Monday 12 August 2013

Stand on the Saber (Last Stand at Saber River / Lawless River) by Elmore Leonard (Corgi, 1960)

This penultimate Elmore Leonard paperback – nearly done now – dates from the first phase of Leonard's career, i.e. 1951–1961, when he was writing nothing but westerns:

Last Stand at Saber River, the fourth of five western novels Leonard published over that period, issued as a paperback original in the States by Dell in 1959. Except, as you can see, this isn't that edition: it's the first British paperback edition, retitled as Stand on the Saber and published by Corgi in 1960 (Corgi #SW847). In fact the novel's title was changed twice for British publication: Robert Hale published it in hardback under the title Lawless River in 1959 (you can see a facsimile of the Hale dust jacket, along with jackets for others of Leonard's early westerns, at Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC), and Corgi changed it again the year after.

Copies of the Corgi edition are almost as scarce as the Hale edition – there are presently two Corgi paperbacks versus one Hale hardback on AbeBooks – but prices couldn't be more different between the two: less than a fiver for the Corgi; over two grand for the Hale. So you can see why I went for the Corgi edition – that and the rather nice cover artwork, which I've unfortunately been unable to identify, despite asking a couple of paperback experts. (A partial signature – "HARRY" in capital letters – is visible bottom right of the artwork, which prompted one of the experts to suggest it might be by American artist Harry J. Schaare, but Schaare tended to sign his work with his surname, lowercase, so I remain unconvinced.)

But the main reason I bought the book is I was curious to see how it compares to Leonard's later western, the terrific Valdez is Coming (1970), and indeed to his work in general in that second phase of his career from 1969 onwards, when he returned to writing fiction after an enforced break (the western market having pretty much dried up by the end of the '50s). Answer being, not especially favourably.

Oh it's not a bad novel, by any stretch of the imagination. The story of Paul Cable, a Confederate soldier who, having been injured towards the end of the Civil War, returns with his family to his homestead in the Saber River valley to find it overrun by a Union gang, it's a decent enough western, moves at a reasonable clip and has its fair share of tense standoffs and shootouts. But it's certainly not the equal of Valdez is Coming, nor of the non-western novels Leonard penned when he resumed his writing career (The Big Bounce, Mr. Majestyk, Fifty-Two Pickup, etc.). Though there are hints of the Leonard to come – notably the way he makes the ostensible villains of the piece at least as compelling, if not more so, than Cable – it lacks the economy, the subtlety, the depth of later Leonard – that wry, supple prose and ear for the vernacular in dialogue.

Leonard himself admitted as much in a 2009 Goodreads interview. "When I read those [early westerns]," he told the interviewer, "I would definitely say my style has changed. I think it started with one of the last westerns – I was trying to get a little more humour in it, but also to be more spare in the writing. [Prior to that] I was using pronouns and making a lot of noise with the writing." He was also, at least on the evidence of Last Stand at Saber River, using adverbs – something that would become strictly verboten post-1969, as outlined in Leonard's celebrated 10 Rules of Writing – number 4, to be precise, "Never use an adverb to modify the verb 'said'... he admonished gravely." Which of course follows Rule number 3: "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue." Although if Last Stand at Saber River is any indication, Leonard learned his own lesson early there.

Right then. Just one final Elmore Leonard paperback to come: the last of his novels to be published as a paperback original in the States...


  1. I don't read westerns, but if I did, I guess I'd read Elmore Leonard. I like what he does with crime. Is there one title in particular you recommend for the reluctant western reader?

  2. I'd go for Valdez is Coming, Kelly – my review is linked from this one. Cuba Libre's a good one too – a mix between a western and a historical adventure.

  3. Thanks! I'll add them to my wish list.