Tales of low-lifes bring fame and fortune. Crime novelist Elmore Leonard has a knack for humor and dialogue

FROM the outside it looks like Ozzie and Harriet. Or it would if Ozzie had made a few more G's per annum. Elm-shaded lawn, two-car garage, kids on bikes wheeling by. Even the tang of a barbecue. The upside of the America dream. Inside? Inside's a different story. Sure there's the living room all done in white. Or maybe it's oyster. And there's a lap dog, all done in white. But the real inside belongs to Elmore Leonard. Before you go ``Who?'' think of ``Stick,'' ``Glitz,'' and last year's best seller, ``Bandits.'' Or go as far back as the western, ``Hombre,'' that got made into that Paul Newman film.

Elmore Leonard. Scribe of the downside of the American dream. ``The greatest crime writer of our time,'' somebody somewhere said.

``Oh, don't say that,'' says Mr. Leonard, ushering a reporter across all that white carpet, intimidating as a blank page. ``That gets me in trouble with reviewers.''

Not that much trouble.

Ever since John D. MacDonald, another purveyor of fictionalized private dicks, called the competition ``astonishingly good,'' Leonard has been in the critics' corner. OK, he labored in obscurity for what, 35 years? An ad man writing a slew of books on the side, mostly westerns and the early crime fiction that publishers found tough to pigeonhole, tough to market. But by '85 Leonard was ripe for discovery. ``Glitz'' hit the best-seller list and Elmore's mug landed on Newsweek. An overnight success after three decades.

Since then it's been seven-figure contracts, movie deals, even that arty Annie Leibowitz photo for the American Express ad campaign - all for Leonard's annual rogue's gallery. The latest: ``Freaky Deaky,'' officially out this week. Leonard's next one, ``Killshot,'' is already to go for '89. ``Touch,'' the quasi-religious novel Leonard wrote in '77 after a 30-year bout with alcohol, is out in paperback this fall. ``The coolest, hottest writer in America'' is so hot that George F. Will does his jacket blurbs.

And it all begins here - the cops, ex-cops, cons, ex-cons, the typical Leonard protagonist a.k.a. Stick, Vincent Mora, Jack Delaney, and now, Chris Mankowski - begin here, in the mind of this man who never owned a gun but who has all that white carpet in this tony suburb of Detroit.

``Oh, you can write anywhere,'' says Leonard, leaning back from his antique desk, dismissing the incongruity of his hard-boiled fiction and, well, all this. ``All I need is this,'' he says, spreading a palm over a nondescript ball-point and a pad of unlined yellow paper. ``Well, I do get these made especially. I don't like to write on lines.''

Even as a writer of genre fiction, Leonard has seldom stuck to the lines. It's what made him so hard to sell all those years. Publishers' ballyhooing notwithstanding, Leonard was never really the heir apparent to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, not the way MacDonald, Robert Parker, and Mickey Spillane were. Only his latest, Arbor House, finally got it right, marketing Leonard as Leonard and not somebody's knockoff. ``He was always a very good, very economic writer,'' says Donald Fine, founder of Arbor House. ``But he was always better than the genre.''

Ditto for the author. ``You know, when GQ was going to do my picture and they said, `Wear a trench coat, look mean, and we'll send over the smoke machine.' I said, `I don't do that kind of fiction,'' moans Leonard. ``I just want to tell stories.... You know, convicts and dumb guys who get into trouble.''

The man's heroes are different. Forget the quintessential tough guy, the American private eye Chandler described as ``the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world....'' No, Leonard's protagonists are modern-day Robin Hoods just this side of cynical.

``I think low-lifers are more interesting and have a more interesting way of talking than people sitting around the country club in their plaid pants talking about their scores,'' says Leonard, adjusting his tortoise shell glasses. ``But my guys are all moral stand-up guys. They might cut a corner, even the cops, like Chris [in ``Freaky Deaky''] when he takes that $25,000 for dismantling a bomb in the bad guy's house. Like his boss says, `That's a gray area.'''

If it's a gray area, it's one flecked with humor and veined with dialogue - two of Leonard's strongest suits in a pretty strong hand. He's got one of the best ears in the business (he even did Reagan in ``Bandits''), a talent he honed on Detroit street corners and later on Naval battleships.

``I think of it as auditioning the characters,'' says Leonard, ``I put them in a situation, let them talk and I write it down. Plot comes out of character.''

Leonard's also a whiz at telling his story from multiple points of view, slipping from the bad guys to the good guys and back again, getting right inside their heads. ``I try and get myself, my sound, out of it,'' says Leonard.

How does he know how cops talk, rapists think, drug dealers deal? Shoe leather, yeah, and lots of it. What he can't find out, he makes up. Sometimes it's nothing more than a happy accident. ``Freaky Deaky'' came out of a chance reading of ``The Anarchists' Cook Book,'' that '60s self-help manual.

``It was originally going to be about a country-western singer who's car gets blown up,'' says Leonard. ``But when I read all that Marxist rhetoric, I said, `Ahhh, there's the book.' Plus all those people, Jerry Rubin, Eldridge Cleaver, they're all coming around now.''

Critics come around, too. The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley wrote about ``Freaky Deaky'': ``...its people are unfailingly interesting, its commentary on contemporary urban mores is right on target, and it is extremely funny.''

Yeah, the funny part, Leonard likes that. ``I'm not particularly funny,'' he says. ``But I laugh a lot. What I enjoy is a kind of absurb situation. Like the bad guys are going out to kill somebody and one of them is going to videotape it so the other guy is thinking, `What am I going to wear? The black and red ski mask?' You know, the bad guys aren't bad all day.

It's the same kind of dry-to-the-bone humor that Leonard brings to his own life - the silly chapters (``I wrote educational films for Encyclopaedia Britannica: `Settlers of the Mississippi Valley,' 1,000 bucks a script'') and the serious ones. After drinking ``every day since 1944,'' Leonard joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1977, the same year he married his second wife, Joan. Today, he keeps AA's Twelve Steps list in his wallet. He'll even give a reading. No. 11, the one about prayer and meditation, is his favorite. He paraphrases: ``Now in the morning, before I get out of bed I just think about not playing any games or roles - just do the work, just be myself.''

How'd you used to feel? ?

``Hung over.''

The humor, remember.

But even more than the humor, it's the storytelling. ``Nah, I never wanted to be a cop,'' says Leonard with a shrug. His nickname, ``Dutch,'' is even all-American, taken from an old Washington Senators pitcher. ``I think my interest in crime comes from being raised a good little boy,'' he says. The only son of a General Motors exec, a strict Roman Catholic upbringing ... Now Leonard's life is in the suburbs - and in his imagination. ``I just wanted to tell stories,'' he says again. ``I used to tell movies, you know, to my friends, tell it over again after we'd seen it. Plus my kids, I'd read to 'em every night before bed.''

Yeah, just like Ozzie.

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