I decided to take some time off from reviewing, so it’s time to catch back up. Happily, I’m getting back into the race with a good one, When the Women Come Out to Dance by Elmore Leonard. I’m a huge fan of the FX series Justified, so I finally decided to give the source material a try. I almost changed my mind when I saw the cover (legs do not looks like that), however, my love for U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens eventually won out. When the Women Come Out to Dance is a collection of straightforward, well-written, interesting short stories bound together vaguely with the theme of “crime.” From the first story in the book, Sparks, it’s apparent that Leonard has a knack for writing people. The stories are often no longer than 20 pages, but in that time you know the people in them, you know what motivates them, what troubles them, and their history. It takes a special kind of author to condense such impressive character development into a measly 20 pages. Leonard’s characters often find themselves on the wrong side of the law, but they are not wholly unsympathetic, they are people, they have flaws but they also have goodness.
I won’t discuss every story in the book, however, I will discuss the one that motivated me to read it, Fire in the Hole. Raylan Givens is a Deputy U. S. Marshal. He wears a ten gallon hat and cowboy boots. He looks like this:
Raylan is stationed in Miami when he warns a mob-connected gun-thug, Tommy Bucks, to get out of town within 24 hours. Bucks does not comply, Bucks is shot down. With the Federal Marshal Service fearing the ensuing bad press, Raylan is sent back to his hometown of Harlan County, Kentucky. It’s there that he rekindles an old flame, finds an old friend heading a neo-Nazi organization, and tries to live in a place he thought he would never have to return to.
The great thing about Fire in the Hole, is that Raylan falls somewhere between a typical antihero and Mr. Johnny Law. He has a set of moral standards and guidelines, he’s just picky about when he decides to use them. Boyd Crowder, our villain, a neo-Nazi with a rapidly growing set of followers, has started trouble by blowing up a “black church” with a rocket launcher. Raylan and Boyd dug coal together as young men, therefore, a mutual respect underlies their relationship. Raylan knows that Boyd has always had a desire, “rob banks and raise hell,” he’s convinced that Boyd’s skinhead persona is simply an excuse to do just that. Raylan is also faced with the reality that if he had gone to war instead of going to college, he may have followed the same path as Boyd. The Southern Racist is an archetype that we typically equate with “ignorant” and “pig-headed,” it takes an author like Leonard to pry a little deeper into a character to show the reader that intelligence and ignorance can sometimes go hand in hand.
If there’s a flaw with Leonard’s writing it’s that he doesn’t branch out much. There’s typically a crime that’s been committed, and while the nature of the crime may vary, there’s only so much crime that I can read about before the text starts becoming repetitive. Crime+love story, crime+law enforcement official, crime+injustice, this is a book of short stories, if anything I think it would be an opportune time for an author to branch out and write about something different. This doesn’t mean that Leonard should throw in a sci-fi story for no reason (although I would read the hell out of that), just that he could be a little more flexible in his subject matter. My favorite story in the book in fact had nothing to do with crime at all.
In Chickasaw Charlie Hoke, a past-his-prime, divorced ballplayer is given the chance to work as a celebrity host if he can strike out his prospective employer in three pitches. Leonard is able to keep the tension that makes so many of his crime stories so great, but the tension is different. For most of his crime stories, we want to see the criminal either get away with his or her crime or get caught. Here we’re rooting for a second chance, for someone to get a good break because he seems like he’s a good guy. The stakes are pretty low, but the reader knows that this moment is still important because it’s Charlie’s chance to hold onto the last of his dreams. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s an sweet, oddly heart-warming tale. A few more stories like this one would have improved the quality of the collection as a whole.
Leonard can’t really be faulted for writing what he knows, he is very good at it. Many of his stories almost read like screenplays, back-and-forth dialogue between two characters, no frills, just good writing. We get just enough detail to keep us interested. I’m happy that When the Women Come Out to Dance was my introduction to Leonard’s work. I was able to see a small range of what he likes to cover, and I’m already a fan. Strong women, modern-day cowboys, war-veterans, and criminals, as much as I might complain about the monotony, the truth is that these are fun things to read about. Take it away, Boyd: