Elmore Leonard passed away Tuesday morning at the age of 87 of a stroke, "at home surrounded by his loving family." If you're not familiar with this man with a particularly notable name, he was an author who wrote best-selling books about, as the AP put it in one particularly artful tweet, "schemers, clever conmen and casual killers" (who also often had notable names). What they didn't mention was that so many of these characters were beautifully written women.
I first encountered Leonard's work in my house growing up, which definitely did not lack for books. If you paid attention, however, there were more Elmore Leonard books than some homes have of books by any author. It's not as though they were difficult to collect; the man wrote over 50, many of them full-length novels, as well as several screenplays. My father was a huge fan and at perhaps too young an age, when I was curious about what these stacks of dusty paperbacks was all about, he handed me Out of Sight.
Out of Sight was Leonard's 1996 novel that would go on to be made into an excellent Steven Soderberg film starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez and I found it riveting. It's about a U.S. Marshall named Karen Sisco – a character that would become so beloved by author and audience that she got her own sequel, as well as a short-lived television show starring Carla Gugino – who is trying to hunt down a man named Jack Foley. In a short amount of time, the pair find themselves trapped in a car truck together and, well, things get complicated. For a teenager, the subtly sexy scenes that I now realize are quite tame felt super scandalous. Leonard's depiction of the growing relationship between Karen and Jack relied on the actual communication between the characters to convince you of their chemistry, not the fact that they happened to both be attractive. Every conversation felt honest, like it was happening between equals. And of course, there was just Karen Sisco on her own. Karen Sisco was just very cool.
In recent years, Leonard has moved on from Out of Sight being his biggest claim to fame with the success of the TV show Justified, which is based off of a few of his books. Justified is also about a U.S. Marshall, one who moves back to his childhood town in Kentucky after following the law a little less than carefully. It's been called a modern western, but what it's also been praised for are its stunningly drawn characters, especially the female ones. The women, like the men, are presented as neither good nor bad, moral or immoral. They are simply flawed people, capable of all extremes of human behavior. Though some have credited these nuanced female characters more to the writing team on the FX show than the source material, they wouldn't have anything without the inspiration that is Leonard's original work (and his guiding voice as a producer of the show). As Willa Paskin wrote earlier this year in praise of the character of Ava Crowder alone, Leonard has allowed for a woman to have a story arc that "is usually reserved for male anti-heroes." In most worlds, yes. In an Elmore Leonard world, that's par for the course.
This is something Leonard did well in his book Get Shorty (its sequel Be Cool was less impressive) about a "shylock" who gets involved in a bizarrely complicated plot involving life insurance and the movie industry. The movie adaptation stars John Travolta and Rene Russo and if that sounds like a weird pair, I don't know: somehow, they make it work. That's definitely in large part due to Russo, who makes her entrance as her character Karen Flores in an extra-long purple Lakers t-shirt and still manages to carry herself with amazing dignity and grace.
In an interview with the LA Times in 2012, the interviewer Megan Abbott remarked to Leonard that unlike crime novelist Mickey Spillane – whom Leonard had just mentioned he once read often – Leonard appears "to love women." He responded:
Years ago, a reviewer for the Detroit News said my female characters were like Spillane’s. After that, I paid more attention. I don’t think of them as women. I think of them as a person and go from there. Sometimes female characters start out as the wife or girlfriend, but then I realize, “No, she’s the book,” and she becomes a main character. I surrender the book to her. A few years ago, my researcher gave me this photo: a female marshal in front of Miami’s courthouse—this Colombian drug trial. It was her and another marshal, and she was just standing there with a shotgun, hip cocked and angled, holding it half up. And I thought, She’s a knockout. And she’s a book.
It was entirely this attitude about writing female characters that made Leonard's books so much more than basic crime procedurals or westerns. Many authors sell millions in airports but how many are so utterly respected by the writing community at large? They should take a tip from Leonard: his work is respected because he respected everyone.
That doesn't mean he was always some sort of vigilante feminist author; a lengthy piece in Salon about his work notes that his early books had female characters that fell "into predictable hardboiled categories — ditzy dame, femme fatale" and that it was his second wife Joan Shephard that pushed him to write more nuanced women. Even this we can credit to Leonard: he was smart enough to surround himself with smart people who would push him to realize that he should evolve and start writing people as people. He'd eventually go on to write an entire short story collection entitled When the Women Come Out to Dance which Publishers Weekly described as "a collection of short sketches that feature strong female characters in trouble." When I read it, I just thought of it as a book of short stories.
Leonard wrote good books about strong women, but better than that, the success of his books translated to movies and television (though whether he not he'd always agree with that statement is another story), which means he not only gave women and men nuanced characters to read about, he gave real people jobs they could fully enjoy. And even more than the lives of those few people, he gave millions of other entertainment they could watch and feel good about. He lifted up not only his genre, but the standards for which all authors should be held to when they write about people. He didn't care that some people believe that men only want to read about men or rely on tropes about how a female character has to behave. And because he didn't, we didn't either.
Images via Linda R. Chen and AP