DETROIT — He was the master of his genre, the Dickens of Detroit, the Chaucer of Crime.
Pretty much every novel Elmore Leonard wrote from the mid-1980s on was a best-seller, and every fan of crime stories knew his name. George Clooney was an admirer. So were Quentin Tarantino, Saul Bellow and Stephen King and millions of ordinary readers.
Leonard, who died Tuesday at age 87, helped achieve for crime writing what King did for horror and Ray Bradbury for science fiction. He made it hip, and he made it respectable.
When the public flocked to watch John Travolta in the movie version of “Get Shorty” in 1995, its author became the darling of Hollywood’s hottest young directors. Book critics and literary stars, prone to dismissing crime novels as light entertainment, competed for adjectives to praise him. Last fall, he became the first crime writer to receive an honorary National Book Award, a prize given in the past to Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller.
Few writers so memorably traveled the low road. His more than 40 novels were peopled by pathetic schemers, clever conmen and casual killers. Each was characterized by moral ambivalence about crime, black humor and wickedly acute depictions of human nature: the greedy dreams of Armand Degas in “Killshot,” the wisecracking cool of Chili Palmer in “Get Shorty” and Jack Belmont’s lust for notoriety in “The Hot Kid.”