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How to Become a Bounty Hunter

Author Elmore Leonard Created a U.S. Marshal Who Will Live On


Elmore Leonard signing 'Raylan' book, Jan. 2012/Photo by Alan Stamm

Alan Stamm

 BIRMINGHAM, Mich. — Elmore Leonard, the acclaimed crime novelist who died Tuesday morning, imagined characters who behave and sound like believable law breakers and law enforcers.

His best-known plot stars include Raylan Givens, a deputy U.S. marshal on page and screen.

Leonard, who died at 87 in his suburban Detroit home from complications of a stroke he suffered a few weeks back,  was working on a book called “Blue Dreams” that would have been his 46th. “He was going to bring the character Raylan Givens into it,” son Peter Leonard tells Susan Whitall of The Detroit News.

Leonard introduced that federal marshal in “Pronto,” a 1993 book, and brought him back two years later in “Riding the Rap” and in a 60-page novella issued in 2011 as “Fire in the Hole.”

In “Justified,” a FX cable series that began in 2010 and returns next January, Timothy Olyphant portrays the tough lawman enforcing a beyond-regulations style of justice in eastern Kentucky’s hill country around Harlan.

When a real-life parole violator was arrested there last March, one headline said: Life Imitates Art, ‘Justified’ Edition: U.S. Marshals Hunt Down Fugitive in Harlan County.

But how closely does Leonard’s fictional marshal resemble the real deal?

In an effort to find out, a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter last year watched the show’s pilot episode with second-generation Deputy U.S. Marshal Pete Elliott, who joined the service in 1987 and has been U.S. marshal for the Northern District of Ohio since 2003.

Until local journalist Mark Dawidziak popped in a DVD at Elliott’s federal courthouse office, he hadn’t seen “the heroic deputy marshal created by esteemed novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard.”

The actual badge-wearer admired the pilot’s realistic setup, which had Given assigned to Lexington, Ky., and being told he’d take on all kinds of assignments.

“Small offices tend to have less manpower, so that would be the case,” he says. “In a smaller office, a deputy marshal could be asked to do a little bit of everything: working warrants, prisoner transportation, witness relocation, fugitive task force. And it’s not uncommon for someone to be assigned to an area where they grew up. We’re one of the law enforcement agencies that will do that. And I think that’s a good thing.”

Elliott also was impressed by an offhand mention of Glynco, commenting: “That’s our training academy in Georgia. That’s right. Somebody did some research.”

Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens in "Justified"

Similarly, he gave a thumb-up to actor Olyphant’s generally casual wardrobe:

“You dress appropriately for court, but, if you’re apprehending fugitives and jumping fences, you’re in jeans.”

But overall, the Cleveland marshal found more unrealistic touches than accurate ones – starting with Givens’ frequent weapon use.

“I’ve never had to fire my gun in the line of duty. It does happen, of course, but every time a weapon is discharged, reports need to be filled out. With the amount of gunfire in this show, Raylan would be up to his ying-yang in paperwork. That’s all he’d be doing. . . .

“I know they want him to be a Lone Ranger type of hero with a lot of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne stuff. It’s not a bad show. It’s just not very representative of what we do.”

Raylan Givens’ creator was a show consultant, though dramatic script flourishes aren’t his.

The vivid characters and crackling dialogue Elmore Leonard put between book covers seemed so real that criminals “write to me and want to know if I’ve done time,” the author told Vice magazine in 2009.

That level of realism flowed partly from reading and other research, and mainly from an imaginative talent that assures his work will endure.


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