Crime and the writer

Elmore Leonard began his career writing for Western pulp magazines. You can sense a little of that prairie dust in his 40th novel, The Hot Kid, a slick-as-grease yarn about a marksman working for the federal marshals in Oklahoma in the 1930s.

Carl Webster, the novel’s hero, shoots his first bandit with a Winchester rifle at age 15 for stealing cattle off his father’s ranch. A few years later, he evens the score with an even meaner son of a gun named Emmett Long, whom Carl encountered when Emmett was robbing a local drug store. It’s the first in a cycle of retributive killings that makes this novel about as bloody and violent as anything Leonard has written to date.

Like many of Leonard’s recent works, The Hot Kid features an ensemble cast of characters who emerge into the storyline cinematically, fully grown, so vivid it’s hard to appreciate that they were once an idea in the writer’s head. In addition to Carl, there’s Jack Belmont, who, like Carl, is the son of an oil baron but, unlike Carl, tosses this lineage aside for the life of a bandit.

A simpler crime writer might have turned this story into questions of right and wrong—it is to a certain degree; killing is wrong—but to Leonard, it is also a question of style. After all, the book takes place in the era when gunslingers and the men who brought them to justice were celebrities. Instead of “E!” entertainment, the public turned to True Detective magazine for its kicks, and instead of Billy Bush yammering into a mic, it was pulp writers like Tony Antonelli bringing the latest installment.

In a way, Leonard is acting as our own Antonelli, sketching the ins and outs of this time period, as if it could be recaptured and spun back as entertainment. He’s nearing 80, and he’s still the best in the business at convincing us that sublimation is possible and should be enjoyed guilt-free. Here, for example, is the grand master describing Jack’s apprenticeship and its code of decency.

“He didn’t want to shoot Norm when he wasn’t looking. He didn’t want to call him out, either, Norman a dead shot with rifle or revolver. He’d already killed two cops chasing them out of Coalgate that time. Leaned out and drilled them through the windshield of the police car. The only person Jack had shot was the colored boy running from the mob during the race riot, when Jack was fifteen. It told me he ought to shoot somebody now that he was grown, get a feel for it.”

Although The Hot Kid doesn’t feature the zinging present-tenseness that has made Leonard a screen icon as well, the book seems more likely to endure than some of his pure pulp efforts. For, among the Tommy guns and shootouts, there’s a wide-eyed wonder at work here that never turns the story soft. It’s as if Leonard is 8 years old all over again, marveling at his creation. “I read somewhere that the most impressionable age for children is between 5 and 10,” Leonard once told an interviewer. “I was between 5 and 10 when all those desperadoes were roaming the Midwest and holding up banks. They were kind of folk heroes.”

The Hot Kid adds a few to that roster. And they could take Bonnie and Clyde any day.