Tuesday, August 20, 2013

In memory of Elmore Leonard: The Westerns

In honor of Elmore Leonard, who died today after one of the longest and most influential careers in crime fiction, here's a Detectives Beyond Borders post from last year about the still-vital Westerns he wrote way back at the beginning. And here's a link to previous DBB posts about Leonard. Click the link, then scroll down. 
==============

Before I head east, a post about the West.

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

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54 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

Very nice post, Peter. I have heard from many sources that I should read Leonard's westerns, so I hope to actually get around to them at some point.

Have a great trip!

March 11, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. Leonard's Westerns make entertaining and stimulating reading for all kinds of reasons. One I just hinted at here is the fun I've had tracing the roots of features that later become apparent Leonard's crime fiction. He'll shift to a killer or other criminal's point of view mid-story, for instance, which he would do all the time in his crime stories, which all came later. I wonder how common this was in Western writing at the time.

An interesting introduction to the collection says that Westerns spiked in popularity around the time Leonard started writing, in the early 1950s. One can speculate about all sorts of interesting reasons for that.

March 11, 2012  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

The references to the hot-shot young military leaders from back east and the more experienced scouts already 'in country' really brings to mind "Going after Cacciato," and other Vietnam war stories.

March 11, 2012  
Blogger Richard L. Pangburn said...

The enormous popularity of westerns in the 1950s gave rise to an altered and idealized national myth. The common name for North Viet Nam controlled territory was "Indian Country," especially laughable to Native Americans engaged in the war.

Elmore Leonard, as you say, was ahead of his time in dispelling myths about Apaches and Native Americans in general. About Mexicans too, as in VALDEZ IS COMING.

Readers today fail to grasp that Leonard wasn't being politically correct--just the opposite in his day. Most publishers of westerns insisted that authors make the bad guys out to be the Other, and in westerns that naturally meant either American Indians or Mexicans if no Nazis or Communists could be found.

It's kind of sad to learn that the military code name for Osama Bin Laden was Geronimo, of all names they could have chosen. Some people never learn.

March 11, 2012  
Blogger Fred said...

And _Hombre_ and _3:10 to Yuma_ were turned into two very decent films.

March 11, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, Leonard's stories have an interesting attitide toward those hot-shot young officers. Some are bad guys and objects of contempt, but enjoy the charactes who become savvy officers over the course of the story and win the old scouts' approval:

"If Travisin was the winking type, he would have looked at Fry and done so. He glanced at Fry with the hint of a smile, but with eyes that said, `Barney, I think we’ve got ourselves a lieutenant.'”

March 11, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Richard, I don't claim to have any original ideas about the renewed popularity of Westerns in the early 1950s, but I did notice that Leonard published the first story I read in this collection the same year ground was broken on the first Levittown. Maybe Americans had a renewed desire to move out of settled areas and, at the same time, scaled that desire way down. No Apaches or Commanches in Levittown, as far as I know.

Leonard was just the opposite of politically correct, I'd say. He presented a reasonably nuanced picture of rivalries and enmities in the Southwest. At the very least, a reader of Leonard's early stories might think, "Hey, I never knew that some Apaches were just as scared of each other as white people were afraid of either."

March 11, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, haven't there been at least two film versions of "3:10 to Yuma"?

March 11, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

I've seen all of the Western films based on Leonard's novels or stories, except the recent remake of 3.10 To Yuma. But I haven't read any of Leonard's westerns. Some prejudice on my part, I must confess.

A Christmas present of the Coen Brothers version of True Grit led me to reading the Charles Portis novel it was based on. That book I enjoyed. And much more than the only western I'd previously read: Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage. Fabulous title, and a cool name for a writer, but not a good book.

Incidentally, the third Portis novel, The Dog of the South, has as its central character a copy editor. Or, at least, a copy editor who has recently quit his job. You don't come across that often. In fact, I can't think of any other fictional copy editors.

You're heading east, Peter? Watch out for that Jerusalem Syndrome. On second thoughts, you probably don't have to worry about that.

March 11, 2012  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Solo, have you seen the movie, "The Tall T" based on Elmore Leonard's story, "The Captives?" I haven't but I'm curious.

And Peter I think you may be onto something with the suburbs and the open frontier. Maybe even Levitt was onto it, in Levittown there were no fences allowed around backyards to keep it one big open space.

March 11, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I'll believe I'm the Messiah if I get a free upgrade to first class.

I suspect we share a prejudice against Western stories, thinking them old-fashioned, kill-the-bloody-savages stuff. I came to Westerns through stories written by crime writers (Leonard, Benjamin Sobieck, Edward Grainger), thanks to which I discovered affinities with crime writing.

I have heard good things about the novel "True Grit." And thanks for the heads-up on that other Charles Portis book. I have long said that there has never been an American book or movie about newspapers because none has ever featured copy editors. A novel featuring a copy editor who has quit his job might move beyond crime into fantasy for me.

March 11, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John: Now I'll have to check when Cole Porter wrote "Don't Fence Me In."

