Master of crime fiction chose UofSC for his papers

Elmore Leonard, the master of American crime fiction, knew exactly where he wanted his papers to go. He decided after a quick trip to the University of South Carolina shortly before his death in 2013, when he was awarded the university’s Thomas Cooper Medal.

“He went to visit the library and he was blown away,” his son Peter Leonard says.

It was the university’s collection of papers from writers that Elmore Leonard admired like Ernest Hemingway and George V. Higgins that won him over.

“Elmore was a major Hemingway fan,” Peter Leonard says. “He was the influence that got my dad to write.”

The key, though, might have been when Elmore Leonard saw the university’s Higgins collection, including the manuscript for “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.”

“That got dad’s attention. That book set my dad free. It really changed his outlook on writing. George Higgins was free with characters and dialogue. Hemingway and Higgins were the two influences in my father’s life,” Peter Leonard says.

The next day on the plane back to Detroit, Elmore Leonard told his son: “That’s where I want my papers to go.”

“I agreed. It’s an incredible place. What also helped was the hospitality, the friendliness of everyone,” Peter Leonard says. “That, and Hemingway and Higgins.”

The Elmore Leonard collection at the University of South Carolina Libraries includes more than 450 drafts of manuscripts, short stories and screenplays, typed on his signature yellow paper. It features all of his 45 novels, magazine pieces, appointment books, extensive research files, letters, photographs, director’s chairs from movie sets, his National Book Foundation award for distinguished contribution to American letters, his desk and typewriters. There are even a few of his Hawaiian shirts and a pair of sneakers. In all, the collection includes 150 boxes holding 2,400 linear feet of documents.

 “It is a tremendous archive in its completeness in terms of manuscripts, correspondence, books and translations. It has all of the materials that Elmore kept, including outlines of how his books were written,” Dean of Libraries Tom McNally said. “The key is that this is a research collection and it will lead to publication of books, articles and dissertations about Elmore Leonard.”

Leonard spent more than six decades writing – from 1950s Westerns to gritty crime novels to screenplays for popular movies. A longtime Detroit resident who died at age 87, was known for his ability to write strong dialogue within his realistic and well-researched stories. His best known novels are “Out of Sight,” “Freaky Deaky” and “Get Shorty.”

Otto Penzler, writer, editor and publisher of mystery fiction and proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, says Leonard’s influence on the genre cannot be overstated.

“The past 25 years or so has been a great time for American hardboiled crime fiction. Everybody has a favorite … but the one unifying name that everybody admired, that everyone wanted to emulate to the degree that they could, was Elmore Leonard,” Penzler says.

The element of Leonard’s work that influenced so many writers was his ability to write short, succinct dialogue and to inject an underlying tone of humor, even in violent situations, Penzler says.

“After Elmore Leonard, people realized you don’t have to write (dialogue) in complete sentences, you don’t have to worry about grammar, usage, punctuation,” he says. “You could keep it short and as realistic as possible.”

Leonard began his career as an advertising writer in 1949, getting up two hours early each morning to work on writing Westerns. In the 1950s, Leonard wrote 30 Western short stories and five Western novels, selling the movie rights to two. He quit his ad job to write full time. As the market faded for Westerns, Leonard switched to crime fiction. He won the 1984 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel for “LaBrava,” and his novel “Glitz” reached The New York Times bestseller list in 1985.

Many of his books were adapted into motion pictures. His best known works are “Get Shorty,” “Out of Sight,” “Hombre” and “Rum Punch” (which was adapted for the movie “Jackie Brown”). He also wrote short stories that became the films “3:10 to Yuma,” and “Fire in the Hole” which became the FX television series “Justified.”

This year’s film, “Life of Crime,” directed by Dan Schechter and starring Jennifer Aniston and Tim Robbins, is based on Leonard’s novel “The Switch.”

“He was the master of his genre,” says Elizabeth Sudduth, director of the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Carolina, where the archive will reside. A display of parts of the collection will be open to the public through October. The full collection is being archived and will be available to researchers and fans in about 18 months.

“Each page is a unique primary research material that will bring researchers from around the world to our university,” UofSC President Harris Pastides says. “We’re giving him a treasured place alongside the outstanding collections we have of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Heller and so many other treasured writers. Elmore Leonard will live at the University of South Carolina.” 

The Leonard archive, added to the University Libraries collections of George V. Higgins and James Ellroy, establishes Carolina among the premier research centers for crime fiction.

“It’s our intent to be the finest collection of crime fiction in the world,” McNally says. “Two collections now being pursued will make us the indisputable center for the study of this form of fiction. This is the ‘Year of Crime Fiction’ in our library.”

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