“Now they were in Florida postcardland, surf and sunny sky, lush tropical greenery. Stick took it all in, watched it get better and better….worlds away from a bleached house in Norman on an oil lease, or a flat on the west side of Detroit.”
When he died, the papers called him “The Dickens of Detroit.” Dutch always hated that nickname. “What if I came from Buffalo?” he’d ask his researcher, Gregg Sutter. “Would I be the Bard of Buffalo?”
So no, he wasn’t Dickens. He wasn’t the Bard either. He was just Dutch, a guy who started off writing Westerns and then moved into crime stories and hit the bigtime and got his picture on the cover of Newsweek and sold a lot of his stories to Hollywood.
Some of his crime books were set in and around his hometown of Detroit, but a lot of them weren’t. They were set in Florida, a place Dutch knew quite well. He had absorbed the humid atmosphere and sketchy cons first-hand. As a result he created some of his most iconic characters in books that were set in, or started off in, Florida including U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, the main character in the acclaimed TV show Justified,
So while the late, great Elmore “Dutch” Leonard would decline the nickname of “the Dickens of Detroit,” maybe he’d be okay with another title: “Part-Time Florida Man.”
“It was his Florida books, you could say, where he really made his bones,” Sutter told me.
* * *
“It doesn’t bother you,” Nolen Tyler said, “you call this place the Coconut Palms, there isn’t a single palm tree out there?”
“The high rise on the south side of us, nine stories, is called the Nautilus,” Moran said, “but I don’t think it’s a submarine. The one on the other side, it’s ten stories, is the Aurora. Tell me if you think it looks like a radiant glow in the upper atmosphere. That’ll be thirty dollars.”
Cat Chaser, 1982
Start with his mom’s motel.
Elmore John Leonard Jr. had been visiting Florida on vacation starting way back in the ‘50s. That was back when he was spinning Western yarns such as The Bounty Hunters, Valdez is Coming, Hombre and 3:10 to Yuma.
His dad, Elmore Sr., made a living scouting car dealership locations for General Motors. That’s how Elmore Jr. was born in New Orleans but grew up in Detroit. New Orleans was the hometown of his mother, Flora. She apparently was no fan of the Detroit weather, longing for a return to a warmer climate.
In 1969, her son bought her a four-unit motel in Pompano Beach, about 30 miles north of Miami. She lived in one unit and rented out the rest. Now Leonard had an even more compelling reason to visit Florida. A version of that motel later showed up in one of his earliest Florida stories, Cat Chaser.
“He thought that was funny, that she had this mom and pop place dwarfed on either side by behemoths. That was typical of him—he liked the little guy up against the system,” said Les Standiford, a friend of Leonard’s who founded the Florida International University Creative Writing Program.
The year he bought the motel was the same year he realized the market for Westerns was drying up. He shifted gears and penned his first crime novel, The Big Bounce. It and his next three novels were gritty Detroit stories with titles like Unknown Man 89 and City Primeval.
But all that changed in 1980 with the publication of Gold Coast, his first novel set in Florida. Gold Coast features an attractive Mob widow hampered by her husband’s punitive will that forbids her to so much as date another man or she’ll lose her millions. She meets a onetime bank robber turned dolphin trainer who might have a plan to help her—or at least help himself. It became the first in a string of wild and woolly Leonard tales to be set in South Florida.
Leonard later explained that his visits to see his mom showed him Florida’s potential as a crime novel setting.
“Visiting her, I found Miami a great locale,” Leonard told Rolling Stone. “The high crime rate, the contrast in people—rich retirees, Cubans, boat-lifters—all kinds of good things are going on there for me.”
“I think the idea of the Florida landscape got his juices flowing,” Sutter told me. “It’s the land of psychics and strippers.”
According to one of his friends, his move was born of desperation.
“Elmore showed up here in 1977…with a colossal case of writer’s block,” Bill Marshall, a Coral Gables private investigator, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in 1985. “His recovery—no, his renaissance—came together in Florida because he was desperate for fresh ideas. I showed him around town, and he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.”
“I think the idea of the Florida landscape got his juices flowing…It’s the land of psychics and strippers.”
Florida, as it turned out, was a perfect example of a sunny place for shady people, occupied by both the obscenely wealthy and the desperately poor. Leonard opens his 1981 novel Split Images with a rich psychopath in Palm Beach shooting a Haitian immigrant dead, then hiring the cop who does a lackadaisical job of investigating the crime to help him pull off another, bigger murder.
“I didn’t start paying attention to the contrast between the beauty on the surface and the corruption underneath till I started hanging out with Bill Marshall again,” Leonard told the Sun-Sentinel. “In Miami Beach, you’ve got retired car dealers, dressed in bright yellow shirts and paisley pants, walking down the street—and right next to them are guys who just got out of a Cuban prison, pachucos with tattoos on their hands for killing people. I thought, what could happen in a tense setting like that? What characters would emerge?”
As it turned out, some pretty funny ones.
“He really grooved on all the quirky characters that are gravitationally attracted to Florida,” said Neely Tucker, a friend of Leonard’s who had been a reporter for both the Miami Herald and the Detroit News. “I don’t think Dutch became fully Dutch until he put that Florida touch in there.”
