Friday, February 20, 2009

"Saint with a Six-Gun" by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard is known as a crime writer, but at the beginning of his career he wrote some pretty good westerns, both novels and short stories. In fact, many knowledgeable readers argue that some of Leonard’s best work was in the western field. My reading of his is work is not nearly complete enough to make that judgment, but I do know that of the Leonard stories and novels I have read, my favorites tend toward his western fiction.

I recently read his short story “Saint with a Six-Gun” and that notion was reinforced. Lyall Quinlan is a dreamer—he wants to be a lawman, but he is the type of guy who isn’t taken seriously. He is young, skinny, and just plain green. When the local Marshal brings in a known outlaw for murder Quinlan shows up at the right time. The badman—Bobby Valdez—is locked up in the jail and Bohannon, the Marshal, wants to go to his weekly poker game, but he needs and extra hand to help guard the prisoner. He happily gives the duty to Quinlan—only “temporarily, you understand.”

Quinlan ta
kes his duty seriously and doesn’t sleep a blink that first night, or any other night on that long week between Valdez’s sentencing and scheduled hanging. The only major problem is the boy begins to not only understand Valdez, but also actually like him and feel a touch of empathy. A situation that will very likely spell trouble for everyone involved, especially one Lyall Quinlan. “Saint with a Six-Gun” is nearly a perfectly executed short story. It is written in Leonard’s patented sharp and sparse prose with a touch of subtle humor and enough humanity to populate a full-length novel. The characters have the feel of flesh, from Quinlan’s naïve devotion to Bohannon’s and Valdez’s cynicism.

The story is told in third person, but it has an intimacy that attracts the sympathies of the reader to the story and its participants. The plot is pretty basic, which is exactly what Mr. Leonard intended as he leads you down the expected path until the moment he pulls the rug out. It is surprising and humorous with a mild jest at justice—the poetic kind.

“Saint with a Six-Gun” was originally published in the October 1954 issue of Argosy. It is currently available in The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, and Blood Money and Other


RJR said...

Leonard is being honored by WWA with a Life Achievement award this year.


Chap O'Keefe said...

Ben, The Complete Westerns Stories volume should be on every western writer and reader's handiest bookshelf. Dip in and be inspired!

Ben Boulden said...

Bob: A well deserved honor.

Chap: It's good to hear from you. I agree with you about THE COMPLETE WESTERN STORIES collection. I haven't read them all yet, but so far there isn't a dud in the bunch.