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'Elmore Leonard: Westerns' celebrates Leonard's mastery of the genre

This collection of four shoot-em-up novels and eight short stories beautifully demonstrates Leonard’s gift for crisp dialogue, swift plotting, and flab-free storytelling.

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Elmore Leonard: Westerns
Edited by Terrence Rafferty
The Library of America
781 pp.

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In the guise of a man named Carl Everett Allen, who relates a harrowing tale of an attempted stagecoach robbery in Arizona in 1884, author Elmore Leonard offers his philosophy of writing – and reading. Allen, in a one-page prologue that introduces Leonard’s Western novel “Hombre,” confesses an amateur’s uncertainty about where to start his story.

Some of his thoughts at the time the events occurred, Allen tells us, embarrass him in retrospect.

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“But I was advised to imagine I was telling it to a good friend and not worry about what other people might think,” Allen says by way of introduction. “Which is what I have done. If there’s anything anybody wants to skip, like innermost thoughts in places, just go ahead.”

Allen’s sentiment echoes Leonard’s beloved rules for writing, published by The New York Times in 2001 and, later, as a slim non-fiction volume. The final rule on Leonard’s list? “Try to leave out the part that readers skip.” His rules also warned against prologues, excessive weather descriptions, and adverbs, among other literary maladies.

Leonard’s ear for dialogue and laconic style, along with a droll sense of humor and just enough field research, combined to make his crime novels endlessly entertaining (apologies for the adverb). It took a while, but, by the mid-1980s, and through the end of his life in 2013, Leonard’s books became source material for a slew of movies and TV shows (John Travolta and Gene Hackman’s “Get Shorty” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” among them) as well as consistent best-sellers.

Since his death, Leonard has been celebrated by The Library of America in three volumes encompassing 12 novels, all from his contemporary crime era. Now comes a fourth entry, Elmore Leonard: Westerns, harking back to where it all began. In Leonard’s writing life, the beginning is in Arizona in the late-1800s and early-1900s, the setting of his Western novels and stories, including several filmed for major Hollywood productions (Paul Newman starred in the movie version of “Hombre” in 1967) when Leonard remained a minor writer.

It is altogether fitting that film critic Terrence Rafferty edited the fourth, newly published Leonard entry in The Library of America. “Elmore Leonard: Westerns” is just what it says it is, consisting of four shoot-em-up novels and eight short stories, each and every one demonstrating the author’s gift for crisp dialogue, swift plotting, and flab-free storytelling.

The short story “Trail of the Apache” provides a typical example of how Leonard lassoes the reader:

“Under the thatched roof ramada that ran the length of the agency office, Travisin slouched in a canvas-backed chair, his boots propped against one of the support posts. His gaze took in the sun-beaten, gray adobe buildings, all one-story structures, that rimmed the vacant quadrangle. It was a glaring, depressing scene of sun on rock, without a single shade tree or graceful feature to redeem the squat ugliness....”

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Who’s going to stop reading there? Leonard makes everything look, and read, so easy that it becomes impossible to resist.

As he did later in his crime novels, Leonard works in shades of considerable gray in his Western stories. Double-crosses and double-speak thrive among all parties: bandits, lawmen and the hapless souls caught in between.

There isn’t a clunker in “Westerns,” but, if forced to brand one in this roundup as the best of the bunch, this reader would go with “Forty Lashes Less One,” a story about rival prisoners who, improbably, become allies, thanks in large part to an overeager new warden who believes himself capable of divine transformations. (Fear not, Leonard’s story is much earthier than that description and blessedly – again, easy on the adverbs – devoid of magical realism.)

Long-distance running, warpaint, spear-tossing, and ruminations on matters of gospel all coexist in “Forty Lashes,” a convict escape story set in 1909. The interim warden, a 60-year-old preacher named Everett Manly, has taken over a soon-to-close prison with 100 inmates. And he believes a more nurturing approach will instill pride in his new flock, though Manly finds his own faith being tested in this new environment.

After one of several futile attempts to discuss Scripture with the two rival prisoners, Manly despairs. Leonard writes: “If they didn’t understand the Holy Word, how was he ever going to preach it to them? He raised his eyes to the high ceiling and said, ‘Lord, if You’re going to send me sinners, send me some with schooling, will you please?’”

“Forty Lashes” celebrates and twists Western conventions in a tale that includes a corrupt turnkey, a Machiavellian inmate who runs roughshod over prisoners and guards alike, and, not least, the tension of an escape into the desert that looks futile for all involved.

Just about everyone who’s read or reviewed Leonard remarks on his bemused affection for Hollywood and the way his novels unspool like movies. So it is with his Westerns, too.

Another one of Leonard’s writing axioms was the timeless advice of show, don’t tell. In that spirit, let me spare you further dissection of this latest addition to the Leonard canon: Best for you to pick it up and experience the real thing first-hand. Don’t worry, it’s all good, even the mentions of those dreaded innermost thoughts.