Elmore Leonard’s “Valdez is Coming” and “Stick”

Elmore Leonard wrote pretty damn well in 1970 when he put out the Western novel Valdez is Coming. You can see some Hemingway influence in it. His style is clean and unaffected and he makes use of interior monolog to let his characters ponder ethical situations. There are honest and deceptively skilled descriptive scenes that take place in plains and forests and mountains. The action involving Valdez and his love interest borrows straight-faced from Roberto and Maria’s sleeping bag sequence in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Leonard doesn’t slow us down with transitions and segues. The narrative string presses forward. Both of these books end with satisfaction, yet the endings are wry and abrupt, minimal without violins or fireworks. (the ending in Stick took me by surprise, assisted by the side-effect of reading it on a Kindle that showed the book 80% complete – turned out the last 20% of the kindle file was promotional copy about Leonard’s other books).

His characters are vivid: some evil, some stupid, some sexy, some heroic. There are loyal madams, allied giants, and converts who back the hero. There is vengeance. Some characters reappear and drift between novels.

These are features he has maintained and perfected decades later in his crime novels.

In Stick, Ernest Stickley is a hybrid good guy-bad guy (he also appears in Swag). On the loose in South Florida, he falls among some rich and fast company. There is no real hero, no girl to hold in veneration. It’s a small study in corruption, men and women alike (the women in this one have appetites while the men are into games). Things move at a good clip, and while some have criticized Stick for being plotless, it has enough action and character study to make it top-shelf stuff.

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