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Tom Chaney. The Hero Takes No Crap

Of Writers and Their Books 10 October 2010. The Hero Takes No Crap an essay on the works of Elmore Leonard
The next earlier Tom Chaney book review, Wade Hall: 200 Years of KY Writing

By Tom Chaney
Email: Tom Chaney

The Hero Takes No Crap

For years my eyes have been skipping over Elmore Leonard whether it be on the western or the mystery shelf.

Don't know of a reason, just that I had not read him and had no incentive to do so.

So, it took me aback just a bit when I picked up a Leonard western and fell right into it - we get so soon old and so late smart.

Now I've read two, and the pleasure is great. Don't know whether I like Valdez is Coming or Hombre more -- each one seems better than the other.

Valdez is a laid back, part-time lawman, part-time stage guard hired "just to keep the drunken Mexicans from shooting the respectable citizens."

Returning from a stage run, Valdez comes upon a mob trying to kill a negro and his woman based on a faulty, flimsy identification of the man as an army deserter and possible murderer by Mr. Tanner -- one of the leading ranchers.

The town has gathered near the adobe line shack to which the fugitive has fled and which is being riddled by the fusillade of bullets. Even the local saloon has accommodated the residents by sending out a wagon load of whiskey which is being sold off the tailgate.

Valdez convinces the fugitive to talk. Before he gives up his gun, Tanner fires on him. This puts Valdez in the position of having to kill the fugitive, when he draws on Valdez.

Hombre or "Man" is the story of John Russell who has been raised as an Apache. En route to live as a white man, he is a passenger on the last stagecoach out of the stop with others who want nothing to do with him once they discover his racial identity. The story is told by a boy who has worked for the stage company.

The passengers include an ex-Indian agent fleeing from discovery of embezzlement and his wife who is offended by Indians.

When the desperados come, however, it is Russell upon whom they depend to lead them out of danger, out of the desert. They won't let him ride with them, "but they must walk with him or die."

Of course movies have been made. Paul Newman was Russell in Hombre. Burt Lancaster was Valdez. I've seen neither, but I'll remedy that when I get a chance.

But the books have some important virtues even in the midst of some harmless elements of melodrama.

One virtue is economy. In an essay titled Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing he says: "My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." He also hints: "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip."

Another virtue is complexity of character as well as relationships between and among characters. Valdez is tricked into shooting the fugitive by a man who just blows off the incident when he admits mistaken identity.

Shoot first, find the truth later.

At the conclusion of Hombre John Russell was shot "three times low in the back. We turned him over and saw that he had been hit twice again, through the neck and chest. He was dead."

"John Russell was buried at Sweetmary. It was strange that neither the McLaren girl nor Henry Mendez nor I said much about him until after the funeral, and when we did talk found there wasn't much to be said.

"You can look at something for a long time and not see it until it has moved or run off. Now, nobody questioned why he had walked down that slope. What we asked ourselves was why we ever thought he wouldn't."

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at

Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749 (270) 786-3084
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2010-10-10 12:04:26
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