GOING DUTCH PART 1- ELMORE LEONARD'S FIRST SHORT STORIES
This will be the first is a series looking at the career of one of the finest genre authors, Elmore Leonard, through his novels, some of his short work, and the films inspired by him.
Elmore Leonard's western fiction, both short and novel length proves to be modern, even today. His post Civil War Arizona allowed him to engage with the genre for something different and rugged. He first focused on the Apache wars with tales of soldiers, scouts, and renegades, but not simple cowboy and indian stories.
While a fan of his crime novels, author Joe Lansdale is in the partY that prefers the westerns. "They are mainly more in my wheelhouse. They weren't necessarily better, but less mannered."
The first story, "Trail Of The Apache", published in Dime Western in 1952, sets a template for these works out of the gate, as well as for his first book The Bounty Hunters. The plot is simple- two officers, Cpt, Travism, a twenty seven year old, overlooking one of the agencies, and Lt. DeBoot, an even younger officer new to the territory, receive orders to bring in the renegade Pillo. It develops into a brutal chess game where the board is a natural landscape that can kill a man, especially an inexperienced white one.
From the beginning, Elmore Leonard demonstrates his ability to portray a lived in world. Even though it is is not often alluded to, one feels the dust. While he abides by his rule of not starting with the weather, he uses the Arizona heat to interact with the characters as they endure it and seek comfort from it. Strategy often has more to do with waiting someone out in this arid land than fire power.
Joe Lansdale also noticed something unique when he read it was the way he switched points of view. "I didn't know you could do that at the time."
He used an army scout, Kleecan, in his second story, also to Dime Western in 1952, "Apache Medicine". While making the rounds to reservations for head counts, he crosses the path of Juan Perry, a violent Apache. He kills the indian in self defense, but Perry was the son of a noted chief and this could cause an uprising. The story touches on Leonard's use of negotiation instead of a violent standoff for drama, yet the fight scene between Kleecan and Perry demonstrates the action scene muscle that many young writers are able to flex.
Even though the Apache characters serve as as antagonists, Leonard often portrays them with the shading and characterization as the white protagonists, not just as noble (or ignoble) savages. He shows an understanding of the differing tribes such as Chiricahua, Mimbre, and White Mountain. In "Red Hell Comes To Diablo", his war chier Lacayuelo proves to be as funny as he is frightening.
"He portrayed Apaches on the same level of the whites," Lansdale explains. "They shared the same problems and strengths."
In "The Colonel's Lady" he begins with the point of a view of the Apache Mata Lobo, as he downs a stagecoach. It has echoes of the way he will portray criminals in his later fiction. The only survivor from the stage is the wife of a cavalry officer, kicking off a ticking clock story of her staying out of Lobo's hands long enough to for his husbands and his men to reach her in time. Leonard has fun with the peril of the.white damsel and turns it on its head.
"He understood the genre so well, he could manipulate your expectation." Lansdale notes. "He could deliver the strong set up, then write from another direction."
Even outside his portrayal of the Apache, the reader can sense his belief in research and how to use it in these works, setting his fiction in a true historical Arizona. Without giving a history lesson, he often sets the specific period through dialogue with a character, usually a scout, mentioning the leaders on both sides of the conflict. We often get an idea of their experience of the number of generals they've worked after or renegade leaders they's chased. Leonard also shows knowledge in the geography, flora, and fauna. It is hard to believe, he never set foot in the state until years after he wrote these stories, mainly using history books whose facts he distilled into a green ledger and a subscription to Arizona Highways. He ties the research to his characters, so it rings true,
One also see the Hemingway influence in his work. He once said he looked to the author because his guys were up in the mountains with rifles like his. Hemingway's Spanish civil war shares commonalities with Leonard's Apache one. It holds several different factions where enemy and allies can flip and the idealism has been worn down by survival and a professional duty. The men are defined by their experience, and knowledge, and, above all, actions. When a scout is told in one of the stories about an officer being from West Point, he thinks "They all are."
"He was use that element of the western of the one man or woman up against unusual odds, " Joe Lansdale explained. "He used the idea Hemingway and the western had of code. He invested in the motivations of his characters in a way that not many of the pulp western writers at the time were."
JOe Lansdale also sees Hemingway's "iceberg prinicple" in the works that Leonard would develop further. "His writing is so clean that he can express what's going on under the surface without explaining it. HIs dialogue told you more than you could see. He can take a small thing and turn it into something magnificent."
"Voice is the trickiest thing for an author," he continued. "Leonard had that is spades."
While not necessarily predicting the author we know, these short stories portray Elmore Leonard's skill at taking the genre and bringing something authentic and fresh to it. he gives us a believable world of people caught in a rag-tag war they have little control of, on a battle ground as deadly as the enemy. The man goal is to do your job and survive, instead of conquer. It is an old west Elmore Leonard will explore and expand on for almost three decades.