Rummaging through Leonard’s attic via these nine stories revives some fond memories and turns up a couple of forgotten treasures.
Though half the volume is devoted to two novellas, the shorter pieces are the best, their characters racing against time—literally so in “Hanging Out at the Buena Vista,” a tour de force that demonstrates why mating rituals among the elderly are so abbreviated—to dive into the sparring matches they live for. The title story, which pairs a woman who wishes her husband would die with another whose husband already has, offers a model of Leonard’s slanting dialogue, with every sentence charged with overtones that send their relationship hurtling toward a final twist. “The Tonto Woman” recounts a rustler’s determined courtship of a landowner’s untouchable wife, and the equally erotically charged “Sparks” pits an insurance investigator against the only dweller in the Arroyo Verde to lose her house to a recent fire. Readers who want to see the prototype for Karen Sisco’s Out of Sight (1996) or savor a quasi-postlude to the Spanish-American War yarn Cuba Libre (1998) or find out how Chickasaw Charlie Hoke got his job as Billy Darwin’s celebrity host in Tishomingo Blues (2002) will all be satisfied. And the two longer entries—“Fire in the Hole,” which follows former buddies respectively into the white supremacist movement and the US Marshals Service, and “Tenkiller,” a second-chance romance for a rodeo rider turned Hollywood stunt man who’s picked up considerable baggage along the way—are as generously plotted as most novels, even if they do sometimes get tangled in their spurs.
Fresh evidence why it’s a mistake to pigeonhole Leonard as a writer of westerns or crime novels. Like his mentor, John D. McDonald, the man’s interested in everybody who relishes a good fight, whether it’s with sharp-tongued words or shotguns.