Tuesday, September 16, 2014
Four Elmore Leonard Westerns
FORTY LASHES LESS ONE
Surprisingly funny Western that takes place mostly within the walls of Yuma prison in the early part of the 20th century. Harold is the only black inmate at the soon-to-be-closed Yuma, and Raymond is the only Indian, which makes them the targets of derision. Shelby, a prisoner with connections, makes their lives hell, until the new warden, Mr. Manly, takes a special interest in the pair and decides to elevate their confidence in the hopes he can bring them to Jesus. Harold and Raymond eventually form a bond, based on their desire to be like the warriors of their ancestry. When Shelby and his cohorts plan an escape, Manly relies on the misfits to bring the fugitives to justice.
I loved how the central characters were nothing like your standard Western heroes-- like pretty much every character in the book, they aren't too bright and they aren't too heroic. But there's something very likable about both of them.
There's a scene about mid-way through FORTY LASHES LESS ONE that was pure Leonard humor, where Warden Manly is trying to explain some finer points of the Bible to the boys, who are clearly not getting it. It's presented in the sort of dead-pan way that Leonard would later become famous for, and reminded me once again why his dialogue is so enviable.
The very last paragraph made me laugh out loud.
THE LAW AT RANDADO
I believe this is Leonard's second novel, written in the early '50's, and as such doesn't really display the trademark humor and terrific dialogue we know him for. For all that, though, it's still very well-written, spare and lean, befitting the Arizona setting.
A group of Randado's prominent citizens, manipulated by rich cattle baron Phil Sundeen, lynch a pair of rustlers without waiting on due process of law. When the young, green deputy sheriff, Kirby Frye, gets wind of it, he sets out to serve warrants to the men involved-- only to be humiliated and run out of town. But Frye isn't about to let the law be subverted; he gathers himself, along with a loose handful of allies, and sets out to bring Sundeen and his lackies to justice.
It's a fairly standard Western scenario, especially in the last fourth, with Frye on the trail of the fleeing Sundeen, but still manages to play out in the end in unexpected ways. Frye is an interesting character, torn between youthful impetuousness and level-headed responsibility, and Sundeen is a nicely sleazy villain. The other characters all straddle lines somewhere between the two, but their main crime seems to be cowardice.
So... THE LAW AT RANDADO is a typical Western, elevated by a fast-pace and superior writing.
Bren Early and Dana Moon are occasional partners and uneasy friends who have been through more than their share of harrowing adventures together over the years. But it looks like fate may land them on opposite sides of a land war-- Moon has taken the job of Indian Affairs agent, tasked with protecting the interests of the residents of Rincon Mountain, and Early is in the employ of a powerful mining company that wants the native's off the mountain.
Tensions build as newsmen from around the country flock, anticipating an epic showdown between the two gunmen friends, and things are complicated further by the arrival of Phil Sundeen, a rustler who Early and Moon left for dead some years earlier. For Sundeen, the land war is the perfect opportunity for some revenge.
As noted above, I read THE LAW AT RANDADO right before GUNSIGHTS; RANDADO is a very early Leonard and the villain in it is Phil Sundeen. GUNSIGHTS is Leonard's last western, written about 25 years later, and marks the return of Sundeen. The events of RANDADO aren't mentioned in GUNSIGHTS, but I thought it was an interesting choice to bring the sleazy bastard back for another appearance.
Dana Moon and Bren Early are both terrific characters, and not really typical of Leonard in that they are both rather taciturn. They are a lot alike in some ways, but over the course of the novel Leonard fleshes out their particular character traits, highlights the huge differences between them-- Moon is grounded and knows what he wants out of life, Early is rudderless and a bit in love with Death and Glory. And the supporting characters, especially Sundeen's conflicted man Ruben Vega, are all terrific.
Moon and Early would have been terrific series characters. Oh well. Great book.
VALDEZ IS COMING
This was actually the first Elmore Leonard Western I read, some months ago, and it's easily one of his best novels, Western or not.
Valdez is a lawman who gets zero respect, hired basically to do thankless grunt work. He's not taken seriously by the town's governing bodies (or anyone else, really), and when they need someone to roust a black man with an Indian wife, holed up in a cabin, they tag Valdez to do it. Valdez is forced to kill the man-- who turns out to be innocent of the crime he's been accused of. While no one else is particularly troubled by this, guilt eats away at Valdez and he tries to take up a collection for the black man's widow. And he won't allow himself to be dismissed. This leads to a violent public humiliation (one of the set-pieces of the book, a scene that's more than a little Biblical in Valdez's "crucifixion"), and being run out of town.
But his enemies have made a huge mistake, because there is only so much Valdez will endure before striking back. When he returns, he brings all Hell with him.
I thought it was interesting how it took the well-being of someone else (the Indian widow) for Valdez to stand up. He's a quietly heroic character, selfless, humble, and ultimately committed to doing the right thing. That he's the butt of the joke for so long is in keeping with some of Leonard's other work-- the two central characters in FORTY LASHES LESS ONE are similar, in that they are targets of derision who ultimately find their self-respect and prove themselves.
Like I said, this was my first Leonard Western, and one I often recommend as an ideal starting place for anyone who hasn't read a Western before. It's lean and fast-paced, with great dialogue and believable characters.
More Elmore Leonard Westerns coming soon.
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