On a night in April 1957, the lean Western movie star Randolph Scott attended the Detroit premiere of his new film, The Tall T, based on a story by the bespectacled, crew-cutted young advertising man who stood beside him for a picture. Scott told the reporter from the Detroit Free Press that Elmore Leonard’s future looked promising if he could keep turning out stories “with a straight line and a small cast.” It was wisdom Leonard had already grasped, writing at his living room table each day from 5:00 am until he left for work at Detroit’s Campbell-Ewald agency, where he continued scribbling on a yellow pad hidden in his office drawer. While the top of his desk was given over to paperwork for the Chevrolet account, inside that drawer was a shimmery Apacheria of his imagination: parched southwestern landscapes thinly peopled with vaqueros or stagecoach drivers, raiding parties and cavalry units, dancehall girls and faro dealers, weary lawmen and bickering outlaws. Although Leonard would end up with “the Dickens of Detroit” on his headstone, at this point his literary focus was a long way from his own time and place.
Much of his best Western work is collected in a new Library of America volume, Elmore Leonard: Westerns (April), edited by the film critic Terrence Rafferty, who has provided a useful chronology of Leonard’s long career. The book includes half his Western novels and a strong sampling of the stories, from his first published, “Trail of the Apache,” to the famous “3:10 to Yuma” and later “The Tonto Woman.” (For a full sense of Leonard’s evolution, also seek out the 2004 book, The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard). Even if cowboy literature, with its creaking leather and ringing spurs, is not your usual thing, these novels and stories herald the crime-writer he became. Crooks are crooks; mainly the landscape changed. As Greg Sutter, editor of the Complete Western Stories, explains, it was in writing his early tales about Apaches, Cavalry, and rustlers that Leonard developed his fondness for characters who were “good, bad, and really bad.” That formula would see him through, whether in Apache Junction, a Detroit alley, or the Everglades.
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Often a mysterious woman turns up in Leonard’s Western stories who has been abducted and returned to life among the whites, or a man who was born Mexican but passes for Apache. Leonard likes outsiders, people brushed with otherness, or in the case of returned captives, double outsiders. In the novel Hombre, a recently liberated young settler woman shares the same tense stagecoach with other Anglo passengers and a Mexican-born man dressed like a Chiricahua. A white couple on the stage demand the man ride up top, and one of them can’t keep from asking the young woman about her time with the Indians, “Did they mess with you?”
What happens when captives return to their “own” people interests Leonard again and again, as in “The Tonto Woman,” where a wife lives in a cabin alone, banished by her rancher husband for the tatoo’d evidence of her Indian experience. Leonard favored Arizona and New Mexico for the region’s intersection of Apache and Mexican and Anglo cultures.
Link to the rest at CrimeReads