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The Crime Writer’s Just Deserts : Elmore Leonard’s Rave Reviews, Best Seller, Big Bucks

<i> Miriam Berkley is a New York writer</i>

His following has grown from the cult that read his Westerns in the ‘50s to what a Time reviewer called “a critical, bookstore-stampeding mass.”

With a first printing of 250,000 copies, and a promotional budget matching it in dollars, his new book, “Bandits,” is already on half a dozen of the nation’s most important best-seller lists.

Not only is Elmore Leonard cleaning up financially--his per annum income for the last two years has been in the million-dollar range--but he is now the center of a storm of acclaim.

Listen to Walker Percy, himself an acclaimed serious novelist, in his review of “Bandits” for the New York Times Book Review: “He is as good as the blurbs say: ‘The greatest crime writer of our time, perhaps ever,’ ‘Can’t put it down,’ and so on.”

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In 1978, Leonard’s “Switch” was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award, the highest accolade of the Mystery Writers of America, for the year’s best paperback. Four years later, “Split Images” was nominated in the best novel category, and the following year he won an Edgar for “La Brava.” Leonard was the subject of a Newsweek cover story in 1985, and with “Bandits,” he is receiving more media exposure in interviews from coast to coast.

Astonished by the Hoopla

How does all this hoopla strike Leonard? “It astonishes me,” said the novelist, a trim man of 61 with a salt-and-pepper beard, who lives in a Detroit suburb. “I felt that it was possible that I would write a best seller some day, but because the kind of story I write falls somewhere between the popular best seller and the literary book that makes it on the author’s name, it would have to be a very unusual story. I’m with a bunch of people who are just telling stories to entertain. For mine to suddenly jump out of the pack really surprises me, although I have been trying from the very beginning to do something different.”

But his success didn’t happen overnight. In 1966, at the age of 40, Elmore Leonard quit his job and turned to crime. In his writing, that is. This was after creating no fiction at all for five years, and a significant departure from the Western novels he had written successfully throughout the 1950s, until the market dropped out of the genre due to competition from movie and television Westerns. Leonard’s new book at the time was called “Mother, This Is Jack Ryan,” and his agent loved it. “Kiddo,” the man said to him, “I’m going to make you rich.”

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It didn’t work out quite that way. “Mother, This Is Jack Ryan” was rejected by 84 publishers and film producers. “Everybody thought,” Leonard realled with a wry smile, “ ‘What a dumb story.’

“They all felt it was a downer. They didn’t think this character, Jack Ryan, a former burglar who became a migrant worker, was very interesting. Editors would suggest, ‘Let’s make him a hero.’ He wasn’t even a returned war hero--he’s a guy who couldn’t get into the Army who wanted to be a major-league baseball player but couldn’t hit a curve ball. That’s the way we all are, and that’s the kind of character I was trying to develop. I didn’t call him an ‘anti-hero,’ I just called him a regular, normal person.”

Eventually, with some changes and a new title, “The Big Bounce” did sell. And eventually it, and its 20 successors, of which “Bandits,” published last month (Arbor House: $17.95) is the latest, did make its author rich.

And also along the way to succcess, when he was past 50, he divorced his first wife--they had five children together--and went on the wagon from alcohol. Seven years ago he remarried. “Bandits,” which is set in New Orleans, the city of Leonard’s birth, is different, not so much for its non-traditional hero as for the political element woven into its fabric. The protagonist, Jack Delaney, a likeable guy easily underestimated, once served time in prison for burglarizing hotel rooms and is now unhappily employed as a mortician’s assistant. He returns to crime now less for the riches it may bring him than to correct injustice.

The plot is tied to a plan, devised by an idealistic and comely former nun, Lucy Nichols. The goal is to steal millions of dollars being privately raised by a murderous Nicaraguan colonel for the contra cause. To help her with the theft, Lucy enlists Jack’s aid and he in turn brings in a couple of friends from prison. Lucy intends to use her share of the money to re-build a leper hospital in Nicaragua that has been destroyed by the colonel.

Leonard can understand that some people would consider “Bandits” a political novel. But it is not a political book, he said, “maybe because of my purpose. I want to entertain. This just happens to be the setting and the background of the story.”

