The wind is whipping up Old Woodward Avenue in Birmingham as the heavy door next to Forté restaurant comes into view.
Inside, about a thousand steps lead up a shadowy staircase to the second-floor offices of the Leonard Mayer & Tocco advertising agency.
There’s no receptionist in sight, so a visitor wanders until Peter Leonard calls out from his office. He sits behind a Texas-size slab of blond wood and smiles. Ruddy-faced, sandy-haired, mustachioed, and wearing an open-collar blue work shirt, he doesn’t look like part of a literary dynasty.
But when you’re the son of famed writer Elmore “Dutch” Leonard and your first novel is about to be published at age 56, you’d better expect some comparisons. “Elmore is the draw and I feel fine about it,” Peter says.
His thriller, Quiver, will be published this month by Thomas Dunne Books, part of St. Martin’s Press. Set largely in northern Michigan and metro Detroit, it’s the story of Luke McCall, who accidentally kills his stepfather while bowhunting. The plot, as critics like to say, thickens as son and mother, Kate, attract the attention of bounty hunters and end up in a bloody confrontation with a gang of killers.
“Peter Leonard’s first novel amply shows that he’s the great Elmore’s son,” author and Michigan native Jim Harrison wrote in a cover blurb for Quiver. “This book is a wicked trip with the creeps and pukes that inhabit the criminal world who collide with a convincing heroine.” If those “creeps and pukes” sound like escapees from some of Elmore’s four dozen hard-boiled crime novels, like Fifty-two Pickup, Out of Sight, Cuba Libre, Get Shorty, and Be Cool, it’s because, well, like father, like son.
With Quiver, Peter joins the ranks of other published children of top authors, including Clive Cussler, Mary Higgins Clark, Dick Francis, and Jonathan Kellerman.
Peter didn’t get serous about writing until he was in his 40s, although he took some creative-writing classes in college at Eastern Michigan University and Loyola. He recalls sending one six-page short story to his father to critique back then.
“Three days later, Elmore [Peter started calling his Father “Elmore” in high school, though he can’t recall why] told me the characters were like â€˜strips of leather drying in the sun,’ meaning they were all the same. The critique was three pages long.”
Though he liked writing, Peter says he never himself thought of doing it for a living. He’s spent the last 25 years writing advertising copy and creating commercials for his ad agency — the last 20 years primarily for Volkswagen, Audi, and Hiram Walker.
And then there was the matter of bringing up a family in Birmingham. He and his wife, Julie, an interior decorator, have four children — two are in college — and that meant a lot of lacrosse games, school plays, and tuition bills. “I didn’t have time for a novel,” he says.
But always, story ideas and scenes would pop into his head. Finally, he took up writing again. “I originally wrote Quiver as a movie script 10 years ago,” he says. “It didn’t seem as daunting as a novel.” His agent disagreed, however, and turned it down.
“I enjoy writing; it’s very satisfying,” Peter says. “But the script wasn’t as much fun. Then, six years ago, I started a different novel. I sent it to Elmore’s agent, who liked it. But 11 publishers turned it down.”
Peter says his father didn’t inspire him to be a writer. “I’m not trying to be as good as Elmore,” he says.
Still, his father has always been in the background, giving advice when asked, inspiration even when silent. A large framed photo of his father hangs on one wall of Peter’s office. It shows Elmore sitting on a chair on the beach in Miami, fully dressed, working on a portable typewriter on his lap.
Peter started writing Quiver as a novel about three years ago. He got the original idea when a friend showed him his bow and arrow. “He was going to hunt grizzly bears. That got me thinking about the story: A boy kills his dad in a hunting accident and goes into a tailspin. Then Mom has to deal with the kid.”
Peter admits he’s never used a bow, although he did pluck the bowstring. He has fired guns, however, for fun and research. “Elmore once told me you have to be in the heads of the characters,” Peter says. “That’s the fun of writing.”
Writing Quiver took 13 months — nights, weekends, mornings, before and after his ad work. “It was grueling,” he says. Did he heed the advice in his father’s latest book, 10 Rules of Writing? Peter nods: “I observe the rules myself.”
He sent the manuscript of Quiver to his father to see what he thought. “Elmore called and said, ‘I’ve read five chapters, and I’m on the edge of my seat. You’ve got a sound!’ That was high praise from him. Pretty gratifying.”
Peter’s agent offered the book to a half-dozen editors. Three were interested and St. Martin’s “jumped on it,” Peter says. They signed a two-book deal. Elmore has done an audio interview with Peter for his publisher.
“I think it’s quite a good story,” Elmore says on the phone from a beach in Florida where he was spending a few days. “Peter’s worked so hard on it, and he’s rewritten so much. He knows that writing is rewriting. I think he’s going to be big time.”
Elmore has two other sons and two daughters, but they’re not writers. Or at least, “if they’re not writing, they’re not serious about it,” he says.
He concedes that Quiver may remind people of his writing style, but says, “I think Peter has a good sound…he had an advantage in reading my stuff, that he’s been able to take off and get my sound rather than going this way and that. He’ll improve as he develops his own sound and goes on.”
And he is going on. In his office, Peter drops a gray cardboard box on his desk, pulls off the top and carefully lifts out the just-completed manuscript of his next book, Trust Me. He describes it as a tale of money, love, and revenge. He fusses with the pages, straightening the edges even though they’re already as perfectly aligned as a Marine drill team.
He’s written about 280 pages of a third novel — a mystery set in Italy — plotted out, and has ideas for two or three more books. “I’ve developed many characters I liked and would like to go back to them,” he says.
“I would like to make money writing and give up the advertising business,” he says a bit wistfully. ”But it took Dad 50 years to get where he is.”