This article was originally posted by Observer & Eccentric on Feb. 23, 2014. You can find the original posting here.
Elmore Leonard was a world-famous crime novelist. His son, Peter, is carving out his own literary path, having published five novels in the past six years.
Peter Leonard’s latest book, Eyes Closed Tight, comes out in March. The story starts out in Pompano Beach before it shifts to Detroit – and Birmingham. His dad owned property in Pompano Beach and set many of his stories in Florida.
Father and son share an ear for dialogue and a writing style that’s sparse but spot-on with details. Their lead characters are competent, but make mistakes.
And there, the chain breaks. Elmore Leonard passed away last August at the age of 87. With his passing, Peter Leonard lost a dad and a friend.
“It seems a little odd that we’re not out on the road,” Leonard said, as the two often traveled together on book tours in recent years. “But he was getting tired; he was slowing down. We went to the University of South Carolina and after that trip he said to me, ‘You know, I think I’m done.’ It was just too much work.”
Now, his son works at the same desk where his dad wrote Rum Punch, Get Shorty, Out of Sight and dozens of other famous novels. Leonard lives in Birmingham, not too far from Quarton Lake. A large photo of his dad looms over the desk that was taken by Annie Leibovitz. A photo of Hemingway rests on the fireplace mantle in the den.
The home almost wants to announce: writer lives here. Leonard, of course, has a more humble view of the situation.
“When you write as I do, no one thinks you really have a job,” he said. “My wife doesn’t, so I’m fair game if somebody needs to be picked up at the airport or they need help moving something.”
His main character in Eyes Closed Tight is a retired Detroit homicide investigator by the name of O’Clair. He runs a motel in Pompano Beach with his girlfriend, Virginia, and life is good until a serial killer shows up.
Then things go terribly bad.
“He’s the older guy who doubts himself,” Leonard said of O’Clair. “He doubts that he’s good enough to have this good-looking girl who’s much younger than him. He feels it’s beyond him.”
The name, it turns out, was inspired from one of Leonard’s classmates at Brother Rice High School.
“The real O’Clair is a big guy,” Leonard said. “He played football and I knew him pretty well in high school. I liked his name and using it grounds the character in reality.”
One scene takes place in the old Forte restaurant – Leonard was once a partner in an ad agency located in the same building.
Several scenes are set at a townhouse on Merrill Street.
The story itself is rather dark – a contrast to his dad’s breezier plots.
“The style of the book is a mystery,” he said. “My father never wrote a mystery – he didn’t care for mysteries. I look at Eyes Closed Tightas old-fashioned crime fiction that’s been updated.”
Part of his research came from spending several weeks shadowing the Detroit homicide unit. He went out on the afternoon shifts and more than once found himself observing a murder investigation.
“The first scene I went to, there wasn’t a body,” he said. “It was a drive-by shooting – the person who was shot was taken to a local hospital.
“What I saw was the car the guy was riding in, the bullet holes in the windshield and blood all over the interior. I walked around to the driver’s side of the car and saw four bullet holes in the driver’s door. There was a down vest where the driver had been – and in the vest pocket was a stack of hundred dollar bills. It was eerie to see it.”
And then a little Elmore comes out in him:
“One observation: the black guys were way better dressed than the white guys,” he said about the detectives. “I was struck by how stylish they were. It was in the dead of winter when I went out with them and these guys were wearing cashmere coats with their Borsalino hats. They looked good.”
Life after Elmore
There’s another photo in the study, a black and white snapshot of Elmore’s dad. Peter Leonard never met him.
“He died before I was born,” Leonard said. “He was a dude – well dressed, well groomed. He owned a Chevy dealership in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and wanted Elmore to take over the business. But Elmore wouldn’t have any of it. He wanted to be a writer.”
The family grew up in Lathrup Village.
Before Elmore was truly famous, he was the somewhat eccentric dad who drove a Fiat and grilled an onion-topped burger for the neighborhood kids that he proudly dubbed the Elmore Burger.
“He was the odd guy – all my friends had fathers who worked for the auto companies in some way,” Leonard said. “But it’s interesting that my dad always knew what he wanted to do. If you want to be a writer, how do you make a living? Eventually, maybe you do. But you never know.”
Leonard said his dad was still around when he was writing Eyes Closed Tight.
“Elmore was going through a lengthy divorce and he would have dinner at my house maybe four times a week,” Leonard said. “He was working on a novel called Blue Dreams, his 46th, and he would talk about the scenes he wrote that day. He would light a Virginia Slims 100, I’d pour him a glass of wine and we were off.”
Peter Leonard is the author of the nationally best selling novel Voices of the Dead, among others. His next book, Eyes Closed Tight, will be published on March 4, 2014. Learn more about Peter and his books at our website.