* * *
What he saw from the window was timeless, a Florida post card. The strip of park across the street. The palm trees in place, the sea grape. The low wall you could sit on made of coral rock and gray cement. And the beach. What a beach. A desert full of people resting, it was so wide. People out there with blankets and umbrellas. People in the green part of the ocean, before it turned deep blue. People so small they could be from any time. Turn the view around. Sit on the coral wall and look this way at the hotels on Ocean Drive and see back into the thirties.
Leonard began writing about South Florida at just the right moment, just as it was changing from a seedy retirement mecca to a neon-spangled criminal haven. The Art Deco hotels of Miami’s South Beach, once a magnet for elderly Jews from New York and New Jersey, soon got a fresh coat of paint and a new demographic thanks to the arrival of the Cocaine Cowboys of the ‘80s.
When Bill Marshall and Dutch Leonard were classmates at the University of Detroit in the 1950s, they had visited Florida on break. Back then Miami was full of “gambling, girls and gangsters,” Marshall said. “So he comes back in ’77, and it’s all Cubans and cocaine cowboys. He was disappointed. But then he says, quietly, ‘Maybe we ought to get into the drug thing.’ “
In La Brava, the novel that brought him his only Edgar Award for best novel from the Mystery Writers of America, that changing South Beach landscape and the flow of Florida history dating back to the 1930s give the story a potent context. The characters include a Cuban killer and sometime stripper who arrived during the Mariel boatlift, an elderly gallery owner who remembers the 1935 Labor Day hurricane, and a sneaky redneck security guard who had been involved in a major drug bust.
“Remember the town in North Florida that was in the news, where everybody’s in the dope business and they built a new Baptist church from the profits?” Leonard told the Sun-Sentinel. “I had my white, hillbilly hustler… come from there.”
If the idea of drug smugglers building a church seems absurd—well, welcome to Florida.
“You can hardly come to Florida and not be overwhelmed by the absurdity of it,” Standiford said.
Leonard’s Florida novels opened the door for more people to focus on the state’s bizarre people and crimes. The first Miami Vice episode premiered in 1984, four years after he published Gold Coast. Charles Willeford’s Miami Blues published in 1984 too. Carl Hiaasen’s first wacky Florida crime novel, Tourist Season, came out in 1986.
* * *
“Sunday morning, Ordell took Louis to watch the white power demonstration in downtown Palm Beach…’Man, all the photographers, TV cameras. This shit is big news, has everybody over here to see it. Otherwise Sunday, what you’d have mostly are rich ladies come out with their little doggies to make wee-wee. I mean the doggies, not the ladies.”
Rum Punch, 1992
The thing is, the craziest stuff in Leonard’s Florida books? It was all true.
“I’m reading these (Leonard books) and I think he’s followed some of my worst clients home from their bail hearings, listening to their stories,” a Fort Lauderdale defense attorney told the Sun-Sentinel. “The accuracy of the lifestyles is uncanny.”
Leonard was meticulous about the details of life in Florida, said Oline Cogdill, a Raven-winning mystery reviewer for the Sun-Sentinel.
“When he used the South Florida area, he was very specific about the location,” she told me. “You felt you were there. So the references were authentic. These include, among others, Southern and Okeechobee boulevards, the downtown courthouse complex… the Glades Correctional Institution, the Sheriff’s Office and The Gardens mall. He didn’t just drop these in but made you feel as if you were really there. Every time I go by the Palm Beach courthouse, I think of that scene in Rum Punch in which there is a white power demonstration in downtown Palm Beach.”
That weird Nazi rally in the middle of rich Palm Beach actually happened, Sutter told me. He had been cultivating some sketchy Florida sources for Leonard and one of them paid off.
“Guy calls me up: ‘Tomorrow there’s going to be a Nazi-Klan rally in Palm Beach,’” Sutter said. “I grab my mini-camera and go down. Eighteen Nazi bikers and Klan guys and 200 cops getting OT. I brought it to him like a cat bringing a dead rat to his master. ‘Oh Elmore’s going to go for this.’”
Leonard dispatched Sutter all over Florida to bring him back information on Weeki Wachee’s professional mermaids (four of whom were named “Kim”), the soothsayers of Cassadaga (known as the “Psychic Capital of the World”) and the hippie-like Rainbow Family camping in the Ocala National Forest. All of it became grist for his Florida fiction.
Leonard once explained that his books start with him thinking about a particular character—for instance, Karen Sisco of Out of Sight: “I think of characters who will carry a story. The plot comes out of the characters, their attitudes. How they talk describes who they are…. In 1995 my researcher, Gregg Sutter, handed me a photo of a deputy U.S. marshal standing in front of the Miami federal courthouse, a pump-action shotgun held upright against her hip. ‘She’s a book,’ I said to Gregg.”
Leonard bought a condo in North Palm Beach where he spent part of the year writing and playing tennis and taking long walks. Meanwhile he collected fans and friends who could provide him with true Florida stories. One was a Florida Department of Law Enforcement special agent named James O. Born. Born served on the violent crimes task force that rounded up the escapees from the Everglades prison break that inspired the opening scene of Out of Sight. Later, Leonard encouraged Born to write his own Florida-based crime novels, starting with Walking Money.
