Showing posts with label Elmore Leonard. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Elmore Leonard. Show all posts

Monday, February 28, 2022

The Big Bounce

Between 1953 and 1961, Elmore Leonard (1925-2013) authored his first five career novels and all were westerns. Leonard played his first hand of crime-fiction in 1966 with a relatively unknown novel called The Big Bounce. He shopped it to a variety of publishers and they all declined. In 1969, Fawcett Gold Medal published the book simply because it had been adapted to film the same year starring Ryan O'Neal and Leigh Taylor-Young. The movie was a flop, so Hollywood tried again in 2004 with a cast including Owen Wilson, Morgan Freeman, and Charlie Sheen. It was such a disaster that Leonard described it as the “second-worst movie ever made”, alluding to the fact that the first one was the worst. Despite the publication and theatrical horror associated with The Big Bounce, I decided to read it. I wish I had those hours back.

The book begins with three men watching a video tape of migrant worker Jack Ryan (no relation to Tom Clancy) executing a home-run swing with a baseball bat on his crew leader's face. Readers later learn that Ryan was a former Baseball Player and has now spiraled down the labor ladder to the position of Seasonal Picker of Cucumbers in a lakeside region of Michigan. Ryan and acquaintances (he never had friends) rob a lake-house and steal $750 from wallets and purses. Ryan fears that the other guys will get caught simply because the box they placed the wallets and purses could be found.

After being fired from his job for smashing the foreman with the bat, Ryan is hired as a Handyman by a resort owner named Mr. Majestyk (oddly, no relation to the character Leonard created five years later). Ryan spends time in his new position avoiding an average-looking female guest who desperately wants to get lai....wants to have her window fixed. Ryan hooks up with Nancy instead, a young seductress who is banging two men, one of which is the owner of the cucumber farm. Ryan and Nancy run around shooting glass objects while planning to steal the payroll money from the farm.

I have no Earthly idea why anyone in Hollywood wanted to make a film from this novel. Or, why anyone would want to attempt it again. The book is mindless with its lack of plot structure and features one of the most uninteresting protagonists I've read. I nearly gave up reading it twice, but just kept pushing onward out of respect for Elmore Leonard. There isn't anything remotely compelling about the story, the character development, pace, or dialogue. If you must read everything Leonard wrote, then I guess you owe it to yourself to experience the good and the bad. Beyond that, avoid this book!

Buy a copy of the book HERE

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Valdez is Coming

Thus far, I've enjoyed everything Elmore Leonard (1925-2013) has written. From westerns like Escape from Five Shadows (1956) and Last Stand at Saber River (1959) to crime-fiction like Mr. Majestyk (1974). Arguably, one of his best western novels is Valdez is Coming. It was originally published in 1971 and was adapted into a 1974 movie starring Burt Lancaster. 

The novel features Bob Valdez as a constable working in Arizona in the late 1800s. After riding shotgun for a stagecoach, Valdez returns to town to discover several armed cattlemen surrounding a small farm. The group is led by a hardheaded, wealthy rancher named Tanner and a gunman named Davis. Tanner claims that he recognized the farmer, an African-American, as a man who murdered a friend of his years ago. Valdez questions the validity of Tanner's accusation and is dismayed by the vigilante justice that was set to occur. 

After Valdez questions Tanner, he walks through the circling guns to visit the farmer directly, eye to eye, and learns that the man may be completely innocent of the crime and has paperwork that proves a solid alibi. But, Davis refuses to idly stand by and impatiently fires at the farmer. In the exchange, Valdez fatally shoots the farmer. Once the gun smoke clears, Tanner examines the corpse and admits that he made a mistake and this wasn't the same man.

Mournfully, Valdez wants Tanner to pay the farmer's pregnant widow $500 as compensation for wrongfully killing her husband. He mentions it to the men and they ride away. When Valdez rides into Tanner's camp to ask for the money, he is ridiculed, shot at and ordered to stay away. Refusing to accept no for an answer, Valdez attempts asking again, this time riding to Tanner's ranch to make the request. It’s here that Valdez is violently tied to a wooden cross and cruelly forced to walk miles through the desert. After being rescued, Valdez contemplates his next move; accept defeat and carry on or continue the pursuit despite the odds. 

Leonard's novel centers around a character arc as Valdez slowly changes into the buckskin version of his younger self. Throughout the book, Valdez thinks about his prior life - a history of violence – and ponders his complacency in the present as a constable. Tanner's action is like a toggle switch for Valdez's transformation. The violence, emotional turbulence, and romantic angle – surprisingly, it has one – balances the hero's cool demeanor. While never a coward, Valdez still possesses reserved tendencies that ultimately make him weaker in the book's first and second acts. 

