by Elmore Leonard
528 pages, Phoenix
Review by Pat Black
Ofelio Oso died at the age of ninety-three on a ranch outside Tularosa. They said about him he sure told some tall ones – about devils, and about seeing a nagual hanged for murder in Mesilla … whatever that meant… but he was much man.
"The Nagual", November 1956
It’s a shame that Elmore Leonard’s most Google-able legacy in more recent times has been his "10 rules of writing". They’re a great favourite of authors seeking to impart wisdom on the internet, up there with Stephen King’s "this is a verb… this is a full stop" tract in On Writing.
There’s good sense in these tips, for the famous and the wannabe alike. But it’s unfortunate that some people might remember Elmore Leonard more for an internet top-ten list than his fantastic storytelling ability.
There’s lots of evidence of the latter in The Complete Western Stories, a snorting buffalo compendium of Leonard’s earliest forays into fiction – some of which follow his writing tips to the letter, some of which do not. The earliest publication is from 1951, when Leonard was 26, with the most recent dating from 1994.
Westerns might not be your thing. Perhaps there’s a case to be made that they’re less relevant nowadays than the type of cool crime capers which cemented Leonard’s reputation nearer the end of his life, such as Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Maximum Bob. These spawned successful film and TV adaptations at roughly the same time as Quentin Tarantino’s blood-bullets-and-bullshit epics. The two worlds collided in Jackie Brown, a faithful adaptation of Rum Punch which sober analysts will tell you is Tarantino’s finest picture.
Still, Leonard had a good commercial nose, and in the 1950s, the western was king. He was fascinated with the old west and the frontier of Arizona, with its roving Apaches, bandits, mescaleros and US cavalry officers, all pitting their rugged manly-manliness against one another in dismal outposts baked by the desert heat. Inspired by the movies, he sought to make money writing his own western stories. Gunplay and fistfights almost always ensued. Leonard knew these quasi-mythological clashes were more commercially viable than crime stories at the time, and so the Sharps rifle became his bread and butter.
There must have been a thriving market back in those days, with dime westerns filling the racks at newsagents across the world. You had to be good to make a name out of these, and Leonard’s prose in his early days is much the same as it was just before he died: lean, polished and getting to its point on the double without breaking sweat. There’s little profanity and naughtiness in the bulk of the stories, from the 1950s and 60s. This is owing to a firmer editorial hand in those times, but they certainly don’t seem quaint. The fine grain and social commentary of the later stories, "Tonto Woman" and "Hurrah For Captain Early!" are noticeable by contrast, but those ones aren’t built for speed and thrills like the dime westerns.
Almost all of the stories deal with violent retribution. "The Big Hunt", the best example, looks at a young cattle drover taking his sweet time to get back at some rustlers who rip him off and then give him a smack in the mouth for his trouble. The final come-uppance tickles a vindictive side of us – you’re desperate for this young guy to catch up with the bandits, take back what’s his and give them a dunt in the chops right back. This punishment and humiliation of the unjust is replicated throughout the book. If only real life was like that. "How’s the bad guy going to get it this time?" might seem hackneyed, but it’s never unwelcome. Leonard liked to give his audience what they wanted.
By extension, there’s a sense of morality at play in most of the stories. In "Three-ten To Yuma", easily the most famous tale, a hardened killer ultimately surrenders to a simple, honest man trying to transport him to jail out of a sense of honour. The older Leonard might not have painted such a story in simple black and white, but its themes of camaraderie, loyalty and fraternity would rest easy in Quentin Tarantino’s hands.
In a similar vein, "The Hard Way" looks at a Mexican deputy violating a family tie in order to hold true to the law. The most interesting moral predicament is explored in "Blood Money", which sees a bunch of bank robbers gambling with their loot even as a posse of sharpshooters lays siege to their mountain hideout. This one played with predestination in the same way as Sir Walter Scott’s "The Two Drovers", and travelled the sometimes twisted routes the path to justice can take.
Perhaps reflecting the author’s age at the time of writing, callow youth often wins the day over grizzled cunning. In "Saint With A Six-Gun", a naïve deputy is conned by a dangerous prisoner before learning on the job and putting matters right. There are other examples of honest, uncorrupted young guys made good, such as the lieutenant in "Red Hell Hits Canyon Diablo" who gets his men out of a pickle with some Apaches by beating them in a drinking contest.
Most of Leonard’s gun-toting protagonists are upright fellows. Whether seasoned or bright forest green, his men have honesty and loyalty, and they’re almost always up against sneering braggarts, bullies and cowards. You might expect dated stories to have dated attitudes towards native Americans, black people or Mexicans, but there is no stereotyping involved. I’d venture that the young Leonard was aware of the flaws of some westerns’ white-hats-versus-black-hats storytelling, and keen to put these right. Thus, you get the neat "Nagual", which shows what appears to be a slow-witted Mexican character who reveals the truth about a domestic murder in a very clever, subtle manner. Then there’s "Hurrah For Captain Early!" which seeks to right a historical wrong by outlining the part played by black soldiers in the civil war.
Despite often being portrayed as something to be fought for, women are also cast in a more modern light. There are pervy moments, such as the pivotal scene in "The Captives" in which a woman hostage strips off to distract her guard. But by and large women are strong – and when they aren’t, it’s because of the pigs who seek to control them, such as the stuffed-shirt husband in "Tonto Woman" or the would-be rapist in "The Colonel’s Lady".
One of the most affecting stories in the book was "The Rancher’s Lady", where a widower hooks up with a woman he’s been courting through correspondence, only to discover that she is, shall we say, well-known in the town. The morality in this one was moving, as opposed to viscerally satisfying - although the main character’s tormentor gets his ears boxed, just the same.
It amused me that – as per one of his 10 rules – Leonard didn’t waste a lot of time on description. I lost count over the amount of "adobe buildings" his cowpokes encounter, for example. It could be said that if he missed bits and pieces out, it was because his knowledge was the same as ours – gleaned from feature films and books. And detail is never sacrificed unnecessarily. He researched the outfits, firearms and customs of the old west in just enough detail, but I don’t think anyone would have given him a PhD.
Stick to what your characters say and do, Leonard would say. Those are the important parts.
Ah, phooey to the rules. Like Elmore Leonard, most successful writers learned on the job, rather than getting bogged down on theory. Whether you’re a keen student of the craft or simply a fan of a good yarn, you can’t go wrong with this book.