Leonard’s 40th novel sweetly revisits the Depression, when every Oklahoma kid dreamed of growing up to be a lawman or a gangster.
The hot kid is Carl (né Carlos) Webster, a young U.S. marshal out of Tulsa with so much fire in his belly that some folks wonder if he actually enjoys killing bad guys. But the sobriquet could apply just as easily to Jack Belmont, a wildcat oilman’s son whose idea of a good time is raping an underaged girl, blackmailing his father about Nancy Polis, the mistress he’s keeping in Sapulpa, and kidnapping Nancy when the old man brushes off the extortion attempt. Or even to Tony Antonelli, an Okmulgee reporter who finds his true calling when he shakes the facts from his feet and goes to work for True Detective Mystery determined to chronicle the adventures of Carl and Jack. The antagonists oblige by tangling again and again over a period from 1927 to 1934, swapping women, preening remarks, schemes and occasionally bullets. Along the way, there are bloody tangles with bank robbers, soiled law-enforcers, Klansmen, Kansas City ward-heelers, and aspiring gun molls like Louly Brown as wholehearted in their auditions as if they were aiming for Hollywood stardom—as in a sense they are. Although the body count is high, Carl and Jack emerge from each encounter as unscathed as Kabuki warriors, ready each time for a rematch for which they’re more motivated than ever. Their persistent efforts to turn themselves into mythic heroes in the manner of Pretty Boy Floyd, the talismanic celebrity gangster forever just out of Louly’s reach, echoes Bonnie and Clyde. But Leonard’s sly take on the price of notoriety is a lot more genial and laid-back.
The whole sepia-toned caravan, in fact, is so relaxed that even the most violent felonies may leave you smiling. Leonard’s gentle epic is as restorative as a month in the country.