Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Valdez is Coming by Elmore Leonard

A near-perfect Western
I am not a frequent reader of Western genre fiction, but in Elmore Leonard’s case I can make an exception. Leonard is best known as a writer of sharp-witted crime fiction, but he got his start writing in the Western genre. His first published works were short stories in Western pulp fiction magazines, and his first novels were Westerns. Valdez is Coming, the eighth of Leonard’s 45 novels, was published in 1970. The following year it was made into a good Western film starring Burt Lancaster in the title role. Whether you’ve seen the film or not, Valdez is Coming is an excellent Western novel and an exciting read.

As the novel opens, a crowd of armed men are gathered before a shack where they have cornered a suspected army deserter and murderer. Powerful rancher Frank Tanner is the driving force behind this makeshift posse, which consists mostly of his hired gunmen. Town constable Roberto “Bob” Valdez arrives on the scene and suggests trying to talk to the suspect before resorting to violence. That plan goes south, however, and the accused man is killed before it is discovered that he wasn’t the killer after all. Present at the scene is the dead man’s wife, an Apache woman visibly pregnant. Valdez wonders what will become of her and her child now that her husband is gone. He feels everyone present is responsible for the wrongful killing of the man, and they should all chip in and pull together $500 to compensate the widow for her loss. Valdez thinks Tanner, the leader of the group, the one who made the accusation in the first place, and the wealthiest landowner around, should set an example by making the biggest contribution. When Valdez presents this idea to Tanner, however, the response is not only negative but brutally violent and demeaning. Valdez, a Mexican American, has never been taken seriously as a lawman by the powerful Whites of the town. Little do they know, however, of his military past as a tracker and hunter of hostile Apaches, a past that has provided him with a particular set of skills that enables him to take revenge upon Tanner and his henchmen, making them pay for their arrogance and brutality.

While revenge stories are a dime a dozen in the Western genre, rarely do they begin with such an original premise nor feature such a unique hero as Valdez. I often find Western novels boring, but once I picked up Valdez is Coming I didn’t want to put it down. The main attraction here is Leonard’s smart and snappy prose. This book is only 160 pages long, but it’s hard to recall a book in which so much is said in so few words. Each word is carefully chosen and appropriately placed in a terse and taut phrasing. There’s no fat to chew in this lean and sinewy narrative. And every line of dialogue is spot-on, with a wry sense of humor bubbling underneath. Leonard’s characters deliver speech that sounds like real conversation, not literary book-talk. The action sequences are nail-bitingly suspenseful and vividly drawn without getting bogged down in the logistics of who rode where and who shot who. Whether he knew a film adaptation was forthcoming or not, Leonard clearly had a cinematic vision when he wrote the novel, as evident from the screenplay quality of its scene staging and plot trajectory.

I had previously read The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, most of the contents of which were originally published in 1950s magazines. That’s a good collection, but nothing in it is quite in the same league as Valdez is Coming. Now I’d like to read more of Leonard’s early Western novels, like Hombre and Last Stand at Saber River. Judging by Valdez is Coming, if anyone can win me over to this genre of literature, Leonard can.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

No comments:

Post a Comment