Of Elmore Leonard’s 45 published novels, about a third are set in Detroit, the city he lived in for most of his life and where he was buried last weekend at the age of 87. He spent his career in Bloomfield Village, Michigan, which as far as literary hamlets go, is not exactly Brooklyn. He wrote on yellow legal pads in a concrete room in his basement for about eight hours a day, without breaking for food. If Leonard ever used a semicolon, I have yet to come across it. His novels did not so much end as stop in mid-motion. He didn’t covet a literary reputation; he garnered none of the prestigious literary honors awarded to his peers. He was quick to point out his shortcomings to interviewers, even though he had very few. One of his greatest supporters was Mike Lupica, a sports writer. Leonard once said that he didn’t have many friends who were writers because all they did was talk about writing. He was too busy writing.
His crime novels eventually traveled all over the world—to Israel and Rwanda and Palm Beach and Harlan County—but Detroit was his greatest character. For decades, writers have tried to do that city justice, to get at the heart of its coldness, of all that ugly beauty–even more now since Detroit became the largest American city to ever declare bankruptcy in July–but only Leonard made it come alive so consistently. There are passages of his writing that have enough power to make Céline’s Detroit novel Journey to the End of the Night look like a brochure from the Michigan tourism board. Read More