Motor City Is Burning: Elmore Leonard’s Detroit

Of Elmore Leonard’s 45 published novels, about a third are set in Detroit, the city he lived in for most


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.

Leonard was most appreciated for his dialogue—something he refined continuously over the course of a long career. Starting in 1978, he spent time around police officers to learn the rhythms of their speech. In November of that year, he wrote one of his only works of journalism, a long article in the Detroit News Sunday Magazine, the result of several weeks trailing Squad 7, Detroit Homicide’s felony murder team. Leonard witnessed firsthand the aftermath of a triple homicide in a “dope pad” over pretty much nothing—just a small amount of PCP. This, it turns out, was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. “1300,” the colloquial name for the old Detroit Police Department building at 1300 Beaubien, would become one of his favorite settings. From 1978 on, his ear for small talk was unparalleled. Take this exchange between two cops before they question a possible suspect in the 1980 novel City Primeval:

Raymond said to Wendell Robinson, “You want to be the good guy?”

“No, you be the good guy,” Wendell said. “I’m tired and grouchy enough to be a natural heavy, we need to get into that shit.”

Raymond said, “What’re you tired from?” But didn’t get an answer.

Or this conversation between Jack Ryan, a good-hearted small-time crook, and Mr. Majestyk, owner of a grimy vacation resort in Northern Michigan, from 1969‘s The Big Bounce, Leonard’s first crime novel after years of writing pulp Westerns:

They ordered steaks with American fries after Ryan bet they wouldn’t have boiled potatoes and they didn’t.

Mr. Majestyk stared at him, hunched over with his arms on the table edge. “You like boiled potatoes?”

“Boiled potatoes, just plain or with some parsley,” Ryan said. “It’s like a real potato. I mean it’s got the most potato taste.”

“Right!” Mr. Majestyk said, with a tone that said it was the correct answer.

One can’t quite imagine the careers of David Lynch or Quentin Tarentino—who adapted Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch for the screen as Jackie Brown—without the precedent of such dialogue. But however powerful Leonard’s sense of how real people talk, I find his primary strength to be his descriptions of the Detroit cityscape. He moved there when he was 11, and then never really left. He had a knack for small details, as evidenced from that Detroit News article:

At the house on St. Marys the day after the shooting, there was a notice from the Michigan Consolidated Gas Company attached to the front doorknob, directly above the blood that had seeped out from beneath the door and a few feet from a smear of dried blood on the porch, where flies buzzed. The notice said, “We were unable to gain admittance to read your meter.”

More breathtaking, though, are his panoramic views of his hometown, something like the literary equivalent of a John Ford establishing shot of Monument Valley. In City Primeval, about a showdown between a good cop and a psychotic criminal, the major recurring image is the then brand new Renaissance Center, known locally as the RenCen. A collection of seven glass skyscrapers and the world headquarters of General Motors—though, in a great bit of irony, financed almost entirely by the Ford Motor Company—the first stage of construction was completed in 1977, a perverted gift the city gave itself as if in utter disavowal of the tenth anniversary of the race riots of 1967. It acts as a kind of mirror to the novel (and Detroit) itself. The buildings start out as a useless display of luxury. They are introduced as a “Buck Rogers monument over downtown.” The complex features an enormous top-floor revolving restaurant and the tallest hotel in the Western hemisphere. A Marriott. Leonard writes: “like being in a Mammoth Cave—you looked way up about one hundred feet to the ceiling, except the RenCen was all rough cement, escalators, expensive shops and ficus trees.” But as the novel progresses, the lone symbol of progress in a narrative of moral decay starts to resemble its surroundings. Again and again, characters gaze at the towers as if hypnotized—in the dark they look like “black marble,” like giant tombstones; with the sun going down they turn to molten silver. As the novel careens to a violent conclusion, they disappear altogether.

