Review: The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard

9780061242922Elmore Leonard is known for his fantastic crime novels and his cool, crisp dialogue but he started out writing westerns way back in the 1950s. This collections showcases his western short stories and his immense talent as a writer.

I think it is easy to pass Elmore Leonard off as a writer of crime novels that have been turned into countless films and television adaptations but you would only do that at your own peril. Yes Elmore Leonard has become known for a few of his own tropes; brilliant dialogue, idiotic crooks, plots involving schemes that unravel and precise prose but these tropes fit the crime genre perfectly. Reading Leonard in another genre shows a completely different side to his writing and I think in many ways it is even better.

The Western genre is of course the precursor to the modern American crime novel. The lines between right and wrong are blurred by lawlessness and greed but there are still heroes and villains, both of which are not easily decipherable which makes for very interesting characters. The landscape has more significance and there is a minefield of politics to explore; post-Civil War, race, slavery, Native Americans, immigration, government, Mexico. Issues still alive and kicking today.

In many ways Elmore Leonard’s crime novels are more Westerns than mysteries. His favourite hero/protagonist is often a US Marshall and that is directly born from his western stories. What I found most interesting about Leonard’s western writing was that he explored more themes. His western stories are much more political than his crime novels. Dialogue also takes a back seat, or more correctly his dialogue becomes more prominent in his later writing. This maybe because he was still learning his craft but I suspect it is more reflective of the understated nature of the western genre. Leonard is also much more descriptive in his western writing and again I think this is because there is more significance on the landscape in the genre. Which only proves, even in his early days, Leonard was a master writer who knew his craft like few other writers.

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