GOING DUTCH PART 2 - THE BOUNTY HUNTERS
Elmore Leonard's first novel, The Bounty Hunters, contains evidence of both a first time genre author and germs of who that writer would become. It appears to be a culmination of his first five published short stories set during the Apache Wars, often dealing with cavalry officers and seasoned scouts going after renegades. As someone pursuing the profession of a commercial writer, Leonard gives the reader a familiar set up, action, and a fast pace. That said, he is already playing with those genre's tropes through characters and expectations.
"It's clear even in this early novel that he was a generation removed from Louis L'amour and earlier pulp western writers," notes Sam Wiebe, a Vancouver writer who's private detective Dave Wakeland carries many of the grounded qualities of the Leonard hero.
"You get to see the Elmore Leonard who was to become," Mark Atley, a police detective and author of The Tulsa Underworld Trilogy explains. "He doesn't take the conventional route. He gives us three antagonists."
The book kicks off setting up the two adversaries at the center of the story, packed with practically everything Elmore Leonard is known for. Dave Flynn, a civil war vet, working as a contract scout and guide in Arizona Territory, is getting a haircut where he meets up with his friend and mentor Joe Medora. Frank Rellis, a bounty hunter, steps in wanting his hair cut now, telling Flynn to get out of the chair. When Flynn refuses, the two get into a standoff. Leonard uses dialogue to set up all the characters, including the barber John Willet, as well as build the tension before Rellis gets gets a Winchester barrel cracked against his skull. Even the setting of the barbershop with the protagonist in the chair will be used again in Get Shorty, Maximum Bob, and, as Mark reminded me. Labrava.
Flynn and Medora then ride into the town of Contention. They get orders from Deneen, a colonel Flynn has a bad history with during the war. The C.O. assigns him to Bowers a lieutenant fresh from West Point to bring in the renegade Mimbre Apache Saldado. Flynn suspects this could be a suicide mission, since he is the only one who knows of about an act of Dennen's cowardice. If that isn't enough he and Medora are ambushed and his pard is murdered. Flynn believes it to be Rellis.
Flynn and Bowers search for Soldado first takes them to the grizzly aftermath of a Mexican wagon train massacre. Flynn realizes on inspection that it wasn't done by Apache. Instead it was made to look that way by bounty hunters to cover up their taking of latin scalps they can pass off as indian. He also recognizes the victims as a family he knows. The daughter he was sweet on is not there and he believes she was taken to be sold in Mexico.
Flynn and Bowers travel south of the border in both the pursuit of Saldado and the bounty hunters and find more antagonists. The Federales who are supposed to protect villagers from the Apache have basically become another form of bandits The leader, Lt. Duro. is in cahoots with Rellis. It becomes a musical chairs os switching alliances.
As with those earlier short stories, Leonard gives The Bounty Hunters a feel of authenticity. We experience the dust and heat as well as the small comfort of a town barbershop. With its larger scope, even in a novel this tight and fast, the details contribute to an epic feel with the pockets of different societies Flynn and Bowers encounter on their journey.
The character interactions are also believable, especially between Flynn and Bowers.He sets up the pairing of an experienced veteran scout and green officer for the tension we would predict, but finds subtler ways to do that. Flynn, a former army man, knows to respect rank and Bowers, smart enough to know the situation he is in, respects experience. The two form a bond knowing that they are the only ones they can trust. The only thing that could challenge it is Flynn's need to rescue his love may compromise the mission to capture Saldado.
"Flynn doesn't feel as developed as the heroes in his later books, but has a decency and aversion to violence that are admirable," Wiebe says. "He's a little apart from Bowers and the others, a little more respectful of their adversaries."
Wiebe also points out Flynn being the sketch of the a protagonist Leonard will return to often. "Flynn is somewhat caught between the authorities and outlaws, understanding both, is something he does in later books--even later westerns like Hombre."
Leonard begins hs craft of developing plot through shifting alliances. Flynn has little faith in command and Bowers soon develops the same outlook. They soon learn the federales have a better chance of being adversaries than allies. Rellis even has is friction with Duro and his men.The one man Flynn And Bowers learn to trust turns out to be the renegade Saldado. Leonard sights Hemingway as an early influence and we get a western that shares that author's, as well as Dashiell Hammett's, of a broken society with friendship, loyalty, and ability becoming high commodities.
Atley notices another allusion to Hemingway in. a saber charge Bowers leads near the end. "It's that one grand perfect herois act that will be for only a moment."
Both authors also saw connections to filmmaker John Ford. Atley saw cites Flynn covering up the nature for Cololenel Benteen's demise carried echoes of Fort Apache and the film after the book was published The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Wiebe noticed a connections to Ford in detail and plot.. "Bounty Hunters came out three years after She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, the last of John Ford's Calvary trilogy. There are some similarities, and the Calvary rescue at the end reminds me of Ford's Stagecoach."
However, the Native American characters are portrayed with more depth and shading than most of the Hollywood representations of the time. This was already evident in the short fiction, with an understanding of the different Apache tribes and the way he often made them more than plain enemies.
"You can tell Leonard respected and researched the Mimbreños, and that he doesn't want them to be faceless antagonists,: says Wiebe. "He writes them with nuance and puts a lot of the blame for the conflict on the settler side.
"Flynn hits the nail on the head," Atley says, about how the scout breaks down the Apache Wars. "People are trying to keep the war going and it's your culture is not my culture, and the war is basically waged on the normal people on both sides."
The book does demonstrate some flaws of a first time novelist. Leonard hasn't developed his bad guys in the way he would be known for. Most are simply a few steps above mustache twirling. Rellis has little motivation for his feud with Flynn. Author Joe Lansdale mentions the book's "kitchen sink' approach. "He throws as much as much as he can think of at the reader to keep it moving."
That said, he does keep it moving and while the villains aren't completely fleshed out, we know enough to wish for their demise. The Bounty Hunters doesn't show the promise of what Elmore Leonard will become as much as it simply shows the promise of a talented writer in development. He demonstrates a burgeoning grasp of momentum and character as well as enough understanding of the genre tropes to play off them. It's somewhat of a surprise that it is one of his books that has not been adapted into a movie, seeing how Leonard already carries a cinematic prose style. The Bounty Hunters proves to be a more than competent early step in a brilliant writing career.