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Elmore Leonard: From Get Shorty to Jackie Brown, a South Florida Legacy

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The summer of 2013 has been terrible and tragic for fans of one of the best movies ever to be set in Miami, 1995's Get Shorty. First, James Gandolfini, who had a supporting role as a bearded enforcer before he became known as Tony Soprano, died in June. Last month, Dennis Farina, who played bad guy Ray Barboni from "Miami fuckin' Beach," passed away. And yesterday, Elmore Leonard, the man who wrote the novel that inspired the movie, passed away at 87 years of age.

Leonard first came to fame writing Westerns, but his agent H.N. Swanson advised him "to forget the cowboy stuff and write stories with women in them." And so he took his gunslingers, his slimy banditos, his heroes, and his antiheroes and transported them to another genre, the crime novel. Growing up in Michigan, Leonard set many of the crime novels there, which earned him the title of the "Dickens of Detroit". He must have had a thing for peninsulas because Leonard also had residences in Pompano and North Palm Beach, and set a quarter of his 45 novels in South Florida. But for some reason he never earned a nickname based on his deep literary connection with South Florida. No one ever dubbed him the Dostoevsky of Dade or the Proust of Pompano.

See also: Elmore Leonard, Best-Selling Crime Novelist, Dead at 87

There might be palm trees instead of sagebrush and alligators instead of coyotes, and sure there were more women, but his South Florida crime novels continued his Western trademark of maintaining a strong sense of character. In several instances, South Florida was the strangest, most charismatic and complex character of them all, which left the protagonists doing everything they could to get away from her hot, sweaty grasp.

There was, of course, Get Shorty, in which Miami loan shark Chili Palmer is ordered by his new boss to collect money from a dead man in Los Angeles. The movie-mad Chili Palmer found himself smitten with making it in Hollywood, leaving behind his shady Florida past except when it was to his benefit.

There was Out of Sight, in which US Deputy Karen Sisco drives out to Glades Prison and gets kidnapped during a prison break. She goes up to Detroit to hunt the felon down, but she's never quite sure if it's out of a sense of justice or because she's fallen in love.

Fans of Quentin Tarantino know that Jackie Brown is his only movie based on someone else's idea. But they might not know it was based on a Leonard novel titled Rum Punch. In the novel, instead of the title character being Jackie Brown, an African American stewardess based in LA, she was the Caucasian Jackie Burke, still a stewardess but flying out of Palm Beach International Airport.

Then there was Stick, about an ex-con who thinks he found paradise in Miami where he can put his criminal ways in the rearview mirror -- but as we all know, it's hard to stay out of trouble down here.

Also set in Florida are Gold Coast, Split Images, Cat Chaser, La Brava, Glitz, Maximum Bob, Riding the Rap, and Naked Come The Manatees (on which Leonard collaborated with 12 other Miami writers including Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry).

Prolific, imaginative, and funny as hell, maybe it's just as well Leonard didn't get a clever sobriquet comparing him to some other clever writer. This way we can just know him as the Elmore Leonard of South Florida.

--David Rolland

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