March 11, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Somehow I missed those Budd Boetticher westerns with Randolph Scott when I was growing up. The great critical praise for those westerns that I've come across since intrigued me, so I watched a bunch of them a while back. I was mostly disappionted.

But The Tall T does have some good scenes. Richard Boone and particularly Henry Silva make wonderfully
Leonardian bad guys. In fact, you could take the psychopathic Silva character Chink and put him in any of Leonard's crime novels.

March 11, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John: 1934. So Cole Porter was ahead of William Levitt and Elmore Leonard but behind Frederick Jackson Turner in writing about the closing of the American frontier.

The larger question, though, is, if Westerns did boom in popularity in the early 1950s, why?

March 11, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, one thing I've liked about Leonard's Westerns is that the characters' mental makeup is inseparable from the story and not, as in much relatively recent crime fiction, mere psychological color or calculated fleshing-out.

March 11, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, didn't Budd Boetticher direct at least one movie adapted from a Leonard story? I've seen a few of the classic John Ford Westerns and High Noon but not much beyond those.

A while back, maybe when I posted about the Cash Laramie stories, I asked for suggestions of Western stories that might appeal to crime-fiction readers. You might consult those posts for reading suggestions -- as will I.

March 11, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

There are a lot of ideas about that wave of popularity here.

March 11, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

I read your Western post, Peter. In the comments Bill Crider mentioned Donald Hamilton. I've read a couple of Hamilton's Matt Helm series and liked them but I didn't know he had written westerns.

As John mentioned earlier the Boetticher film The Tall T was based on the Leonard story The Captives.

Leonard's good at character, and good at dialogue, but not so good at plot. Two out of three ain't bad.

March 11, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, much obliged. That could be the discussion thread that launched a thousand blog posts.

March 12, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, and I think I mentioned that I had heard good things about Hamilton's non-Matt Helm books, and also that the Matt Helm books were tougher than Dean Martin played the character in the movies.

March 12, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

solo, I'm a huge fan of the Boetticher-Scott Westerns.
I'm convinced that one of the most underrated of them, 'Buchanan Rides Alone' was not only the primary inspiration for the Kurosawa Masterpiece, 'Yojimbo', but also much of the spaghetti Western 'industry', and possibly even Sam Peckinpah.

Much of that cycle of films is almost like a variation around a theme in that Boetticher was recycling many ideas, endlessly, but its like watching a Master at work; which Boetticher was.

If you didn't care for them you probably won't care for his film noir gem, 'The Killer Is Loose', either.

Peter, those Leonard Westerns look like fun; I must check them out
(The original 'Yuma' is a great film; 'Hombre' has Richard Boone at the top of his game)

March 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I liked the movie "Hombre," which I rented and watched right after Paul Newman died. It could well have affinities with noir.

And I had not heard one movie previously proposed as so influential on the spaghetti-Western phenomenon. Thanks.

March 13, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Peter, I'd always reckoned 'Yojimbo' was the inspiration for the spaghettis, but after seeing 'Buchanan', I'm certain that this came first
(having said that, 'Yojimbo' is unquestionably the better film)

What's the deal with your new 'robot-repellents'???
they're far more difficult to read than their previous incarnations!

Hmmmm!

March 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, the influence has always flowed both ways with Kurosawa, from John Ford to "Seven Samurai" back to the American west, with "The Magnificent Seven."

It's not my new robot-repellants, it's a Blogger thing, on all Blogger blogs. And you're right. They are more difficult to read.

March 13, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

They're similar to the code for Ticketmaster ticket purchases
(to prevent multiple buy programs)
Its like the detail you get when you magnify an old 'typed' document.

btw, I've just ordered a secondhand hardcover of that Leonard Western compilation

March 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, yes. Those magnified details that could serve as clues in detective stories once upon a time.

Enjoy the Leonard stories. At the very least, you should be able to relate to the situations faced by the characters even if you've never ridden a horse of fired a carbine in your life.

March 13, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Never rode a horse; ironic when you think that I grew up just a short bicycle ride away from the legendary Ballydoyle stables
a seaside donkey is about the closest I managed, myself

btw, where it says "Please prove you're not a robot", I presume that they're presuming that robots don't have feelings?

March 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or maybe the instructions were written by a self-hating robot.

March 14, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

....or a very selfish one!

March 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Who thinks he's the only damn robot in the world just because he has a job with some big-shot high-tech company.

March 14, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

....or, at least, the only important one, who intends to keep it that way by restricting access, through the use of robot-unfriendly passwords!

March 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah? Well you can tell your friend that a whole lot of humans want to kick his robot heinie.

March 14, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Why, oh why does Google think that a robot couldn't scan those blurry words a whole lot better than the human eye can.

March 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm sure we could all learn something about pattern recognition from this technology. Sounds like a mission for Confessions of Ignorance.

March 15, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

If you didn't care for them you probably won't care for his film noir gem, 'The Killer Is Loose', either

TCK, I like The Killer Is Loose. But it could have been so much better.

