LOS ANGELES — Elmore Leonard, the highly popular and well-regarded crime novelist who died Tuesday at age 87, also left his mark on television.
Compared to his books and the movies that continue to be wrought from them, it’s the smallest of the marks he made: Two of the three TV series based on his writing, Maximum Bob (ABC, 1998) and Karen Sisco (ABC, 2003), didn’t survive even a single season, though they deserved more. But the third series is FX’s Justified, based on Leonard’s 2001 novella Fire in the Hole. The series has won a Peabody Award and has lasted four years with a fifth on the way. And it’s great.
Leonard’s association with television goes all the way back to 1956 and the Schlitz Theater adaptations of his Saturday Evening Post short story, Moment of Vengeance, one of the many Western tales he wrote before turning to crime fiction in the late 1960s. Later, in the afterglow of Get Shorty, there were two serviceable 1997 TV movies, made from his Gold Coast and Pronto, the latter the book that introduced Justified main character Raylan Givens (played then by James LeGros, and now by Timothy Olyphant).
To be sure, he gave his adapters everything they needed — vivid characters, colorful situations, and an abundance of highly speakable dialogue. He was like Agatha Christie in that way: straightforward, suggestive, and made for television.
As crime writers go, Leonard strikes me as not so much hard as medium-boiled: He wrote with a sense of fun and an amused affection for his villains as well as his heroes — they just have different wavelengths on a spectrum of flawed humanity. It’s a voice that Justified — which combines the two strains of Leonard’s writing life (Raylan is essentially a frontier marshal in mostly modern eastern Kentucky) — captures brilliantly.
For his 2012 novel Raylan, inspired by the series that he inspired, Leonard included characters that had been created by the TV writers, along with Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins’ likable criminal antagonist), whom the author had killed off in Fire in the Hole, the novella that became the pilot for Justified. (Leonard had wisely suggested to Yost that he keep the character alive for the series.)
A column Leonard wrote for The New York Times in 2001, much cited over the last few days, offered 10 rules “to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book.” They boil down to simple prose without much detail or description and leaving out “the part that readers tend to skip.” To Leonard, this meant using dialogue to define character and carry the story. His people acquit themselves ultimately through their actions, but surrounding and accompanying that action is conversation, with every voice making its own particular music. Before the bullets or the fists fly, there is talk, and there is talk afterward, and sometimes during.
On cursory inspection, Raylan may look like the strong, silent archetype — one way to describe him is as a man who is continually drawn into conversations he’d rather not have and that go on longer than he’d like. Everyone on Justified likes to have the last word.
So the master is gone. But the pupils remain. And the voice maintains.