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Valdez is Coming by Elmore Leonard

December 23, 2018

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Bob Valdez is the part-time town constable of a small western town in Arizona and rides shotgun (where the phrase came from) for the stagecoach company. He’s recruited by a Mr. Tanner, the wealthiest man in the area, to help deal with an Army deserter who’s holed up in a shack with a gun. He does, and ends up shooting the man down. But it turns out Valdez has been set up—this man was innocent. When Valdez demands payment to be made to the victim’s wife, he is beaten by Tanner’s men, tied to a cross and left in the desert for dead.

Leonard is known for his crime fiction like Get Shorty, but he got his start in the 1950s writing pulp westerns. This 1970 western revenge story bridges the two. As a Western, it owes more to the ultra-violent Sam Peckinpah westerns than the earlier John Ford movies. But it has the sharp, staccato sentences, the pithy dialogue, the sparse plot and morally ambiguous characters of crime noir. Bob Valdez has much in common with the stars of gritty crime dramas of the 70s, and you could read this novel as part of the pivot of the iconic American male hero from cowboy to detective. Leonard is making that transition as a writer like Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood did as actors.

Valdez is Coming is an entertaining novel, though it sometimes reads as a parody of the hard-boiled genre. Or, to be fair, just Leonard being Leonard. But other than being the bridge from Western to detective fiction, the book also shows a pivot on race in Westerns. The man Valdez kills in the opening is a black man, and his wife a Native American. These are the two victims, and Valdez, our hero, is Mexican (he goes by “Bob” Valdez when he wears a starched collar, but “Roberto” when he “makes war.”). We’ve moved beyond the cowboys protecting innocent white settlers from the natives. Valdez is Coming may be a Western, but it reflects the social awakening of the 60s.

I read this book because it was mentioned in George Pelecanos’s The Man Who Came Uptown. Worth the read, especially if you’re interested in the evolution of Elmore Leonard’s career.

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