Two of crime fiction's wiliest pros, Elmore Leonard and Robert B. Parker, have stepped nimbly out of character with their new books. They haven't gone...
“The Hot Kid”
by Elmore Leonard
Morrow, 312 pp., $25.95
by Robert B. Parker
Putnam, 276 pp., $24.95
Two of crime fiction’s wiliest pros, Elmore Leonard and Robert B. Parker, have stepped nimbly out of character with their new books. They haven’t gone too far, though; both books are set in times and locations relatively unexplored by their respective writers, but both bear those writers’ unmistakable brands.
Elmore Leonard’s fame rests on slinky crime novels set mostly in contemporary Detroit and Florida. He’s not averse to checking out other periods and places, however. After all, Leonard got his start writing Westerns, where he honed his famous knack for crisp prose, droll dialogue and no-fat plots.
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“The Hot Kid” is a jaunty, affectionate homage to pulp fiction that takes us partly back to that setting. We’re in 1930s Oklahoma, a time of Depression-era desperation and a world peopled with bank robbers and gun molls, steely-eyed marshals and wide-eyed civilians.
Our hero is Carl Webster. A cool customer who shot his first man (someone out to rustle his daddy’s cattle) at the age of 15, he’s now a young rising star with the U.S. Marshals. Carl’s nemesis is Jack Belmont, the no-good and not-too-bright son of a rich oilman. Jack’s been trying everything for a quick buck, including blackmailing his dad, forging checks and joining up with bank robbers.
The cast of secondary characters trailing along behind these two is large and vivid. It includes a true-detective writer with dreams of glory, villains with Klan connections and a doxy who pines to be Pretty Boy Floyd’s girlfriend. (There’s even a cameo by a real-life Kansas City jazz legend Jay McShann.)
The plot of “The Hot Kid” is simpler and more straightforward than Leonard’s recent and very twisty crime novels. And Carl, the protagonist, is a little bland — bland enough, in fact, to let some of the minor characters steal some of his scenes. Does this make “The Hot Kid” any less wonderful? No way.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the Old West …
Robert B. Parker has frequently strayed from his renowned detective Spenser and his home turf, the streets of Boston. One example is Parker’s rethink of the OK Corral story, “Gunman’s Rhapsody.” Like that book, “Appaloosa” is set in the Old West: a fictional copper-mining town somewhere between the Rockies and the Mississippi. (Colorado? Wyoming?) The date is never stated, though the book has the feel of the waning days of the frontier, when men were men and life was cheap.
Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch (the latter narrates) are hired guns — itinerant lawmen who have signed on to clean up Appaloosa. Randall Bragg is the bad guy who terrorized the town until Cole and Hitch arrived. The good guys put the bad guy in jail, but a couple of mercenaries bust him out. We’re then in for a long chase and a final, explosive showdown. Along the way, things are complicated by a woman: a piano player Cole has fallen for but who proves in the end to be duplicitous.
Like the Spenser books, “Appaloosa” makes good use of Parker’s casual mastery of tight-as-a-drum plotting and spare but elegant prose. Also like the Spenser books, it’s a study of Parker’s enduring themes: buddy relationships, the weight that honor and responsibility put on a man, the consequences of violence, the way good can shade into bad and vice versa. “Appaloosa” strains occasionally a little too hard for profundity and ends up striking a self-conscious pose, but overall it’s a melancholy and sometimes moving tale of a lost but fascinating era.
Adam Woog reviews crime fiction for The Seattle Times.