Leonard's storytelling prowess is awe-inspiring as he makes this rather simple story explode into an emotional and violent battlefield. There is clearly a reader investment – no matter if you are a western fan or not – that leads to a satisfying conclusion despite some negativity that is associated with the book's finale. I like the way Leonard finished the novel and found that the story didn't require a traditional ending. The “cowboy riding off into the sunset” conclusion may have tarnished Leonard's narrative.  Instead, it's simply a conventional western until it isn't. And that is what makes Valdez is Coming a masterpiece of the genre. 

Get the book HERE

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Escape from Five Shadows

Elmore Leonard was a prolific author of crime-fiction and thrillers. A number of his works have been adapted to film, such as Get Shorty, Rum Punch and Out of Sight. However, he cut his teeth on classic western tales and novels. One of them, Escape from Five Shadows, was first released by Dell in 1956. It has since been reprinted by a variety of publishers many times.

The main character of the book, Corey Bowen, explains how he ended up in the dusty and dry workcamp of Five Shadows. After his father died, Bowen worked as a miner and a cattle herder. Between jobs, Bowen meets another cattleman named Manring in a bar. After learning from Bowen's experience, he hires Bowen to ride along with him on a small cattle drive. Bowen reviews Manring's bill of sale and determines that he legitimately bought the cattle. However, after only a couple of days on the trail, the law comes. Bowen and Manring are charged with stealing cattle and sentenced to years of hard labor at Five Shadows. 

This Arizona prison is run by a man named Renda. The government provides Renda .75 cents a day for each of the 30 prisoners and cash for supplies. Renda keeps a majority of the money and limits the prisoners to a small diet with very little accommodations. They sleep on blankets, eat wormy food, and suffer health conditions. Renda can't afford any of his prisoners to escape, thus his criminal empire will fold. 

Throughout the book's narrative, Bowen and Manring plan a prison break. This will not be easy due to the use of Apache Scouts and trackers around the camp's outer perimeter. However, in pocket narratives, Leonard creates some inner turmoil within the camp. The superintendent's wife is planning on exposing Renda, but she's being held against her will. She proposes that Bowen kill her husband and make a run for it. At the same time, a young woman named Karla has an attraction to Bowen. She wants to expose the corruption and Bowen's innocence through the courts. What method does Bowen use - escape from violence or patiently await a new trial in a judicial system that has already betrayed him once?

Leonard's western examines political corruption - greed, deceit, and the quest for power. Bowen's decision on how to escape the prison is an interesting one. There's a lot of moving parts and the novel requires the reader's concentration. The narrative isn't laced with action, but instead relies on strong characters and an intriguing story. I found both female characters to be determined to a fault - one craving violence and the other nearly angelic. The contrast was brilliant.

If you require an action-packed prison break story, Escape from Five Shadows is unlikely to satisfy you. If you want the complexity of crime and the slow unravel of authority, this novel will deliver the goods. It's a smart, well-written novel that offers a rather unique plot for the time period. Recommended.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Mr. Majestyk

Born in New Orleans, Elmore Leonard (1925-2013) began writing successful western fiction in the 1950s. In 1969, Leonard started writing hard-hitting crime novels such as The Big Bounce, The Moonshine War and Fifty-Two Pickup. This is also when Leonard started writing screenplays. After working with Clint Eastwood on Joe Kidd (1972), Leonard started writing the screenplay for Mr. Majestyk. Leonard's original idea was to have Eastwood play the lead. Due to earlier commitments, Eastwood was replaced by Charles Bronson (Steve McQueen was considered) and the film was published by United Artists in July 1974. Leonard penned the film's novelization and it was published in paperback format by Dell.

The book presents Colorado melon producer Vince Majestyk to readers. He won a Silver Star for his heroic service in Vietnam as a U.S. Army Ranger and is now in his second year of farming. After losing money in his first farming year, Majestyk is now in a high pressure situation to successfully harvest his crops to keep the farm afloat. To ensure his success, Majestyk employs experienced Mexican migrants to work on the farm. His work force admires and abides by his commitment.

After a short trip to town, Majestyk returns to the farm to find a low-level hood named Kopas instructing his work force. Kopas says he has hired cheaper work that will save Majestyk money and boost his profits. Majestyk, never accepting anything of this, is shocked by the audacity of the criminal. Eventually, both come to blows and Majestyk takes Kopas's shotgun and drives him away. Later, the police arrive and arrest Majestyk for assault.