First thing that strikes me is the glasses. Wendell Corey was such an easy-going, straight-shooting cop in Rear Window that it's hard to believe that a simple prop like thick-rimmed glasses could play such a major role in turning him into a creepy psychopath. A year after this movie Burt Lancaster creepified himself by donning an even more ghastly pair of horn-rimmed glasses in The Sweet Smell Of Success. I wonder if he'd seen the earlier film

As a member of the Spectacle Wearing Community myself, I protest at 50s Hollywood's unwarranted conflation of the myopic with the psychopathic. Heck, Hollywood treats Republicans better than this.

It's a pity the movie didn't spend more time with the bespectacled Corey rather than the utterly boring leads, Cotton and Fleming. Villians are almost always more interesting than heroes.

The other thing that strikes me is the gun. The villian steals a .357 Magnum. I've always associated that gun with 70s movies. But Wikipedia tells me the .357 came out in the mid 30s and was superseded by the .44 Magnum in the mid 50s. Somehow, it's hard to imagine Cagney or Bogart with such a gun. Maybe those earlier movies were too interested in the bad guys' motivations to bother fetishisizing their accessories.

Ever seen Police Python 357 where the 55 year old Yves Montand tries to out-Harry Harry Callahan, even wearing the same jacket as Dirty Harry. Good clean fun, as long as you can contain you laughter.

March 15, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Maybe, but it's a little bigger topic than that blog normally tries to handle.

March 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, Pattern Recognition sounds more like the name of a blog in its own right.

March 15, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

solo, its really the last 15-20 minutes or so of 'The Killer Is Loose' that really make the film; I think it was then that Boetticher was perfecting many of the techniques that he would put to good use in those Westerns with Randolph Scott, and scriptwriter Burt Kennedy.

I actually think the much-feted 'The Tall T' is one of the weakest of the series, - even with Richard Boone.
I particularly love 'Comanche Station', and 'Ride Lonesome', and 'Buchanan', - which many think is one of the weakest entries, - because of its humour.
Try and watch it, and 'Yojimbo', in relatively quick succession, and see what I mean.
Generally I don't much care for films where the director is too obtrusive, but I just love watching Boetticher at work in those films: perhaps they're cinema's equivalent of Bach's 'Goldberg Variations'

As for Wendell Corey's specs-wearing villain; that aspect doesn't bother me in the slightest.

and I haven't seen the Montand film

March 16, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gentleman, you've given me a course of study to follow in my pursuit of all knowledge. Thanks for the discussion. I wear glasses, too, and I don't think of myself as even borderline psychopathic.

March 16, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Yes, Pattern Recognition also sounds like a novel by William Gibson. Which it is.

March 16, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Titles can't copyrighted, so if you ever feel you don't maintain enough blogs, go ahead and use it.

March 17, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I think I'd just go with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo for a title, then.

March 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder who came up with that English title. The book is called "The Man Who Hated Women" is just about every other language.

March 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, I've generally taken my cue on directors from Andrew Sarris' "The American Cinema," and he loved Boeticher.

March 17, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Whoever it was, it was a brilliant stroke. Especially combined with the first cover.

March 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The title certainly did not hurt and was probably commercially wise. But the book was a big hit under its harsher, blunter original title and direct translation thereof as well. And I have heard criticism that the tattoo on the first cover had little to do with what was in the book. i read that first book, and I don't recall anything about such tattoos.

March 18, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I don't think The Man Who Hated Women would have gone over especially well here.

I do remember the tattoo, but I was probably primed for it by the title.

March 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I agree that the title would h ave been shocking here. Interesting this should not be the case in other countries.

March 18, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

It is, and I have no theories on that.

March 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I made a post a few years ago on the subject. I also happened to look today at a photo I took of the Portuguese translations of two of the books. Those titles are awfully long, especially that of the third book.

March 18, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Peter, I've just read the first three stories and I'll probably read the entire volume through, uninterrupted, - or at least, without starting another book in the interim.

The first story was clearly the work of a novice writer, - he tried to pack too much detail, and displayed far too much of the extensive research he reportedly made into Western history and folklore,- but they're exciting stories, and they fair gallop along, even when the characters are standing still.

I particularly enjoyed the ending to the second story, not least because I hadn't checked to see how many pages were in it.
And I loved the imagery in the third story, of the location of the buried treasure

Glancing through the latter stages of the book,though, - with stories published some five years after the first, - its clear that he quickly realised that, where good writing is concerned, 'less is more'

I think I'll probably be looking into buying a couple of his (Western) novels, also: I presume Amazon will facilitate me on that score.
I must also check to see does my local library stock any

As a huge Western fan from my boyhood, I've been waiting far too long for this

March 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I agree that the early stories may be a bit heavy on the research, but the material Leonard came up with is interesting and integrated into the stories fairly well. He discusses the importance of research to those early stories in an interview that's part of the collection, at least in its electronic version,

March 22, 2012  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

I was discussing Leonard's westerns on another blog just last week, and I was convinced to try one. I got recommendations on where to start, but I'd be curious what title you might recommend for a reluctant western reader.

August 20, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Why not do what this inexperienced readers of Westerns did and find the book of collected Western stories pictured with this blog post?

August 20, 2013  

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