Monday, December 24, 2012

The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard

A heaping helping of skillfully crafted pulp fiction
Now known as one of America’s best writers of crime fiction, Elmore Leonard got his start writing western tales for pulp fiction magazines in the 1950s. This retrospective collection of his western work consists of thirty short stories and novellas, presented in chronological order.

If thirty stories sounds like a lot, it is. With that many entries, this collection can’t help but get repetitive. How many stagecoach robberies can fit between the covers of one book? Though none of the characters appear in more than one story, the same types continually pop up under new names. The first seven or eight stories lead the reader to believe Leonard may be a one-trick pony. He confines his subject and setting to the Apache country of Arizona. The protagonist is usually a civilian scout hired to guide a party of soldiers, settlers, or criminals through Indian lands. No matter how much the hero warns his employers about the dangers of such a trip, they stubbornly refuse to listen and plod forward regardless, with dire consequences. Though Leonard has a respectful admiration for the Apaches, his portrayal of them is a stereotype nonetheless. He depicts them as stoic killing machines, keenly intelligent and shrewdly calculating, until a drop of alcohol transforms them into murderous lunatics. Though these early stories are strong individually, when read together they inspire a cumulative Apache fatigue.

Thankfully, after the first quarter of the book Leonard broadens his scope and gets more innovative with his plots and characterization. In “The Big Hunt,” a young buffalo hunter and his companion, an old skinner, amass a bountiful collection of hides, but when the fruit of their labor is stolen from them by some bullies, the boy must set out after the thieves in search of restitution. “Saint with a Six-Gun” tells the tale of a newly appointed deputy marshal assigned to guard a dangerous gunslinger the week before his execution, a mission which may be more than the green lawman can handle. In “The Rancher’s Lady,” a widower goes to meet his new bride, whom he has only known through correspondence. Upon arrival, however, a former acquaintance informs him that she used to be employed at a house of ill repute. Despite its lack of shoot-’em-up action, it’s one of the strongest selections in the book. There are several longer, novella-length pieces which give Leonard the opportunity to establish an ensemble cast of characters and explore the interactions between them. One such entry is “Trouble at Rindo’s Station,” in which a disgruntled Indian affairs agent, his crooked ex-boss, and a couple of stagecoach robbing outlaws find themselves trapped by a violent band of Mescaleros. As the collection progresses, Leonard’s writing goes from good to better to excellent. By the end of the book he has perfected the art of dialogue, and one begins to see the emergence of the wry, rapid-fire banter that characterizes his Chili Palmer or Raylan Givens books. The last two stories in the book, “The Tonto Woman” and “‘Hurrah for Captain Early!’” were included in Leonard’s 2001 short story collection Fire in the Hole, and are both excellent examples of his later, mature style.

With very few exceptions, these are all well-crafted, entertaining stories. Even if you’re not particularly a fan of the western genre, if you like Leonard’s writing, you will enjoy this book. When originally written, these stories were not intended to be read together, and redundancy is an unfortunate by-product of their juxtaposition. The solution: don’t read them all at once. To fully appreciate this hearty 30-course chuck wagon dinner, take a break between helpings and savor the flavor.

Stories in this collection
Trail of the Apache 
Apache Medicine 
You Never See Apaches . . . 
Red Hell Hits Canyon Diablo 
The Colonel’s Lady 
Law of the Hunted Ones 
Cavalry Boots 
Under the Friar’s Ledge 
The Rustlers 
Three-Ten to Yuma 
The Big Hunt 
Long Night 
The Boy Who Smiled 
The Hard Way 
The Last Shot 
Blood Money 

Trouble at Rindo’s Station 

Saint with a Six-Gun 
The Captives 
No Man’s Guns 
The Rancher’s Lady 
Moment of Vengeance 
Man with the Iron Arm 
The Longest Day of His Life 
The Nagual 
The Kid 
Only Good Ones 
The Tonto Woman 
“Hurrah for Captain Early!” 

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