Culture and Trends ›

Elmore Leonard's Memorable Characters

Getty Images / Vince Bucci

Elmore Leonard's Memorable Characters

Author Elmore Leonard, who died a year ago this week at 87, wrote more than 40 books during his prolific career, including gritty stories of life in the Old West or on modern city streets, according to his obituary by The New York Times. His distinct writing style – somewhat staccato and sparse – prompted some critics to compare his novels to poetry. The dialogue-driven tales could be alternately funny or frightening, featuring over-the-top characters who lived on either side of the law or, in some cases, both sides. In 1999, fellow writer Martin Amis said during an online interview that Leonard was "incapable of writing an uninteresting sentence."

To honor Leonard, whose characters will never die, looks at some of his memorable creations:

Jackie Burke / Jackie Brown – The super-sexy, super-cool flight attendant who also works as a courier for an illegal-weapons dealer is featured in Leonard's 1992 novel, Rum Punch. Quentin Tarantino turned the book into a 1997 movie starring Pam Grier, turning the fair-skinned blonde named Burke into an African-American woman named Brown.

Excerpt: "They watched Jackie Burke come off the Bahamas shuttle in her tan Islands Air uniform, then watched her walk through Customs and Immigration without opening her bag, a brown nylon case she pulled along behind her on wheels, the kind flight attendants used. …

"'She's cool,' Nicolet said. 'You notice?'

"'She ain't bad either,' Tyler said, 'for a woman her age. She's forty?'"

Ernest "Chili" Palmer – The Miami loan shark and payment enforcer who travels to Hollywood on a collection mission, but winds up on film, first appeared in Leonard's 1990 novel, Get Shorty, which was adapted for a 1995 film starring John Travolta.

Excerpt: "Ernesto Palmer got the name Chili originally because he was hot-tempered as a kid. ... Now he was Chili, Tommy Carlo said, because he had chilled down and didn't need the hot temper. All he had to do was turn his eyes dead when he looked at a slow pay, not say more than three words, and the guy would sell his wife's car to make the payment."

Joe LaBrava – The retired Secret Service agent and IRS-investigator-turned-photographer LaBrava first appears in the 1983 novel LaBrava. The story, set in South Beach, Florida, in the 1980s, follows LaBrava after he is hired as a bodyguard for an aging star who once filled LaBrava's youthful dreams.

Excerpt: "I spent most of my dough on booze, broads, and boats, and the rest I wasted." – Maurice, the novel's former millionaire character

Jack Foley – Bank robber Foley is the hero of two Leonard novels, 1996's Out of Sight and 2009's Road Dogs. The former was turned into a 1998 film featuring George Clooney as Foley and Jennifer Lopez as the U.S. marshal trying to capture him.

Excerpt: "I know a guy who walks into a bank with a little glass bottle. He tells everyone it's nitroglycerin. He scores some money off the teller, walks out. On his way out, the bottle breaks, he slips on it and knocks himself out. The 'nitro' was Canola oil."

Raylan Givens – The U.S. marshal with an itchy trigger finger first appeared in 1993 and is featured in two Leonard novels and the novella Fire in the Hole. The FX cable TV series Justified, starring Timothy Olyphant, features Givens working in an area that includes his crime-ridden hometown of Harlan, Kentucky. Leonard once described the character as one who "shoots first and asks questions later. … He's principally a 19th century lawman in the modern West and he takes no prisoners," according to the author's official website.

In this excerpt, another U.S. marshal watches Givens confront two suspects:

"Rachel stood by the Audi watching Raylan, Raylan the show. Watched him facing Coover holding the bright-metal piece at his leg. Watched Coover swing the rat by the tail and let it go and saw it coming at her to land on the hood of the Audi. Rachel didn't move. Raylan didn't either, didn't glance around.

"But said, 'Coover, you throw a dead rat at my car. What're you trying to tell me?'

"Rachel unsnapped the holster riding on her hip.

"Coover said, 'Take it any way you want, long as you know I'm serious.'"

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."