Another was a Palm Beach County judge named Marvin Mounts, who would send Leonard full transcripts of hearings and trials where funny things happened, Sutter said.
Mounts helped with the creation of one of Leonard’s wilder characters, a horny Palm Beach judge who’s nicknamed “Maximum Bob” because of his tendency toward throwing the book at defendants. Maximum Bob wasn’t based on the mild-manner Mounts. Instead he was a gender-swapped version of a real Florida judge, Ellen “Maximum” Morphonios, who kept a toy electric chair in her chambers along with Toto, her diaper-wearing pet chimp. In her autobiography, the former model wrote of her extremely active love life: “I’m not going to lie about it: During (two) marriages I had a lot of boyfriends on the side. They were interesting guys.”
She wasn’t the only real Florida character to show up in a Leonard novel. Chili Palmer, the Miami loan shark who’s the main character in Get Shorty, was based on Chili Palmer, a Miami private eye who had been a loan shark in the ‘70s. Leonard very politely asked the real Chili if he could borrow the name for the fictional character, figuring it was better than anything he could think up.
And then there are the Crowes—a whole flock of them.
* * *
“Dale Crowe, Junior, told Kathy Baker, his probation officer, he didn’t see where he had done anything wrong. He had gone to the go-go bar to meet a buddy of his, had one beer, that’s all, while he was waiting, minding his own business, and this go-go whore came up to his table and started giving him a private dance he never asked for….Dale was from a family of offenders, in and out of the system.”
Maximum Bob, 1991
When he wrote a book, Leonard would sometimes slip in references to people and places in prior novels, creating a sort of Extended Dutch Leonard Universe. He used the Leucadendron Country Club—where the members include both a wealthy drug dealer and a deposed South American secret policeman—in both Stick and Cat Chaser. Karen Sisco’s private eye dad, Marshall, pops up not only in Out of Sight but also in Cat Chaser. Ray Nicolette, an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent who’s dating Karen Sisco at the start of Out of Sight, first appeared in Rum Punch, which became the movie Jackie Brown (and, thanks to cooperation between directors Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino, was played by Michael Keaton in the movie version of both books).
But Leonard’s main signal that his Florida books all take place in the same timeline is his inclusion of a family known as the Crowes. Once you start looking for them, you’ll see a whole murder of Crowes.
The first, found in Gold Coast, was Roland Crowe, a backwoods thug in $350 cowboy boots and a cream-colored Coup de Ville. Roland’s brother Elvin, described as “this big guy from the swamp in a cowboy hat,” and his screw-up nephew, Dale Jr., appear in Maximum Bob. The judge, in sentencing Dale Jr., mentions sentencing his father too, “I’ve had Dale Crowe Senior before this court on several occasions in the past. Either caught poaching alligators or apprehended with quantities of marijuana in his boat, coming off the lake.”
Another member of the Crowe clan, a killer-for-hire and sometime fishing guide named Earl, is a character in Pronto (1993), Leonard’s first novel about Raylan Givens. Dale Jr. gets a probation violation curtain call in the second Givens novel, Riding the Rap (1995). A Crowe relative named Dewey later pops up in the Raylan-centered TV show Justified. Meanwhile, in Leonard’s Spanish-American War novel Cuba Libre, the hero confronts a Florida-born bodyguard named Novis Crowe who’s apparently the patriarch of the family.
Leonard regarded the Crowes as “swamp creatures,” Sutter said, but let’s call them by the name they would have today: Florida Men. They’re felonious and full of themselves, constantly getting drunk and into trouble, never quite as clever as they think they are.
Florida Men. They’re felonious and full of themselves, constantly getting drunk and into trouble, never quite as clever as they think they are.
Take Elvin, for instance. In Maximum Bob, Elvin Crowe is ticked off that the judge sentenced him to serious prison time for a murder in which Elvin shot a stranger instead of the man he was aiming to kill. He contends that his lack of intent to kill the man he actually killed is an extenuating circumstance. Elvin explains to his probation officer how he wound up shooting the wrong man, then says he told her that story because “I want you to see I’m not some ordinary two-bit fuckup you got on your list.” The implication being Elvin is more of an extraordinary one.
So when you read news headlines about a Florida man trying to get an alligator drunk, or fixing cars with Play-Doh, or running over himself during a road rage incident, just remember that that meme got its start in literature thanks to Dutch Leonard from Michigan, a part-time Florida man himself.
Leonard had no master plan for weaving in the Crowes, Ray Nicolette and the rest of his Florida reference points, Sutter told me.
“Elmore didn’t plan,” Sutter said. “He wrote, and used what came into his head.” Of course, the funniest stuff in his head always came from Florida. After all, Sutter told me, “It’s kind of hard to avoid the freak show. It’s just in the air down there.”
Chili didn’t say anything, giving it some more thought. Fuckin endings, man, they weren’t as easy as they looked.
Get Shorty, 1990