The idea behind the book, Leonard explained, came from a film producer; it was meant to be pretty standard fare--"old pros, ex-convicts, who get together for one last big heist, not unlike ‘The Asphalt Jungle.’ More than half the book would be devoted to meticulous planning--how each move would be timed. Then the contras came into my plot thinking, probably just the fact that they’re in the papers, and that for several years there have been private subscribers--rich, conservative people--to their cause.

“I thought that this might be a good angle, that all this money is going to end up somewhere at some time before it goes to Honduras or Nicaragua. But it changes the original plan completely because it isn’t a locked door they have to study and figure out how to get into. The money is just going to be in a bank before it goes to Honduras. They’re not bank robbers. So there’s just that short span of time in which they can lift the money but they don’t know where, when or how it’s going. So that whole idea of a plan went out the window.

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“Then I began assembling the characters. The name is so important to me, I have to get the name right before the character will begin to talk. Jack Delaney for the first 100 pages was Frank Matisse, and Frank just didn’t talk enough. Jack Delaney is 40 years old, but Frank Matisse seemed older, he wasn’t as young in spirit and thinking. Then I changed his name to Jack Matisse, and he opened up a little bit, but not enough. Then I finally went with Delaney, which, without planning it, worked out even better than expected when he runs into this IRA agent from Dublin, Jerry Boylan, who makes something out of the name Delaney.”

Clone of His First Hero

Jack Delaney (whose father, like the author’s, worked for United Fruit in Honduras), is, Leonard said frankly, a clone of his first hero, Jack Ryan, from “The Big Bounce.” So are Ernest Stickley (of “Stick”) and all his other leading men. “They’re all the same guy. I give him a different background and a somewhat different point of view. The male lead is not married simply so that I can develop a romance in the story. The hero is a certain age--38 to 44, something like that--because of the commercial aspect, thinking that this is going to be sold to the movies and that in casting he would be a more appealing age.”

Lucy Nichols is stronger and better achieved than the women in some of Leonard’s earlier books, credit for which, he feels, goes largely to his second wife, Joan. It is she who reads his works in manuscript form--he writes with a pen, in longhand--and gives him feedback on “the woman’s point of view.” He is, gradually, learning to overcome the training that taught him a woman was to be placed on a pedestal, that she is “very clean and nice and neat and dainty. Now I see the woman as a person, in the midst of things,” he said.

Leonard’s favorite character in “Bandits” is Franklin de Dios, the Indian, “my sleeper, who came into the story completely on his own. He was a second- or third-string character on the side of the antagonists,” he explained, “just another heavy, until he began to develop and kind of pushed his way into the story. I saw I’ve got to do more with this guy, he’s an interesting character. In fact, he then became a pivotal point to the plot. It happened about the time that he had a conversation with the rich oilman’s black chauffeur, Clovis, waiting outside a restaurant. That’s when he came to life for me. I began to use him a little more and a little more, and finally I got him into some scenes with Jack Delaney, which I liked a lot. Then I went back and wrote a new scene to give him a little more stature.

‘Little Odds and Ends’

“When you don’t know where you’re going, you write a scene and then you may have to go back and fill in something that would indicate it’s reasonable for this to happen. But most of the time there are little odds and ends in the beginning that you can pick up and use.

“It’s strange, maybe it’s just the experience of having been writing for 35 years, that I don’t worry about plot, about structure. I know the structure is going to be there. What concerns me is making sure the pace is right, that it’s not too heavy in one place or another, that my characters are always in character, and that I’m writing a scene from the most effective point of view. I may write a scene from one character’s point of view, and then try that scene from the other character’s point of view, and then find that it works better.”

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Plot Is Everything

Leonard said he doesn’t know how to characterize his novels except with the word crime. “There’s crime in everything I do. I don’t write mysteries, I know that. And I don’t think I write what you would call suspense stories, where the clock’s ticking down or something’s going to blow up at the end. The story comes out of the characters and the plot isn’t that important. I think in mysteries and suspense the plot is everything.”

Several years ago, Leonard spoke to a class given by one of his old English teachers at the University of Detroit. He told the teacher, “I bet if I were in this class I wouldn’t get top marks.” It wasn’t modesty on his part. “In writing classes, there is a tendency to really write, so that writing shows. My goal is for my writing not to show at all, for you never to be aware of this as writing, only aware of the sound of what’s going on.”


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