. He was as interesting, clever and amusing a speaker as he was a writer. I truly enjoyed hearing him speak that night.

I recently contacted Frank Wilson and asked him if he recalled the event.

“Dutch, as he was called by his friends and asked me to call him, was maybe the coolest guy I ever met,” Wilson said. 

“Dutch, as he was called by his friends and asked me to call him, was maybe the coolest guy I ever met.”

– Frank Wilson

“There was just something naturally unpretentious and nonchalant about him. After he finished speaking and we were chatting in the green room, he kept asking me questions about Philadelphia. I asked why he was so interested in Philadelphia, and he said you never know, you may just want to set a novel here and it’s good to have the details down from someone who really knows the place. He was a consummate professional writer.”

Although Leonard never wrote a novel about Philadelphia, he did write about Atlantic City in his 1985 crime novel “Glitz.” In “Glitz” his cop character, Vincent Moro, goes up against “Frank the Ching” and “Ricky the Zit,” two South Philly wiseguys who are working the seaside gambling resort. 

Leonard liked using local color, so he had a character bribe a doorman with a cheesesteak. He used the 1983 Pennsylvania Crime Commission Report as a guide to authentic organized crime dialogue.

“I suggested that he deserved the Nobel Prize,” Wilson said. 

“The writing is as good as it gets. No wasted words. As sharp an eye for the detail as anyone. Characters as vivid as they get. I’ve had friends in low places. Dutch got them right.”

Elmore Leonard died on Aug. 20, 2013. He was 87.

Hopefully, this pandemic will soon end, and the Free Library will again invite authors back to Philadelphia.

Paul Davis’ Crime Beat column appears here each week.   

  • Paul Davis

    Having worked as a crime reporter and columnist in Philadelphia for many years, Paul Davis has covered organized crime, cybercrime, street crime, white collar crime, crime prevention, espionage and terrorism. He can be reached at pauldavisoncrime.com

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