From the early 1970s until 1992’s Unforgiven, Westerns had become outmoded, pitiful television productions and lame B-films that had run the genre into the dust heap, and unless Clint Eastwood was starring in the saddle, no Western was getting noticed. I was still unabashedly hooked, even with the worst of the lot, and championed the unsung. But during that long, long drought, there was one author’s name that routinely surged, as when an apologist (my definition: owlhoots who loved the genre but were afraid to acknowledge it) would say something along the lines of, “I only read Elmore Leonard Westerns.” Since I hadn’t read Leonard at that point, whenever I would hear such words, I’d hold my worn paperbacks by Max Brand or Luke Short closer to the vest, wagering, “I see your Elmore Leonard and I raise you one Elmer Kelton.”
Then, along the rails, I began devouring Leonard. After Last Stand at Saber River, Hombre, and Valdez Is Coming, I had to take a step back and admit that Leonard was cut from different rawhide. Like Louis L’Amour before him, he was a gifted, natural-born storyteller. Unlike L’Amour, he kept a tighter rein on his characters—L’Amour reminds me of Hemingway in that his genius shows in the short story and not the full-length books he became celebrated for and in which he tends to ramble. Back then, my reading “The Dickens of Detroit” was like discovering the genre for the first time. Leonard was that damn good! Fellow writer Martin Amis told him, “Your prose makes Raymond Chandler look clumsy.” True enough.