Friday 2 August 2013

Valdez is Coming by Elmore Leonard (Gold Medal, 1970, Frank McCarthy Cover Art): Book Review

NB: A Friday Forgotten Book.

Let's begin the paperback segment of this seemingly endless series of posts on Elmore Leonard with a western:

Valdez is Coming, published as a paperback original in the States in October 1970 by Fawcett/Gold Medal, cover art by Frank McCarthy. The copy seen here, which I acquired from Alan White Fine Books, is the true American first edition, as evidenced by the 60 cent cover price and the presence on the back of a pair of stills from the 1971 Burt Lancaster-starring movie adaptation:

Which are missing on later printings. So now you know. (In fact the earliest edition of the novel is the British Robert Hale hardback, published in 1969 under a terrible photographic dust jacket, but seeing as the scant few copies of it available online are hideously expensive – at least a grand for a decent one – it's unlikely I'll ever get my hands on one.)  

Valdez is Coming is one of two Leonard novels Gold Medal published when the author resumed his (fiction) writing career in the late 1960s (the other being 1969's The Big Bounce), but it actually started life almost a decade before: the first chapter of the novel was originally a short story, "Only Good Ones", which appeared in Western Roundup at the tail end of the first phase of Leonard's career (when he was writing nothing but westerns) in 1961. (A tip of the hat to Vintage Hardboiled Reads for that info.) Stylistically, though, it's recognisably the work of the Leonard who penned the likes of The Big Bounce and Mr. Majestyk and The Hunted in the late 1960s and throughout the '70s, rather than the Leonard who penned the early westerns: lean, no waste, and with a distinct lack of modifying adverbs.

Certainly Leonard himself thinks so. In a 2009 Goodreads interview he agreed that his style had changed and that "it started with one of the last westerns – I was trying to get a little more humor in it, but also to be more spare in the writing", adding: "[Previously] I was using pronouns and making a lot of noise with the writing." That same year he told The Barnes and Noble Review's James Mustich: " was when I was writing Valdez is Coming, I began to see something a little different, that I could get into the character not simply as a hero, but as an individual. That helped me. From then on, I looked more at my characters as human beings, not just this guy wearing a badge, and so on." He also told mystery novelist Jean Henry Mead in a separate interview that he felt Valdez is Coming was his best western novel – a view endorsed by George Pelecanos (among others), who wrote that it was his "favorite Leonard novel, a perfect piece of lean, evocative writing, one hundred and thirty six pages (my Bantam paperback edition) [note: 156 pages in the Gold Medal edition, excluding prelims] of prose containing not one wasted word".

Of the Leonard novels I've read, I wouldn't say Valdez is Coming was my favourite, but it is bloody good. The opening chapter is – as you'd expect, given its origins – essentially a complete story in itself, centring on a standoff at a shack in the scrub country outside the town of Lanoria – a standoff which ends when Bob Valdez, the Mexican constable of Lanoria, is forced to kill the black man mistakenly identified by horse trader and gunrunner Frank Tanner as a murderer and army deserter. Thereafter, figuring Tanner and the other Lanoria grandees owe the man's pregnant Native American widow restitution, Valdez goes to see Tanner and asks him for money; Tanner's response is to have his men, including his segundo (second-in-command), beat Valdez and send him on his way. And when the stubborn Valdez comes back again, he's dealt with even more harshly (the Gold Medal cover art will give you an idea how harshly).

That Valdez's subsequent actions encompass the kidnapping of Tanner's woman, Gay Erin, and the killing of so many men it's hard to keep track (although Valdez does) – and that they in turn mean hardship for his horsebreaker friend, Diego Luz and his family – might lead those unfamiliar with the novel to believe that it is in essence a straightforward tale of revenge. But there's much more to the novel than that. Valdez's motivations – indeed the motivations of all of the major characters, however lightly sketched – are complex and not easily definable, touching on themes of, variously, justice, faith, mortality, hope, determination, friendship, companionship – even, at one stage, alcoholism (a subject Leonard, who around this time was drinking heavily, would return to in 1977's Unknown Man No. 89) and domestic violence. As Leonard puts it at the start of chapter two: "A man can be in two different places and he will be two different men. Maybe if you think of more places he will be more men, but two is enough for now."

And all this in 156 pages – or 136 if you're George Pelecanos – "of lean, evocative writing". In fact, compare Valdez is Coming to some of the westerns Leonard penned in the 1950s and you'd almost think they were the work of two different writers – as we'll discover, in the next Elmore Leonard post.

