I don't know where Elmore Leonard fits in the history of the Western, other than that he wrote some good ones, Hombre and "3:10 to Yuma," to name two. But to this neophyte reader in the genre, Leonard's early stories make an instructive comparison with American crime fiction of the same time: the early 1950s. (That's right, the early 1950s. Leonard, whose latest novel, Raylan, has recently hit the shelves, was a published author at least as early as 1951.)
Here's the conclusion to one story:
"The Southwest was full of Hydes. And as long as there were Hydes, there were Billy Guays. Big talkers with big guns who ended up lying dead, after a while, in a Mimbre rancheria. Angsman would go back to Fort Bowie. Even if it got slow sometimes, there’d always be plenty to do."The matter-of-fact resignation reminds me of hard-boiled crime writing from a few decades earlier. It's as if hard-boiled writing decamped for the West around 1951, leaving American crime fiction to the twisted mental worlds of Jim Thompson and David Goodis.
Leonard's Western stories are almost breathtakingly free of political correctness, unsparing in their discussions both of the counterproductive brutality of American policy toward the Apaches of the Southwest and of the blood-curdling violence and internecine feuds of some of those Apaches. Leonard is careful, too, to delineate different habits and war customs of various Apache bands, thus honoring their humanity more fully than do blanket views of Indians as bloodthirsty savages or creative and ecologically sensitive innocents.
Leonard gets great mileage of the tension between experienced Western scouts and hot-shot young military officers from back East, mining the theme both for dramatic conflict:
"It was his patrol and he was supposed to have the answers. That’s why he had a commission. But the face bore a puzzled expression. It was young, and lobster-red, and told openly that he was new to frontier station, though he had learned all the answers at the Point. You hesitate when it’s your command, your responsibility. When a dirty old man in an undershirt is studying you to see what you’ve got, waiting to pick you apart. And if he finds the wrong thing, the buzzards do the rest of the picking."and for humor:
"`I’m only saying what if,' Travisin agreed, with a faint smile. `Could be one way or the other. I just want to impress you that we’re not chasing Harvard sophomores across the Boston Common.'''And, Leonard being Leonard, he could work a good line out of a routine bit of description:
"A hundred things raced through his mind, and every one of them was a question."or
"Six enlisted troopers prayed to six interpretations of God that the young lieutenant wasn’t a glory seeker … at least not on this patrol."OK, that's it for now. More on Leonard later, and the next time I mention Western in a post, it will be next to Wall.
© Peter Rozovsky 2012