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The Boston Globe - Gangster rap
Amid gun molls, speakeasies, and shootouts, Elmore Leonard unspools the definitive portrait of 1930s lowlife
By Stephen King
Elmore Leonard's first published story was ''Trail of the Apache." It appeared in Argosy. The year was 1951. Harry Truman was president, and your faithful correspondent was still eating the ends of his crayons. Fifty-four years and 39 novels later, you might think the prolific Mr. Leonard would be content to phone one in. You certainly wouldn't expect him to have produced his best novel at the age of 79, but he seems to have done it. And hell, why not? Robertson Davies came to full flower as a novelist late in life and won a boatload of literary prizes. It's perhaps time Leonard was given the same consideration.
The complete and gratifying success of ''The Hot Kid" isn't really surprising, because it unites the two most fruitful phases of Leonard's undeniably brilliant career. Early on, he wrote graphic and unsentimental Westerns that redefined a flagging genre -- there were no singing cowboys in books like ''The Law at Randado" or ''Hombre" (made into a fine movie with Paul Newman). Later, he wrote noir cops-and-robbers novels, mostly set in the urban jungle of Detroit, and finally achieved popular success. Books like ''Stick" and ''City Primeval" were full of whores, drug addicts, and stupid killers -- not ordinarily the stuff of bestsellers, but Leonard's sharp eye and kinky sense of humor turned his tales into surreal black comedies spiced with dialogue that always rang true. The only other American writer to do talk as well was George V. Higgins, and I think Leonard is better, if only because he hasn't made a damn fetish of it.
In ''The Hot Kid," Leonard merges the Western and the urban crime novel. The result is a rousing tale of desperadoes robbing banks, hiding out in whorehouses, and shooting peace officers during the rat-a-tat-take-that-you-dirty-rat early '30s, when Charles ''Pretty Boy" Floyd supposedly once took his family to town so they could watch him rob a bank, a Harvey Girl waitress would ''get recognized on the street like a movie star," and glimpsing Amelia Earhart in a Kansas City hotel was a possibility.
Leonard makes the most of his dusty Midwestern settings, and the relatively slim size of the volume is deceptive; the story of Deputy US Marshal Carl Webster sketches 13 years of turbulent American history with remarkable ease. If Leonard were a younger man, you might be tempted to believe it's the book he was born to write. As it is, let us just say he got all of this one; it's over the fence and long gone.
When ''The Hot Kid" opens in 1921, Carl is 15 years old and visiting Deering's drugstore in Okmulgee, Okla. There he encounters the famous robber Emmett Long, who steals the boy's ice cream cone as well as shoots a policeman named Junior Harjo. It's 1927 before Carl and Emmett meet again; Charles Lindbergh, the Lone Eagle, is being showered with ticker tape in New York and Emmett, freshly released from prison, is back to robbing banks instead of drugstores. Carl faces the erstwhile ice cream thief in the home of Emmett's illicit tootsie, Crystal Davidson, and it's to Emmett that he first delivers his famous line: ''If I have to pull my weapon I'll shoot to kill."
Carl pulls his weapon (a .38 pistol on a .45 frame) and shoots to kill a good many times in the book, as does Jack Belmont, the ne'er-do-well son of an oil magnate who actually begins his life of crime by destroying his younger sister, standing by while little Emma drowns in the swimming pool. Leonard's macabre moments are often overlooked because of his sense of humor, but Emma's fate is a memorable one. The child is saved but irretrievably brain-damaged; after the ''accident" she can do no more than crawl around the upper story of the posh Belmont mansion, beating her doll to pieces on the polished hardwood floor of the roller-skating rink. Her charismatic, amoral older brother is one of Leonard's better creations, saved from cartoon evil by his creepy and completely believable ineptitude.
''The Hot Kid" is full of textured characters. Among them are a wistful gun moll named Louly Brown, an ambitious Italian-American writer for True Detective Mystery magazine, a burned-over bouncer named Boo, and a hard-edged Dust Bowl honey named Heidi Dilworth (''[Clay] had to wonder why she'd settled for a hayseed like Norm . . . till she said, 'Y'all want some ice tea?' and she was just off a farm or an oil patch. Man, but she was a looker.")
Leonard's prose is as lean and clean as ever. Want a real kick? Read this out loud: ''They were looking to take the No. 2 derrick apart, Stub up on the runaround, the catwalk that circled the derrick sixty or so feet up. He hadn't yet hooked his safety belt to the structure, and when he lost his hold he fell sixty feet to the drilling floor, his final breath smelling of corn whiskey." There is not a so-called major novelist at work in the English language who couldn't learn from a guy who can write like that.
And the old guy's still got plenty of bite. There are at least two surprises -- one a shocker -- as the bullet-riddled saga of Marshal Webster rolls to its close (a shoot-out in a pecan grove). Yet even the shocker makes sense within the context of the story. Leonard makes his own view of such matters clear in a scene after Carl, his father, and their two lady friends have finished watching the movie Dillinger saw at the Biograph in Chicago just before being gunned down. The four come to a consensus on ''Manhattan Melodrama": ''They all thought the plot was okay, even if it wasn't believable, since it was a movie."
''The Hot Kid" will no doubt become a movie, probably with some current Hollywood hot kid like Colin Farrell in the title role, but if I were you, I'd stick with the book . . . and then maybe rent Arthur Penn's ''Bonnie and Clyde." Both works are outlaw classics.
© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.