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U.S. Marshal in Detroit inspiration for ‘Sweet Dreams’

Kurt Anthony Krug  |  Special to The Detroit News

For author Peter Leonard, the best part of working on his latest thriller was riding with the U.S. Marshals in Detroit, San Diego and El Centro, California.

“I spent a week from the Marshals’ Fugitive Task Force in Detroit,” said Leonard, 68, of Birmingham. “The first day I rode with a 26-year-old lady (named Megan Sullivan) who was the only female on the alpha male task force. I wondered if she was a token, but that answer was quickly dispelled. I saw her go after a big guy who was running away. She tased him and cuffed him without any help. I thought, ‘OK, she’s legit.’”

Sullivan inspired the creation of U.S. Marshal Kate McGraw, Leonard’s protagonist of his recently released ninth novel, “Sweet Dreams” (Rare Bird Books $26), which occurs in Detroit.

“Every day was exciting. I couldn’t wait to get to work,” said Leonard. “I rode with another guy, who was the supervisor on the task force. It was more of the same: Searching for fugitives. We were on the trail of a bank robber. We were looking for a young girl who had gone to a party in Detroit, tried heroin, got hooked, and was turning tricks to support her habit. We were looking for her at Gratiot and Seven Mile. The Marshal pointed out the dope houses and hotels where the prostitutes took their johns, so that was fun. It was really an interesting experience. It was the first and only time in my life I wore a bulletproof vest on the job.”

Leonard really enjoyed hearing their intriguing stories and getting the rhythm of their voices down, which informed his writing. In “Sweet Dreams,” Kate is the lone female on the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force, which is after homicidal bank robber Ray Skinner, who’s left a trail of bodies behind. After Kate’s wounded in the line of duty, a mysterious stranger stalks her. It turns out, it’s Frank Galvin, her estranged father who disappeared from her life when she was 6.

“I came up with the storyline for ‘Sweet Dreams’ but it needed more depth, so I brought in Kate’s estranged father, Frank Galvin… He reappears in her life and tries to reconcile their relationship. He confesses that he’d been in federal prison 18 years for armed robbery. But he also tells Kate he can help her catch the bank robber she’s after. Frank knows him,” said Leonard.

As for the title of the book, it’s a message Skinner leaves for Kate. However, to understand its meaning, people have to read the book.

“Kate plays against type. There’s so much contrast in this book,” said Leonard. “How Kate deals with her fellow Marshals is interesting; she’s underestimated by everybody.”

According to Leonard, readers will probably see Kate again, but he’s unsure in which medium.

“I wrote ‘Sweet Dreams’ in scenes, picturing each one like frames in a movie,” he said. “But now, with its broad, diverse cast of characters and suspenseful storyline, I think it’s a TV series waiting to happen. ‘Sweet Dreams’ would be Season 1 and we’d go from there. I see Frank helping Kate solve more crimes. I think it could run for years.”

An alumnus of Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Hills and Eastern Michigan University, Leonard is the son of the late New York Times best-selling author Elmore “Dutch” Leonard and his first wife Beverly. The elder Leonard – who died in 2013 – was called the “Dickens of Detroit” and penned numerous Westerns and crime thrillers. In fact, several of his novels, including “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight,” were adapted into blockbuster movies. The Emmy-winning FX series “Justified,” featuring U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, adapted the short-story “Fire in the Hole.” The elder Leonard was renowned for his sharp, witty prose and dialogue.

“Elmore’s direct, straightforward, unvarnished prose packed a wallop. And he was funny as hell. When I am asked for my favorite sentence by a writer, I quote (Elmore) Leonard. It’s from ‘Riding the Rap.’ And the entire paragraph is ‘Raylan got ready.’ Looks simple, but those three words, in the context of what comes before, speaks volumes,” said New York Times best-selling novelist Linwood Barclay.

University of Michigan alumnus Otto Penzler, who owns The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, praised the younger Leonard’s work.

“When I read ‘Quiver,’ his first novel, I could hear his father’s voice,” said Penzler. “It is a style that’s utterly familiar, yet unique. Plenty of writers have tried to emulate that sound, but Peter Leonard achieved it right out of the box.”

Leonard is well aware he’s following in his famous father’s footsteps and doesn’t shy away from that fact, having become an author in his own right. If anything, he’s grateful to have had his father’s firsthand expertise when trying his hand at writing fiction after owning his own advertising agency – Leonard Mayer & Tocco, Inc. – for more than 30 years before turning to writing full-time.

“I was lucky to have Elmore as my mentor and critic. After his divorce from (his third wife, Christine), he would come to my house for dinner several evenings a week. We’d drink red wine and talk about the scenes we had written that day,” Leonard fondly recalled. “One night, Elmore asked me the title of the novel I was writing. I said, ‘Unidentified Remains.’ He took a drag on his Virginia Slims 100, blew out the smoke and said, ‘How about ‘Unknown Remains’?’ And, of course, that became the new title. Another time, I poured him a glass of wine and told him about a random suspense thriller I picked up at a Barnes & Noble. The first line of the prologue was: ‘The wind howled like a beast in pain.’ Elmore took a beat and said, ‘Never open a book from the wind’s point of view.’”

Leonard compared and contrasted his writing style to his father’s.

“Elmore would say, ‘I don’t plot. I let my characters tell the story.’ I do believe in plot,” he said. “Like Elmore, I write in scenes and tell my stories from the eyes of my characters in shifting points of view. But the biggest difference is that my father didn’t believe in plot and I do. I think it’s important to keep the readers guessing and off-balance.”

Leonard understands it would be foolish not to embrace his father’s advice in regards to writing.

“(Elmore is) 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.”