[[B O O K S]] * Given the numbers of natural and manmade dangers all around us, anyone’s 80th birthday is cause for commemoration. But the party hats are especially worth breaking out when the person being glorified is Elmore Leonard, the dark poet of Detroit, Michigan. Born in New Orleans in 1925 (though he didn’t stay there long), Leonard started out in the 1950s writing western stories for pulp magazines in his off hours, while he held down an advertising copywriting job in the Motor City. He graduated from there to penning novel-length Westerns, such as The Bounty Hunters (1953), Hombre (1961), and Valdez Is Coming (1970). But as Westerns began to lose their following in the turbulent 1960s, Leonard turned instead to crime fiction, starting with 1969’s The Big Bounce and moving from there into two score of more familiar titles (many of them made into movies), including Unknown Man No. 89 (1977), City Primeval (1980), La Brava (1983), Get Shorty (1990), Out of Sight (1996), Tishomingo Blues (2002), and his newest, a ribald and violent gangster tale set in Dust Bowl America, called The Hot Kid (2005). (For a complete list of Leonard books, short stories, and films based on his work, click here.)
While it may be a bit extreme to call “Dutch” Leonard “the greatest crime writer of our time,” as The New York Times once did, he certainly sets a high standard for the fictional development of two-bit, workaday crooks and morally ambivalent protagonists; storytelling stripped to the barest and yet most attractive bones; and dialogue that sounds as if it were just raked off some ne’er-do-well’s wet tongue. If you’ve never read Leonard, start out with LaBrava--still my favorite of his novels--or maybe Swag (1976). Or catch up with the Comfort to the Enemy, a 14-part novel currently being serialized in The New York Times Magazine, and available free online.