by Elmore Leonard

Reviewer Rating:
5
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Review

If you know anything about Elmore Leonard's style, you've probably been told one of two things: His prose is "spare," and the way he writes dialogue is beyond compare (him and Mark Twain. They can listen to people, and write the way people talk--a deceptively difficult skill to master). Leonard's dislike of adverbs, of any speech attribution other than "said," of prologues--of any superfluous words--has been well and truly immortalized in his 10 Rules of Writing that he wrote for the New York Times in 2001. (You know you are indelibly associated with something when The Onion uses it as the basis for your obituary.)

What the ten rules boil down to is this: every single word that Elmore Leonard uses moves the story forward. He wastes nothing. He gives nothing away, either: he may tell you what a character is thinking, but he will never tell you what a character is planning. He may tell you what a character's doing, in which case he doesn't feel the need to tell you what the character's thinking. He doesn't waste time setting scenes or describing landscapes, unless you need to know what the landscape looks like, in which case he tells you in the fewest possible words. He reminds me of Dashiell Hammett and other mid-century male crime/noir authors--stories where Men Are Men, Actions Are Self-Explanatory, and If You Can't Follow Along You're Not Paying Enough Attention. Even if you don't like Westerns or crime novels, if you like to observe different authors' styles, you could do much worse than checking out Elmore Leonard.

So. Valdez is Coming. In a small Arizona town, the town constable (Valdez) has killed an innocent man. When he tries to get the town to make amends, he's beaten and mocked.

And then the town finds out what Valdez--who has lived in their midst for ten years, but who nobody really knows--is capable of.

It's a deceptively simple tale with a very easy premise. Leonard probably could have told it as a short story, rather than a novel, if he'd had a mind to. But when you read it, with Leonard's trademark taciturnity, with no words wasted, you know that the story is exactly as long as it needs to be. Ironically, it is because the prose is so spare that the story gets away with being as long as it is (in the hands of a lesser author, like me for example, it would've bogged down and gotten completely boring and lagging in the middle, and I would've been justifiably critized for putting in too much narrative padding). And it is Leonard's disinclination to over-explain that keeps the climax of the book a surprise for the reader, even though you suspect all along what the ending will be or must be (this is a Western, after all, there's only a few ways it could end).

So yes. You should read this book. It's not just a good story, but it's a story told by a master, a guy who managed to simultaneously impress book critics and literature professors and ordinary readers. I will be finding more Elmore Leonard to fill my life.

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