Elmore Leonard made his reputation as a writer of crime stories peopled by shady characters doing repugnant, or at least morally ambivalent, deeds that readers somehow found entertaining and even endearing. In Get Shorty, for example, Miami loan shark Chili Palmer brings his Mafioso style to Hollywood, and most readers root for him in his quixotic quest to make a movie by questionable means. Flight attendant Jackie Burke looks to make ends meet running money for a sociopathic drug dealer, and gradually she decides, in Rum Punch, to con him and the cops with the help of a crusty bail bondsman. Inveterate bank robber Jack Foley—so dazzling a crook that George Clooney played him in the movie version of Leonard’s Out of Sight—can’t resist propositioning the attractive U.S. Marshal he knows is looking for him, and he enjoys a questionable “interlude” with her before she busts up his plan to rob a rich businessman.
Leonard wrote these characters with such gusto that you have to assume he relished inhabiting their ethically challenged worldviews. And yet before he became a chronicler of sociopaths, Leonard had an entirely different writing career as the author of dozens of Western stories and novels, in which good struggled against evil, villains were truly despicable and unlikeable, and heroes were often unselfish, righteous, and taciturn. Critics assumed that Leonard abandoned Westerns because he was more interested in the bad guys, but his Western novels were no mere prelude to his later success. In what amounted to the equivalent of an entire career for other writers, Leonard compiled a remarkable legacy over 18 years, with compelling novels like Hombre and short stories like “Three-Ten to Yuma” and “The Captive.” They form much more than just a footnote to his career.
The evolution of the 1961 short story, “Only the Good Ones,” into the Western novel Valdez Is Coming (later a starring vehicle for Burt Lancaster in the 1971 movie of the same name) exemplifies Leonard’s moral universe in those days. The story, which in slightly altered form became the novel’s opening chapter, is about a local ranch boss named Tanner who spots a black drifter he believes is a former cavalry soldier wanted for murder. Tanner and his men corner the alleged murderer and his female Indian companion in a shack and spend hours blasting away at the wood frame structure to draw him out. Eventually the local constable, Bob Valdez, shows up and attempts to mediate the dispute. When the man believes he’s been led into a trap, he draws on Valdez, who kills him. Tanner walks up to the dead body, shakes his head, and admits he had the wrong man. “It looked like him. It sure looked like him,” he says, after which one of his men tells Valdez, “Constable, you went and killed the wrong man.” The story ends with the narrator telling us that a humiliated Valdez drifted off and was never heard from again.
Leonard may have been haunted by his own story and decided to fix the ending—at least, that’s how the novel reads. Rather than disappearing after the incident, Valdez begins suing for justice for the Indian woman. He tries several times to get Tanner to give him money for her, and when he persists, Tanner and his men crucify Valdez, tying a giant cross-like structure to his back and forcing him to walk home across the desert. Then Valdez turns the tables. A former army Indian scout, he suits up again in his old war clothes, grabs his sharpshooter’s rifle, and kills off Tanner’s hired guns after drawing them out by kidnapping the woman Tanner wants to marry. Gradually, his fierce assault wins the respect of both the woman and Tanner’s men (at least those that remain alive). In the book’s final scene, Tanner is humiliated: his Mexican foreman refuses to order his remaining hands to attack Valdez, and Tanner’s woman refuses to return to him.
Readers are hard-pressed to find in Leonard’s crime novels protagonists who might be called true heroes of the oppressed. But that’s what they often get in his Western fiction. Perhaps the quintessential example is his 1956 story “The Kid,” originally titled “The Gift of Regalo.” A local rancher comes to town one day with a young boy dressed like an Indian. The rancher, Max, tells the town he’s captured the boy and intends to keep him to work on his ranch. The boy, though, says he’s Mexican and was forced to live with the Indians after they killed his parents. The rancher refuses to turn the child over to the army—the custom in such circumstances—and mistreats him until a local miner intervenes, beating Max. The boy escapes, only to return and show the miner the whereabouts of a rich gold vein, a reward for defending him.
Leonard’s Wild West was more Hobbesian than even the underworlds of Detroit or Miami, which the novelist vividly depicted in his later books. With the government often distant or absent, a few good frontier men and women were all that stood between order and the war of all against all. One of these men is Hombre’s hero, John Russell, though he hardly seems the type. A white man raised among Indians, he learned to stay out of gringo affairs. When a gunslinger and bully takes a stagecoach ticket off an ex-soldier and claims his seat, Russell declines to intervene. “It wasn’t my business,” he tells another passenger.
But Russell can’t escape his own conscience. When the stagecoach gets held up by the gunslinger’s henchmen, Russell kills two of the bandits and retrieves a money pouch they were trying to steal. With the bandits in pursuit, Russell and the other passengers hole up in an abandoned mining site. The desperadoes, nearby, tie a female passenger they’ve taken hostage out in the hot sun at the bottom of a hill, daring someone to rescue her. Another woman passenger volunteers, but Russell stops her, and goes down to free the woman himself. In a final confrontation, he kills the remaining bandits but dies in the effort. “You can look at something for a long time and not see it until it has moved or run off,” Leonard’s narrator says on the novel’s last page. “That was how we looked at Russell. Now nobody questioned why he walked down that slope. What we asked ourselves was why we thought he wouldn’t.”
Leonard wrote his Western stories largely during the 1950s and early 1960s, a period of moral clarity in American popular culture. Powerful moral agents—generally a heroic man, occasionally a woman—dispense justice in these tales. Leonard began moving toward crime stories in the late 1960s, an era of cultural transition, and he wrote most of those stories from 1970 through the mid-1990s, an era of ever-rising crime. The political scientist James Q. Wilson has argued that the cultural relativism that became common in popular culture, starting in the 1970s, influenced crime rates. “The moral relativism of the modern age,” Wilson wrote in The Moral Sense, contributed to the increase in crime throughout the U.S. and Western Europe “by supplying to those marginal persons at risk for crime a justification for doing what they might have done anyway.”
Leonard thus crafted a new kind of crime novel absent the avenging agents of the Westerns, stories instead peopled by rogue cops and violent but comically inept criminals. In these stories, justice—if you can call it that—is dispensed via the law of unintended consequences, as a villain’s actions spin out of control, engulfing him as well. This is one reason why Leonard’s lowlifes in novels like Out of Sight wind up killing themselves off rather than being dispatched by the likes of John Russell.
That the author of Hombre was also the writer of such novels as Out of Sight and Swag might surprise some readers; the books differ dramatically, not only in milieu, but also in character and theme. That was Elmore Leonard’s special talent: to succeed in two distinct styles and genres during two divergent eras in American culture. He not only reinvented the crime novel; he reinvented himself along the way.