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A Day With Elmore Leonard And The White Castle That Wasn't

Upon hearing news of the death of Elmore Leonard, NPR correspondent and former All Things Considered co-host Noah Adams recalls a day he spent with the crime writer in his hometown.

Three years ago, I rode with Elmore Leonard in the back of a rental car to see Detroit and remember what it once was. Much of it was sadly puzzling to him, especially the empty space where Tiger Stadium had been.

Crime novelist Elmore Leonard in 2010.
Noah Adams / NPR
Crime novelist Elmore Leonard in 2010.

The driver was Gregg Sutter, Leonard's researcher, webmaster and unofficial publicist. Sutter had flown in overnight from Los Angeles to be on hand for my day-long visit. He drove us out of Bloomfield Village down Woodward Avenue, reminding Elmore of once-favorite bars, showing me the Detroit Police Department on Beaubien Avenue featured in many of his stories.

Leonard had wonderment in his soft voice. He'd remember characters he'd dreamed up — the confused victims, the steel-willed but often blundering bad guys. I loved hearing him talk, and I'd already asked him to read several pages of his work. You could hear the New Orleans of his birth and the pure fun of creating the plots. I found myself wishing I'd asked for another day in his world.

Sutter wanted us to see the red house where — in real life — someone shot three people in the head. We stopped. Leonard told how he had put these details in a 2002 book, including the chain-saw sectioning of one of the bodies. I noticed he kept looking back over his shoulder. We'd driven through the parking lot of a White Castle, and the sweet onion aroma stayed with us.

"Anyone want a hamburger?" he said. Sutter murmured something about being on a schedule.

The moment passed. I fussed with myself all the way home from Detroit. And it's the part of that day's story that I would tell my friends — here's one of the top writers in the world, easing into his mid-80s, looking once again for that memory of taste ...

I wish I had said, "Yeah, man, let's stop. A White Castle's just what I want at four o'clock in the afternoon in Detroit."

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