In the footsteps: Son of Elmore Leonard makes name for himself

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By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News


At first, Peter Leonard didn’t want to write novels like his famous father, the late Elmore “Dutch” Leonard.

“It’s probably not smart to write fiction and be compared to him,” recalled Leonard, 62, of Birmingham, who’s penned seven novels, including his latest “Eyes Closed Tight.”

Leonard, who co-owned his advertising business for 30 years, changed his mind more than six years ago when visiting his father at his Bloomfield Village home. He recalled how the elder Leonard – who died last year – was dressed in blue jeans, Birkenstock sandals, and a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt, smoking a cigarette.

“He had a bounce in his step. He really loved what he was doing,” said Leonard, an alumnus of Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Hills and Eastern Michigan University. “He picked up a scene he’d been doing and read it to me. I thought this guy loves what he’s doing and I really didn’t. I started writing a couple of months later.”

The result was his first novel, “Quiver.” He wrote “Quiver” and “Trust Me” before leaving the advertising business in 2009 to write full time. From there, it was “All He Saw Was the Girl,” where two American exchange students in Italy unwittingly get embroiled in a kidnapping plan. This book was semi-autobiographical in a way.

Leonard talked about how he and his buddy Steve Pappas spent a week in an Italian prison during a study aboard trip to Rome in the 1970s.

“It was an incredibly interesting experience,” recalled Leonard.

He had been drinking too much when he and Pappas stole a taxicab.

“We didn’t exactly steal it; we borrowed it and we were arrested by the National Police,” he clarified. “I was in the backseat. I closed my eyes and was drifting off after too many drinks. Pappas got in the cab. I heard the door close and I looked up and saw him behind the wheel. He was one of those guys who’d do anything for attention. I didn’t think anything of it, then I heard the cab start and we were moving… Pappas was doing doughnuts, the tires were squealing. I said, ‘Okay, that’s enough.’ And he’s like, ‘Let’s go to Harry’s.’ We drove 50 yards when we saw the Carabinieri. We passed the police car. I said, ‘Pappas, I’m outta here.’ So I opened the backdoor and started running down the street. I sensed someone next to me when I was running – Pappas passed me,” explained Leonard.

The police caught up to them and they were taken into custody. With an interpreter present, they were interrogated extensively. According to Leonard, both knew they were in big trouble but didn’t know what would happen. He assumed Fr. John Felice – the chaperone – would bail them out. Instead, they were separated and handcuffed and taken to prison.  

“I could see the walls of the prison, set behind the fence with razor wire. It looked like something out of a movie. I thought, ‘Oh boy, I’ve really done it this time.’ (I) found myself in line with all the other fools who’d been picked up that night. I was fingerprinted, they took my mug-shot,” said Leonard. “I was given a cup, a spoon, and a towel and taken to a cell. I remember that next morning – that time between sleep and wakefulness, where you think… did that really happen? I thought no, then opened my eyes and the morning light was coming through the barred window; it made this distorted pattern on floor. I thought, ‘Oh boy.’”

The priest hired an attorney and they stood trial, where three judges and a prosecutor – all wearing powdered wigs – screamed at the two in rapid-fire Italian for 10 minutes. In the end, Leonard was found not guilty due to lack of evidence, whereas Pappas was given the equivalent of a $20 fine. They were released and ordered to leave Italy in two days, which coincided with when he and his peers were supposed to leave.

“I was in the airport, telling everyone what happened. Two members of the Carabinieri – they had machine guns on straps slung over their shoulders – and called our names – ‘Senor Leonard and Senor Pappas’ – and escorted us across the tarmac into the airplane – it was a Pan-Am flight – that was the symbol that we were officially persona non grata and couldn’t return for 10 years. I went home. My father looked at me and said, ‘Hard time makes the boy a man.’ That’s a line one of his characters would say,” recalled Leonard.

Once the 10-year ban was lifted, he returned to Italy many times.

 “The first time I went back, I was a little nervous. My wife’s like, ‘C’mon, they’re not looking for you,’” he said. “We drove across the border…. and the border guards waved us through.”    

The aforementioned “Eyes” is a mystery-thriller, featuring the return of O’Clair, a retired Detroit homicide detective, from his second novel, “Trust Me.” O’Clair moved to Florida and bought a hotel. When a girl is found dead at his hotel, it’s hauntingly similar to a case he solved six years ago.

“In the opening scene, (O’Clair) sees that one of the lounge chairs is missing, looks down at the beach, and sees it there. He walks down and sees this pretty young girl asleep on the lounge chair,” explained Leonard. “He touches her arm and knows right away she’s dead – her skin’s cold and her body’s starting to rigor. That begins this novel.”

Most of the novel occurs in Detroit during the winter.

“With the white snow and the white sky, all you see is this monochromatic world we live in several months a year,” said Leonard. “The grittiness of Detroit against this white background is pretty effective.”

Currently, he’s finishing “Unknown Remains” – which will be published in 2015 – where two loan sharks collect from a broker at the World Trade Center the morning of 9/11 before the first plane hit the Twin Towers.

Leonard’s well aware that he’s living in his father’s long shadow – which he embraces.

“He’s considered the greatest crime fiction writer of all time by critics,” said Leonard. “He had a great sense of humor and was a very funny man. He’d see humor in many situations that weren’t funny. You could read his books and see that – humor in crime. That’s what made him so distinctively different than many others.”