Crime fiction writer Peter Leonard learned from his late father, Elmore

  • Books-The-Family-Business-Leonard

    Writer Elmore Leonard, right, and his novelist son, Peter Leonard.


  • Author Peter Leonard.
    Author Peter Leonard.

    Crime fiction author Peter Leonard had a frequent dinner guest who often would offer advice, sometimes on the characters’ names and other times even the titles of the books he was writing at the time.

    “Hey, what’s your bad guy’s name?”

    “I have two bad guys. The one bad guy’s name is Ruben Diaz.”

    "That’s a good name."

    "The other’s guy’s name is Dale Pollard."

    “That’s not a bad guy name.”

    A day or two later:

    “You were right about Dale Pollard. ... I changed his name to Dwayne Cobb.”

    "Now that’s a bad guy’s name.”

    The tips never were unwanted or even unwarranted as far as Leonard was concerned because they came from his famous father, the late Elmore Leonard who wrote nearly 50 books before his death in August at the age of 87.

    “My father and I spent a lot time together and it was just good, quality time,” Leonard said in a recent phone interview. “He would come over for dinner several nights a week when he was getting a divorce that lasted about two years. So he would come over and at the end of his work day and at the end of my work day and I would be making dinner and he would light up a Virginia Slims 100 and take a puff and we would start talking about what we did that day.

    “And he would tell me about the book that he was working on, Blue Dreams, and I would tell him what I was working on, the scenes I wrote that day. My father continued to give advice: I was telling him that I was in the last third of the last act of a book and he said, ‘Hey, take your time. Don’t rush. Just take your time and do it right. There’s no hurry.” That is a wonderful piece of advice.”

    Writer Elmore Leonard, right, and his novelist son, Peter Leonard.
    Writer Elmore Leonard, right, and his novelist son, Peter Leonard.

    That guidance has found its way into the books of Leonard, who had his sixth novel, Eyes Closed Tight, published last month. It’s a taut and fun mystery that features a retired Detroit homicide detective named O’Clair who, along with his young girlfriend, now owns a motel in Pompano Beach, Fla. A killer from the ex-cop’s past starts leaving bodies on the beach near the motel with an all too familiar M.O. and forces O’Clair back to Michigan to see how he messed up all those years ago.

    The book has the same quick pace and rapid-fire dialogue Elmore Leonard was known for, but that’s where the similarities stop.

    “He never wrote a mystery,” Peter Leonard said from his home in Birmingham, a Detroit suburb. “He never cared for mysteries. And I just thought I would try something different, so this is my mystery. I doubt I write another one, but I enjoyed doing it. Who’s the bad guy? What’s he all about? You follow the main character O’Clair, the reader looking over his shoulder as he goes back to Detroit to look at his case that he thought he solved.”

    Also, Leonard said his father didn’t believe in the use of plot, which also marks a difference in their styles.

    “I do a lot more plotting than my father ever did,” he said. “He just let his characters tell the story and I do too, but I think the reader needs more. So that’s my philosophical view on writing novels: Plot is important.”

    And so is research. Like Elmore Leonard, Peter Leonard is a stickler for details. He spent the better part of a month shadowing Detroit homicide detectives to better understand what O’Clair would have to do to nail down the killer in Eyes Closed Tight. Besides learning how detectives worked crime scenes, Leonard saw first-hand how they talked and observed their glib sense of humor, a necessary tool dealing with killers and death in the Motor City, a setting used for a lot of Elmore Leonard’s books, too.

    “I like using Detroit. ,” Leonard said. “I’ve lived in it for most of my life and I know it and I like it a lot. Detroit is a gritty, blue-collar town. It’s undergoing a whole lot of change right now, but if you’re writing crime fiction, Detroit is the perfect city to live in. It has a lot of crime and it has ethnic neighborhoods and a music scene and professional sports and a lot going on. So, I like it a lot.”

    It didn’t take long for the conversation to turn back to the author’s father, and it was easy to hear the heartfelt pride in Leonard’s voice as he talked at length about his the obvious influence.

    Elmore Leonard’s first book, a western titled The Bounty Hunters, was published in 1953 and his last, Raylan, in 2012. Many of of his titles were adapted to TV or film, including Out of Sight, Rum Punch, and Get Shorty.

    And Leonard has similar aspirations, as well, when it comes to adaptations of his work.

    “I have a book, All He Saw Was the Girl, that has been optioned as a film and I have two books that are out with my agent in Hollywood, Voices of the Dead and Back From the Dead, as a TV series,” he said. “Everything I write is written in scenes — I’m looking to sell as a film or TV series. And my father did the same thing, so he influenced that as well.

    “He said, ‘You might as well, if you can, sell it twice. Sell the story as a book and then let it get a movie sale,’ which he did. He’s, I think after Stephen King, the second most prolific writer whose works have been adapted. That’s pretty impressive.”

    One of those TV projects is the highly successful FX series Justified, which is centered around the main character Raylan Givens, who appeared in four Elmore Leonard books: Pronto, Riding the Rap, The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, and Raylan.

    Leonard wouldn’t mind seeing more stories of Givens, the laconic U.S. Marshal with a quick draw, grace the pages once again.

    “I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a Raylan novel and so I have done some research,” Leonard said. “I’ve met with some U.S. Marshals in California, in San Diego and El Centro, which is near the Mexican border. I haven’t started yet, but I am getting my notes together and if Raylan doesn’t feel right I’ll come up with my own U.S. Marshal.

    “There are precedents for [taking over a character] in the publishing industry today. Somebody is writing the Jason Bourne series from Robert Ludlum’s estate and somebody’s writing Spenser novels, Robert Parker’s character. So I figure I certainly could pick Raylan up for a novel or so.

    “I think he’s a character I could do something with. He’s just a good, low-key guy and give him some lines and situations and I think he can get the job done.”

    Taking over a character is one thing, but finishing his father’s final book, which he was working on at the time of his death, does not interest Leonard for many reasons.

    “I thought about [finishing it],” Leonard said. “I read the pages and just decided it’s fraught with problems, I think: No. 1, that I would to try to really mimic his sound. People say, “Well you sound like him, anyway," but I don’t really. He has a really distinctive sound and it’s his sound and so I wouldn’t want to have to do that. And in a way I feel like it’s sacred, you know? It just shouldn’t be finished.”

    That’s another sign of respect the author has for his late father, and something Leonard doesn’t take lightly.

    “It’s interesting how much you learn, how much you get just by hearing over the course of many decades what I had learned about writing and I didn’t even know it because my father was constantly telling me things," he said. “So he was a big influence. I mean you still have to write it, but getting his advice was really invaluable.”

    Contact Bob Cunningham at or 419-724-6506.