Not long ago, I shared my thoughts here on four Western novels from Elmore Leonard, and promised to do the same with the remaining four once I finished up with them. Well, here they are, then:
LAST STAND AT SABER RIVER
Paul Cable, having fought on the Confederate side during the war, has returned with his family to his homestead on the Saber River, only to find that his land has been taken by the Kidstons’, two wealthy brothers loyal to the Union. Cable thought he’d left the fighting behind him, but it seems he’s now in the for fight of his life, not just for his home, but for the lives of his family as well. He has a possible ally in Southern sympathizer and gun-runner Janroe, but Janroe, who would like to see the Kidston’s dead, may turn out to be Cable’s worst enemy in disguise.
This one is very strongly about the concept of honor and family; Cable is reluctant to kill, even though Janroe makes an argument that it’s STILL a war that’s being waged, only without uniforms. LAST STAND AT SABER RIVER has a somewhat relaxed pace for the first 3/4s, even though there are some startling moments of action and violence. It really gets moving, though, in the last fourth, when revelations come to light and loyalties shift.
There are three female characters– Cable’s wife Martha, Luz, the girl who works at the store Janroe has taken over, and Duane Kidston’s bored daughter Lorraine– but all of them are remarkably well-drawn and believable for a Western written in the 1950’s. Especially Martha. That was pretty refreshing. Yes, a rescue of Martha and the children takes place at the climax, but Martha has a hand in rescuing herself as significant as her husband.
Not my favorite Leonard Western, but very solid nonetheless.
THE BOUNTY HUNTERS
Seasoned scout Dave Flynn is partnered with the young, inexperienced Lt. Bowers on a covert mission across the border to hunt down Apache bandit Soldado. But once in Mexico, the pair find themselves in the middle of an unfolding crisis– corrupt rurales, under the command of Duro, have subjagated a small village where Flynn has old friends, and Duro is making money off so-called Apache scalps brought in by a blood-thirsty band of bounty hunters. But the scalps don’t necessarily belong to Apaches; in fact, some of the the villagers themselves have fallen prey to the nasty scalp hunters. Flynn and Bowers must set things right before they can carry out their own mission.
This is Elmore Leonard’s first novel, but it’s not the work of an amateur by any means. Leonard had already honed his chops writing short Western stories, and the careful structure of THE BOUNTY HUNTERS gives testament to that. It’s a fine piece of work, although not really replete with a lot of the things we would come to think of later as Leonard hallmarks. The dialogue doesn’t snap the way his later work does, but instead performs a function at all times. The influence of Hemingway is very obvious.
Like many of his other early Westerns, the last chapter is really thrilling and action-packed, with our heroes seemingly against the wall and in dire trouble, and the whole thing ends on a very satisfying note.
ESCAPE FROM FIVE SHADOWS
Framed and sentenced to hard labor at the prison at Five Shadows, Corey Bowen isn’t about to serve out his time quietly, even though every escape attempt ends in disaster. Until two different women take an interest in freeing him– one, a woman longing for escape herself, and willing to go to any lengths to achieve it; she offers Bowen a way out if he will kill her spineless alcoholic husband in the process. And two, a lovely young girl who believes in Corey’s innocence and may have the legal connections to get him out… if he’s patient. But Corey is NOT patient, and when an opportunity to bust out presents itself, he sees no other option but to take it.
The characters in this one are finely-drawn and compelling, although not quite as meticulous as his later work. Despite that, ESCAPE FROM FIVE SHADOWS is a thrilling, tightly-plotted western with lots of action and unexpected twists. The ending is maybe a bit too convenient, with everything lining up nicely for Bowen in the last couple of chapters, but you know, that’s just the kind of novel this is. Not on the same level as say, FORTY LASHES LESS ONE or GUNSIGHTS, but still a very enjoyable read.
HOMBRE was a huge leap forward for Elmore Leonard, in my opinion. His first four novels were all solid, well-written Westerns, but with very little that made them stand out from the hundreds of other Westerns at the time. I’m a fan of those early ones for their remarkable compactness and directness of style, but HOMBRE is the first one that feels really different, not just in its themes but in the way Leonard approaches the characters.
It’s unique also in that it’s the first (and only) one written in first person. Later, Leonard would vow never to write in first person again, but it works really well in this one. It’s narrated by a former stage coach company clerk, riding along on an emergency journey with a disparate group of people– his former boss Mendez, a fiery tempered young woman who has just been rescued from captivity by Apaches, a shady Indian Affairs agent named Favor and Favor’s wife, an even shadier gunman with dubious intentions named Braden, and the “Hombre” of the title: the taciturn John Russell.
Russell is a source of anxiety for the passengers, being a white man who was raised Apache but is now about to give a shot at living in the white man’s world. He is barely tolerated by the bigoted Mr. and Mrs. Favor, until the gunman Braden reveals his true intentions; he is part of a gang lying in wait to steal the money Favor had embezzled from his post as an Indian Affairs agent. With their lives on the line, Russell must lead the group to safety across the hostile landscape of Arizona, with the outlaws in close pursuit.
There’s some very good action in HOMBRE, but more than anything else this novel is a character study. Of all the central characters, but most especially of John Russell. He is an enigma to the others, a silent and stoic presence who refuses to submit to the opinions of the others or to placate them with false pretensions. They hate him, they fear him, but they NEED him. And by the end of HOMBRE, they finally learn what kind of man he actually is. And it’s something none of them could ever even aspire to.
Mark this as one of my favorites of Elmore Leonard’s Westerns. Looking at his bibliography, it seems he took a break from writing fiction for several years after this, some eight years, and when he did return to fiction he concentrated mostly on modern day crime thrillers. But between 1970 and ’79, he wrote three more Westerns, all far superior to his earlier work in the genre. That great streak started with HOMBRE.