I have a confession to make: I’ve always thought the crime novels of Elmore Leonard were total crap. They are filled with smarmy characters passing themselves off as “quirky” with cartoonish villains, garbage dialogue, and hack plots. They’re written with a self-assured prose that only a bestselling author can muster - a wealthy guy phoning it in with the knowledge that whatever garbage he squeezes out will be clogging airport bookstore shelves for generations.
No thanks for me.
Then there are Elmore Leonard’s Westerns.
Pure genius. Man, this guy is a true talent who knocks it out of the park every time. Leonard began writing Western stories for the pulps in the 1950s and continued quietly cranking out brilliant genre work well into the 1980s while making his living selling crappy crime novels to dimwits at the airport.
In 2004, HarperCollins released an essential collection called “The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard.” The beautifully-packaged 500+ page volume contains an interview with Leonard and then 30 of his Western short stories spanning the length of his writing career. It would be hard to overstate how great this collection is.
My favorite Leonard story collected in this volume is “The Tonto Woman.” It was also compiled in a smaller 1998 collection called “The Tonto Woman and Other Western Stories” as well as a 1982 Western Writers of America anthology. But don’t be a cheapskate. Shell out the couple extra bucks for the big collection. You won’t regret it.
“The Tonto Woman” tells the story of a roustabout, horse thief, and womanizer named Ruben Vega who spots a topless woman bathing at a water pump in the desert one day. He notices that the woman’s face is tattooed with strange lines marring her otherwise attractive features.
Ruben quickly learns that the woman is Mrs. Sarah Isham, and she was forcibly tattooed by Indians in the wild. Her wealthy husband sent her away to live in exile in the desert because he’s embarrassed of her looks. Ruben takes the time to befriend her, and a relationship of sorts develops.
It’s a sweet story with very human characters, some Old West violent tension, and a good bit of humor. Moreover, Leonard navigates this simple story with some great writing and a fantastic final line that will stay with you long after you finish reading.
Someone adapted “The Tonto Woman” into a 38-minute short film in 2008. Maybe I’ll seek it out, but nothing will replace the pure joy this short story provides. Essential reading. Highest recommendation.