Leonard captured urban blight better than anyone, letting the characteristic sparseness of his language speak for the eerie emptiness of the post-industrial city. In Split Images, which was published in 1981, a crooked cop—Walter—is driving through downtown Detroit with a homicide detective—Bryan—and a journalist—Angela—who is from Tucson, but in town to write an article about a local businessman for Esquire. They give her a tour:

They rode in his Cadillac Fleetwood, behind dark-tinted glass. Walter, silent, taking them north on Woodward Avenue. Angela looking at the city beyond downtown for the first time, not asking what’s that or that until they passed between impressive stone structures, the main library and the art institute, and Bryan told her what they were, pointing out Rodin’s The Thinker in front of the museum, saying that was it until they spotted the golden tower of the Fischer Building. Angela said, well, it’s bigger than Tucson. 

That’s it. That’s the tour. The library, the museum, and then not a whole lot of anything for a while. Leonard evoked the city rather than forced it, letting Detroit play in the background of the book like a strong supporting role. A remarkable scene in 52 Pickup, from 1974, features a heist on a Detroit tour bus. (The fact that there is a tour bus in Detroit at all deliberately frames the section as archaic and unbelievable, like a train robbery in a schlocky Western.) The bus driver is pointing out various landmarks—the City-County building, the “Spirit of Detroit” statue and the Detroit River. The robber, a young cocaine addict named Bobby Shy, takes over the bus and steals the driver’s microphone, offering the tourists the other side of the story while his partner collects the wallets: “Past two a.m. you can get a drink in there with your ribs. Anything you want, comes in a Co’Cola can….That’s a whorehouse. Nice clean establishment. Those places you see boarded up? Historic remains of the riot we had a few years ago.” The premise of the novel, which could only be set in Detroit and might as well have been subtitled, “I’m Getting Too Old For This Shit,” is that a hardworking, middle aged factory owner is being blackmailed by Bobby Shy and his friends, but at the same time has to renegotiate a union contract with a tough Polish business agent. The owner isn’t sure which problem should take precedence. He deals with criminals and the union negotiations—the bane of all Michigan middle management—with fairly equal vehemence. The mark of Leonard’s mix of the banal and the ultra-violent, which can make you laugh out loud even as you remain horrified—can be seen in everything from The Sopranos (the scene where Paulie and Christopher sweetly resolve a misunderstanding after violently murdering a waiter with a brick in a parking lot is vintage Elmore Leonard) to Cormac McCarthy, another graphic, absurdist genre writer who has been far less burdened by labels. You’ll find his books in the “fiction/literature” section of the bookstore; Leonard’s are sequestered to the lowly mass market surroundings of “mystery.”

Leonard set almost as many of his novels in Florida, but not for nothing was he called the “Dickens of Detroit,” nor is the title an empty alliteration. There is something intensely Victorian about all the provincial details and historical ephemera that occupy Leonard’s writing. One can imagine his books being read a hundred years from now, in detailed annotated versions, offering a view of how people used to live in struggling manufacturing towns in the latter half of the 20th century. His novels are filled with Michigan in-jokes. People refer to soda as pop and eat Kowalski keilbasa from Hamtramck, the Polish city-within-a city where most peripheral characters go to work at the Chrysler Corporation Assembly Plant, “Dodge Main,” at least in his novels up to 1980, when the plant shutdown. In several books, a character complains about having to go to the creepy Belle Isle Bridge at night in order to dispose of a murder weapon in the river. City Primeval contains a nearly pastoral description of Vernor’s 1-Cal ginger ale, which for years was bottled in Detroit on Woodward Avenue. (“Ouuuuuu, it sure tickles your nose, but I like it.”)

One of my favorite moments in any of his books comes from 1989’s Killshot, wherein Wayne Colson, a blue collar ironworker living with his wife, Carmen, just north of the city, witnesses an attempted robbery and roughs-up the two criminals, who then go after the couple. The FBI is already on the trail of the would be thieves—who are both also serial murderers—and attempt to put Wayne and Carmen in witness protection, relocating them outside of Detroit. For Wayne, this is the end of the world. An FBI agent says they can place Wayne and Carmen in one of two towns in Ohio, Lima or Findlay. “Wayne said, ‘Jesus Christ, those’re both on I-Seventy-five.’” Leonard knew: faced with death or bad traffic, a Detroiter would rather die. Motor City Is Burning: Elmore Leonard’s Detroit