Elmore Leonard began his career writing westerns. It was near the end of the film version of ‘Out of Sight’ that I realised he has been writing them ever since. Western plots, that is, he just varies the location and the age in which it is set.
‘Valdez is Coming’ is both a worthy book and a great read, bristling with the rightly acclaimed Leonard dialogue. His social conscience encourages him to take on risky subjects and here he tackles racist attitudes. Valdez is an ex army scout adept at tracking Apaches and former leader of the Apache scouts for General Crook in the Geronimo campaign.
As town constable by night and riding shotgun on the stage by day, Roberto ‘Bob’ Valdez provides the community with its law enforcement. When a suspect is shot nobody but Valdez is concerned as to whether or not he is the right ‘nigger’. The local chief landowner unconcernedly admits to having identified the wrong man, but only Valdez is troubled. He sets out to secure compensation for the widow, a Lipan Apache, to the incredulity of all around him. (This probably includes me, but part of Leonard’s magic is that you have to go with him).
Unlike some of his westerns ‘Valdez is Coming’ is among Elmore Leonard’s best writing. It’s a marvellous book which succeeds on a number of levels. Based on a short story ‘Only Good Ones’ which is also excellent,he extends the characters and the plot to make it a tour de force.
Perhaps it is so good because by this time he had started to achieve some success and this gave him the confidence to break free from the ‘western’ blueprint. “I found that I could loosen up, concentrate on bringing the characters to life with recognizable traits, and ignore some of the conventions found in most western stories.” (Elmore Leonard, in ‘A Conversation with Elmore Leonard’, Greg Sutter, 2004). He breaks from the classic western format and gives us a most thought provoking denouement.
So there I was in the duplex watching George Clooney climbing the wide staircase and it suddenly clicked – this is the shoot out, straight from the climax of your typical western. I was fascinated and a little confused. How can you have a western not set in the American West? And there it is again in his latest masterpiece set in the 1930s: The Hot Kid.