Monday 29 July 2013

Cuba Libre by Elmore Leonard (Viking, 1998): Book Review

The generally accepted narrative of Elmore Leonard's writing career is that from 1951 (when he sold his first short story) to 1961 he wrote nothing but westerns, and when he returned to writing fiction in 1969 after an enforced break (the western market having dried up) he abandoned westerns in favour of crime fiction. But that broad outline is only part of the story. In truth, Leonard never completely turned his back on the western form: he continued to pen out-and-out westerns into the late 1970s (Valdez is Coming, 1970; Forty Lashes Less One, 1972; Gunsights, 1979), and it could be argued that even some of his contemporaneously set novels are westerns in all but name (Mr. Majestyk; The Hunted maybe; the Raylan Givens stories). And then there are those novels that fall somewhere in between – historical works like The Moonshine War (1969), The Hot Kid (2005) and this book:

Cuba Libre, published in 1998 and seen here in its British Viking edition, which sports the same Chip Kidd-designed dust jacket as the American Delacorte edition. Set in Cuba in 1898 on the eve of the Spanish-American War and the accompanying Cuban struggle for independence, it follows former bank robber Ben Tyler and his friend Charlie Burke as they transport a string of horses to the island – said horses being but a cover for a shipment of guns intended for the Cuban revolutionaries. Predictably, the pair soon run into trouble, both at the hands of the Guardia Civil and in particular one officer, Lionel Tavalera, and with an American planter, Roland Boudreaux. Meanwhile, in Havana harbour, seagoing marine Virgil Webster embarks on his own parallel adventure, as the ship he's aboard, the USS Maine, is sunk following an explosion – an event which will propel America into conflict with Spain.

Leonard weaves fact into fiction throughout Cuba Libre, blurring the lines between the two to suit his purposes. For example, although the Maine did indeed sink off the coast of Havana in 1898 with the loss of 266 lives, it seems at least as likely that it was caused by the spontaneous combustion of the ship's coal bunker than by, as Leonard suggests, a Spanish mine. But the author uses the disaster to shape Virgil Webster's story: suspecting he knows the truth, the Spanish authorities throw him in jail, in the process flinging him into the path of Ben Tyler. For Leonard, characters are always paramount; rather than slavishly recount the major engagements of the war and the revolution, in his hands the upheaval becomes a backdrop to the self-serving agendas and shifting allegiances of Tyler, Webster, Tavalera and Boudreaux, as well as Boudreaux's mistress, Amelia Brown, and Cuban wrangler Victor Fuentes – not all of whom, buffeted as they are by the events unfolding around them, will make it out alive.

Mind you, I've yet to read an Elmore Leonard book where there isn't at least one death, and usually more than one – and so it is here (there's a particularly shocking and unexpected killing a third of the way in). And with a fair smattering of duels and gunfights, prison escapes and horseback pursuits, ambushes, double-crosses and the tantalising prospect of stolen loot, despite the historical trappings the novel stands revealed as what it truly is: a western, plain and simple.

A couple of asides before we move on to the next Elmore Leonard novel. Courtesy of a September 1996 New Yorker article by Alec Wilkinson (kindly sent to me by Book Glutton; I'm not a New Yorker subscriber), I learned that much of Leonard's research for Cuba Libre came from one book: Our Islands and Their People, Volume I (1899), a copy of which was found by Leonard's researcher, Gregg Sutter (who these days also runs the official Elmore Leonard website), in a used bookstore on the way to see the author to discuss the novel. (When he saw the book, Leonard – who at that point was only nine pages into Cuba Libre and was having trouble with the dialogue of the period – reportedly exclaimed, "Oh, my God! Oh! Look at this!" then added: "This book, I can't believe it. A picture book of the period. This is all I need... I can get everything I need out of this." To which a despondent Sutter replied, "Don't say that. That's the last thing I want to hear.") And in yet another example of the interrelated nature of Leonard's characters across his canon, Virgil Webster is later revealed as having had a son – lawman Carl Webster, star of The Hot Kid, Comfort to the Enemy (2006) and Up in Honey's Room (2007), the latter of which also boasts an appearance by Virgil.

Anyway, seeing as we're on the subject of Leonard's westerns, let's have a look at one of his best next: 1970's Valdez is Coming, which kicks off a run of posts on Elmore Leonard paperbacks...