Talking Tigers with Dutch: Steve Hamilton on Elmore Leonard

I’m writing this on the day I learned of Elmore Leonard‘s passing. He was 87 years old.


I know I’ll be thinking about him a lot and talking about him when I go to Bouchercon next month, and I know one other thing, too . . . The next time a new writer asks me for advice, I’ll still send him or her to Elmore Leonard’s famous Ten Rules of Writing

‘Never open a book with weather’ is the first rule. ‘Avoid prologues’ is the second. The rest of the rules are just as much grounded in common sense, and then of course they’re summarised by the bonus Rule Number Eleven: 

‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.’

That one line is the best writing advice I’ve ever heard. And maybe it means a little more to me, not just because I’ve admired Leonard’s writing for most of my life, and not just because I know how hard he worked (his first crime novel, The Big Bounce, was rejected 84 times, back when there were actually 84 publishers to reject it). On top of all of that, I loved Elmore Leonard because we both come from Detroit.

It’s a city that has seen more than its share of hard times lately. It’s lost over half its population, and there are 80,000 abandoned homes. They literally can’t tear them down fast enough. Once the greatest manufacturing centre in the world, just this past month the city officially declared bankruptcy. It’s hard to even imagine how Detroit will come back, but somehow it will find a way. Only now it’ll have to do so without Elmore Leonard. 

When I finally got to meet ‘Dutch’, as some of his friends call him, he was sitting in a bar in Denver, Colorado. I went up to him and I introduced myself as a fellow Detroiter. I could have thanked him for his ten rules then, or I could have told him how much I loved his books. But no, there was something much more pressing on my mind. 

‘What do you think of the new stadium?’ I said. He knew exactly what I was referring to – Comerica Park, the new home of the Detroit Tigers baseball team.  We spent the rest of that conversation talking baseball and remembering the old stadium down the street, a grey battleship with a world of green waiting inside. I’d gone there more times than I could count to see my Tigers play. He had done the same, maybe just a few years earlier than I had. 

Elmore Leonard could have lived anywhere he wanted, but he stayed close to the Motor City his whole life. ‘The Dickens of Detroit’ never gave up on the city he loved. And neither will I.

But today . . . It’s just a sad day for everyone, in Detroit and all over the world, for anyone who loves great crime fiction. Here’s to you, Dutch.

Steve Hamilton is the author of both the New York Times bestselling Alex McKnight series and the standalone novel The Lock Artist, which won the Edgar Award for Best Novel, the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for Best Thriller and is currently in film development. His newest novel, Let It Burn, is available from Orion on 29 August 2013.