Majestyk finds his greatest trouble behind bars. A mafia assassin named Renda is housed with Majestyk and both are transferred to another jail. During the bus journey, Renda's mob operatives try to free him from custody. Instead, Majestyk hijacks the bus and takes Renda to the mountains. It's here that he cuts a deal with the police: his freedom for Renda. In a surprise twist, Majestyk and Renda are both freed. Renda promises Majestyk to kill him for selling him off to the cops.

There's a lot of noble aspects of the Majestyk character. His commitment to Mexican migrants, including fair wages and a secure workplace, his military service and his general good nature regarding the treatment of others is admirable. All of thee characteristics are what attracts a Mexican union representative named Nancy. She falls in love with Majestyk and becomes a major character in the last chapters. I also really liked his relationship with foreman and friend Larry and the respect he slowly receives from law enforcement as the narration expands. Majestyk is an average Joe that readers can easily cheer on.

In terms of violence, both Renda and the mob proves to be worthy adversaries. Majestyk's financial hardships, the stress of farming, and the threats to his livelihood and life are ongoing problems in Leonard's story. The intimidation and interaction between Renda and the low-end thugs is intense and adds another layer to what is already an engaging story. 

My only complaint against Leonard's work is the extent to which the police are responding to the escalation of tension and violence. They are simply targets when the mafia easily disrupts the bus journey and they appear incompetent in the arrest of this high-profile mafia assassin in Renda. The roadblocks they structure, the tracking techniques and the weak protection they provide Majestyk are just not plausible.

Overall, Mr. Majestyk is a fine crime-fiction novel (and film) with an engrossing narrative ripe with interesting characters. Leonard's story is convincing and sometimes even draws on the heartstrings. Majestyk's heartbreaking ordeal is essentially the Everyman facing overwhelming adversity. It's this simple and compelling plot that makes Mr. Majestyk so enjoyable. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE 

Friday, July 10, 2020

Last Stand at Saber River

Before he became a popular author of quirky crime fiction bestsellers, Elmore Leonard (1925-2013) was a working author of gritty, well-crafted westerns. He started with short works in the western pulp magazines and transitioned seamlessly to paperbacks in the 1950s. Last Stand at Saber River was released by Dell in 1959, and the subsequent British edition was re-titled Stand on the Saber. Somewhere along the way, the novel was also released in hardcover as Lawless River. Over 60 years later, the book is still in print as a paperback, ebook and audiobook.

Our hero is Paul Cable who fought for the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War for over two years and is returning home to his ranch on Arizona’s Saber River to be with his family. The war had been rough on Cable as he took bullets in his hip and thigh and was sent home to Arizona before the outcome of the war was determined.

Upon arrival back in Arizona, Cable finds that things have changed in his absence. Specifically, there are men living in his house that he and his wife built themselves. While Cable was at war, a man named Vern Kidston came to town with a sizable crew of men and set up a business supplying horses to the Union Army. He took over the Cable house and has been housing his men there while Vern’s horse herd grazes on Cable’s land. As you can imagine, Cable isn’t thrilled with this arrangement. Likewise, Vern and his men are not interested in negotiating with or taking any guff from a former rebel soldier.

At times, the book felt like a home invasion horror novel with a lot of cat-and-mouse suspense. Other times, it was a straight-up combat adventure tale with lots of gun-pointing stand-off scenes. As the title of the paperback indicates, all the disrespect and mini-skirmishes along the way lead to a series of showdowns where Cable defends his property rights against Vern’s men.

Elmore Leonard was a master at plotting and dialogue, and this knack is on full-display in Last Stand at Saber River. The characters are vividly drawn and they always seem to say the right thing at the right time in the right way. The author wisely steers clear of the relative merits of the Confederacy vs. the Union and uses the divide to explain the mutual distrust and hostility between the novel’s combatants.

The short paperback’s resolution was intelligent and unexpected - if a bit abrupt, and it was a testament to Leonard’s superior storytelling abilities. If you like westerns filled with moral dilemmas and smart character development, Last Stand at Saber River is definitely for you. Recommended.

Movie Night:

In 1997, Last Stand at Saber River was adapted into a TV movie starring Tom Selleck on the TNT cable network. It remains a available as a $2.99 rental on all the major streaming services. You won't be surprised to learn that the universal consensus is that book is better than the movie. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Tonto Woman

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.