Elmore Leonard wrote about death a lot. He wrote about people getting killed in the Old West, and in contemporary metropolitan settings, and pretty much everywhere in between. It would not surprise me to learn that he set a short story in Imperial Rome, just to see if he could.
Leonard died earlier this morning of complications from a recent stroke. "A stroke killed him" is how Leonard would probably put it, boiling everything down to its essentials. That talent for brevity is why his books could be so thin and yet still pack such a punch.
I'm writing about Leonard because so much of his work made it to the screen, usually with the author's pissy spirit intact. Leonard's books were being turned into movies as far back as the 50s; he wrote the stories that became Budd Boetticher's The Tall T and Delmer Daves's 3:10 To Yuma, and then Hollywood caught on. Hombre, The Big Bounce, 52 Pick-Up, Stick, Cat Chaser and plenty more.
Leonard also wrote the odd original script: Joe Kidd, starring Clint Eastwood and Robert Duvall, and the Charles Bronson shoot-em-up Mr. Majestyk, which Quentin Tarantino name-checked in his screenplay for True Romance.
It was Tarantino who brought Leonard into the movies in a big way. Reservoir Dogs was an original work (save for some curious overlaps with Ringo Lam's 1987 Hong Kong detective flick City On Fire), but its squabbling band of anti-heroes - each with his own idiosyncratic moral code - could have been working a couple of blocks over from any number of Leonard characters. (It's also reminiscent of Leonard in its concision and pace, two storytelling qualities for which Tarantino hasn't had much time since.)
After Dogs, the deluge: Barry Sonnenfeld's jaunty adaptation of Get Shorty owes its existence to the neo-noir wave sparked by Tarantino's debut, and the ball kept right on rolling with Tarantino's Jackie Brown, an adaptation of Leonard's novel Rum Punch, and Steven Soderbergh's magnificent, sultry take on Out Of Sight. More movies followed, with varying levels of success - Touch, Killshot, new versions of The Big Bounce and 3:10 To Yuma. And then there was F. Gary Gray's risible Be Cool, which did everything Get Shorty did except be entertaining.
Through it all, Leonard kept writing. His books are immaculate, clean, delightful. He captures characters with simple, straightforward prose and lets them speak their own voices. The author often claimed he never really planned out his crime stories; he just started writing and watched things work themselves out, as though he was looking through a window into a fully realized universe.
That does explain how a short story as precise as "Fire In The Hole," which peeked into the backstory of Leonard's recurring character Marshal Raylan Givens, could launch a show as textured and densely populated as Justified - as well as giving Timothy Olyphant the role of his career as Raylan. Leonard liked the show so much he wrote a whole book about the character, Raylan, from which the show's writers mined several storylines in later seasons.
Leonard's popularity means he'll never really be gone; the movies and the books will circulate as long as people love good stories, and there's more in the pipeline. The fifth season of Justified airs next year, and the 2013 Toronto Film Festival will close with the world premiere of Life Of Crime, director Daniel Schechter's adaptation of The Switch. However the movie turns out, I imagine that's going to be a bit of a grim evening.