Thursday, January 21, 2021

Frank Wilson And The Night Elmore Leonard Came To Philadelphia

In my latest Crime Beat column, which was published today in Philadelphia Weekly, I wrote of the time when the late, great crime novelist Elmore Leonard came to Philadelphia in 2009. 

As I noted in the column, my friend and former editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Frank Wilson (seen in the above photo), introduced Elmore Leonard at the Philadelphia Free Library. 

Leonard was in town to promote his novel Road Dogs (William Morrow).

Frank Wilson noted that Elmore Leonard (seen in the below photo) was perhaps one of the coolest guys he ever met. I agree that Leonard was a cool old guy. 

I also think Frank Wilson is a cool guy.  

Frank Wilson, who was the Inquirer’s book editor for many years, began a popular literary blog called BooksInq ( after he retired from the newspaper. The blog was selected by the London Sunday Times as one of the Top 100 Best Blogs in 2009.   

Like me, Frank Wilson is a huge admirer of Elmore Leonard. As he stated in my column, he believed the crime novelist deserved the Nobel Prize. 

"The writing is as good as it gets. No wasted words. As sharp an eye for detail as anyone. Characters as vivid as they get. Characters as vivid as they get.  I've had friends in low places. Dutch got them right," Frank Wilson said in the column. 

I asked Frank Wilson what he thought of crime fiction. 

“It’s a form, like the sonnet,” Wilson replied.” We revere the sonnet, but for some reason some people tend to denigrate prose genres — crime fiction, science fiction. I don’t get it. Middlemarch is by definition better than The Moonstone because the latter is a detective novel. Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels are by definition inferior to what he called his “hard novels”? I’ve read a number of both. Both are great.” 

Although I’ve known Frank Wilson for a good number of years, I asked him for a overview of his life and career. 

“Well, I wrote a book column for my college newspaper and later on became the editor of the newspaper. In the fall after I finished college, I went to work for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. They were about to start a journal, which became the Intercollegiate Review,” Wilson said. “I was the managing editor. I wrote my first professional review for the first issue. It was a review of Dag Hammarskjรถld’s Markings (a great book). I wasn’t there very long. I had a disagreement with the editor and quit. 

Wilson said he then attended Penn graduate school for a semester and later obtained a teaching assistantship at the University of Dayton. His idea at the time was to receive a Ph.D, and afterwards obtain a job at some small upstate college where he would teach English and write poetry. 

“But by then I had already done some freelancing and had got to know the writing world, and I realized one day that I didn’t want to spend my life in the faculty lounge. So I left Dayton and went back to freelancing. I had a column for a while in the old Philadelphia Drummer. I edited for Lippincott, Fortress Press, Running Press and others. I started reviewing books for The Inquirer around 1976, I think. My first assignment was Hearing Secret Harmonies. volume 12 of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. I hadn’t the first 11, but dutiful sort that I am I did read them over the next couple of weeks. 

The freelance book editing dried up in the late ‘70s, Wilson noted, and Lippincott was sold to Harper and the major publishes decided not to hire freelancers. So he made ends meet working on a construction crew building stores. He was then hired at the Inquirer as a clerk (He had a wife and four kids to support; so he said it was no time to be proud). Wilson said the pay was quite good and it enabled him to learn the newspaper business from the ground up. 

“And I continued to review books for the paper. I got promoted to the features copy desk and wrote for the Faith Life section and eventually the book job was open I got the nod. Not long after I got it, they cut the book budget. I kept them cutting space by writing a weekly Editor’s Choice column. Things went very well when Amanda Bennett was the editor, but when Brian Tierney bought the paper, I eventually ran into what Bill Speers in the Newsmakers column used to call “those dreaded artistic differences” with the new management. 

"I was already 67, so I decided to bow out. I continued to review for them after I retired — until they stopped having a book section of their own.” 

Frank Wilson continues to review books and posts everyday at

Note: You can read my Crime Beat on Elmore Leonard via the below link:

 Paul Davis On Crime: The Coolest Guy I Ever Met: My Philadelphia Weekly 'Crime Beat' Column On The Late, Great Crime Novelist Elmore Leonard

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