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Elmore Leonard's first gig: writing Western fiction

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The book that became the movie, "Hombre," by Elmore Leonard.
The book that became the movie, "Hombre," by Elmore Leonard.

You know Elmore Leonard for his screenplay-perfect crime novels, but he started writing when what paid was Western fiction, and those stories bear all the Leonard hallmarks.

" I only got one hero. I just keep writing about the same person." -- Elmore Leonard

You know Elmore Leonardfor his screenplay-perfect crime novels, including Get Shorty, but when "Dutch" started writing, around 1950, what paid (2 cents a word) was Western fiction, and the dozens of short stories and novels he penned in that under-appreciated genre bear all the Leonard hallmarks.

The dialogue is tight, the plots are spare, and his heroes, according to Loren D. Estleman, author and past president of the Western Writers of America, are "somebody who looks like an ordinary guy or woman, but there's something extraordinary in his past that only we the reader knows about. The villains push him into the corner, and he explodes in their faces. And I told that to Dutch and he said, 'I can do you one better. I only got one hero. I just keep writing about the same person.'"

Estleman also says Leonard was one of a group of writers who dealt directly and realistically about the racism white settlers had for Mexicans and Native Americans, as in the story Hombre, about a white man raised by Apaches, who is scorned by a group of whites until they need him to protect them from a group of outlaws.

"You have to understand Dutch's background," says Estleman, who counted Leonard as a friend of 30 years standing. "He was raised in New Orleans and he divided his adult life equally between Detroit and Florida, so he was always around minorities, and I think when you're brought up in that kind of environment, you tend to have a more cosmopolitan outlook on other races, other creeds."

Interested in sampling Leonard's Western tales? You can't do better than The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, with 30 complete stories. For an introduction to Loren D. Estleman's Western stories, I recommend The Master Executioner. Estleman told me he likes to take characters who only show up in one scene in a movie, and tell their story, and this he does here to great effect. His latest book is the historical novel The Confessions of Al Capone.

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