Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Elmore Leonard--Valdez is Coming

"The basic structure of an Elmore Leonard plot," Larry Beinhart explains in How to Write a Mystery, "is that a big tough guy pushes a little tough guy. The little guy doesn't take it. He shoves back. The little guy is the kinda guy, the harder you shove him, the more trouble he's gonna be. In the end, the big guy really wishes he'd picked someone else to shove. When Leonard started he wrote westerns, and in those early books you can see the bones without an X-ray. I recommend Valdez Is Coming to anyone who wants to understand the structure of an Elmore Leonard novel."

Exactly and in all respects. One of the most enlightened and enlightening insights ever written about Leonard's work. 

Valdez is one of my favorite of the Leonard novels. The villain Frank Tanner is drawn in bile and blood and Valdez, thought by townspeople to be something of a loser, shines when reveals himself to be a former Army tracker and killer. 

The story is simple and straightforward. As part-time constable Valdez is tricked into killing an innocent man. Afterward, regretting what he's done, he asks Tanner and his cronies to at least chip in and give the dead man's widow some money. They treat him as if he were drunk and crazy. But he keeps on with his servile (he is a man who knows his place) until they begin to punish him. They crucify him as the cover depicts and leave him to death in the desert.

But he comes back to ask Tanner once again for the widow's money. Tanner declines and soon comes to regret it as Valdez now becomes the deadly man he was in his Army days.

We forget that in novels such as 52 Pick-Up and a few others Leonard had the power to hurt you. You see that especially in his western stories, the complete collection of which is readily available.


Davo ort Wilbo said...

Added to the wishlist. Thanks, Ed.

Anonymous said...

I agree about Valdez, and Hombre too is another great western.
52 Pickup is right there with Valdez as examples of his best work, but I have a fondness for Mr. Majestyk and The Switch also.
All of these fit right in with Mr. Beinhart's parameters.

jdm said...

Valdez is Coming is also a fine example of Leonard's self-confessed struggle with endings, something the film respected as well. WE think we know what is going to happen but we don't quite get to see it. Secundo will become Primero, but other earth-shaking consequences are left for us to sort out. I find this both satisfying and engrossing. I stayed in this story a long time after I put it down. That, to me, is evidence of great writing.