ELMORE LEONARD – The Hot Kid. Carl Webster #1. William Morrow, hardcover, May 2005. HarperTorch, paperback, 2006.

   As you very well may know without my telling you, Elmore Leonard’s writing career began with westerns of the classic, traditional variety. While he was more than slightly successful at it (with books turned into movies like Hombre and 3:10 to Yuma) his sales didn’t begin to take off until he switched to contemporary crime novels (with books turned into movies like Mr. Majestyk and Get Shorty).

   What The Hot Kid is, is a semi-combination of the two genres, permuted and shuffled around into a smooth, well-blended concoction of the two. Historical gangster fiction, that is, one that takes place in the Old West of the 1920s: the world of Pretty Boy Floyd, Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, and Bonnie and Clyde, all of whom are mentioned, as are Will Rogers and Count Basie, but while Floyd comes close, none of the aforementioned villains and world famous stars actually appear.

   It’s a meandering sort of tale, but when it comes down to it, there are only two primary players involved, and they are (as one would expect) on the opposite sides of the law: Carlos (Carl) Webster, a U.S. Marshal, and Jack Belmont, the son of a wealthy businessman, but a gent who is intent on becoming Public Enemy Number One.

   And he very nearly succeeds. Carl is better, however, and who knows, he may return in yet another adventure. Here’s a quote from page 57, as true crime reporter Tony Antonelli is trying to convince his editor to allow him to write a piece on Carl:

   And then [he] suggested, how about a close study of a deputy U.S. marshal, a good-looking young guy who was on his way to becoming the most famous lawman in America. The hot kid of the Marshals Service who said if he had to draw his gun, he would shoot to kill the felon he was apprehending. “And Carl Webster has drawn his Colt .38 four times in his career. You can tell he’s sharp just by the way he wears his panama, his suit’s always pressed. You look at him and wonder where he keeps his gun.”

   “He’s good-looking, uh?”

   “Could be a movie star.”

   The resulting story is in turn profane, mundane and jazzy. Sparked every so often with confrontations, holdups and numerous shootouts, it’s vastly entertaining. The problem is that it may be too smooth and too easy-going, not to mention the fact that everyone’s dialogue, while suitably terse and in the vernacular, sounds exactly the same as everyone else’s. That includes the descriptive passages as well, as if a grizzled old-timer back in the 1920s had wound himself up in a place of his own choosing and spieled off a yarn of his own making.

   One might have expected a little more jaggedness. Except for a few isolated moments that directly contradict this statement, and I will certainly concede there are, this one’s surprisingly straightforward and calm, in its own sentimental way.

— October 2005. (A shorter version of this review appeared previously in the Historical Novels Review.)

        The Carl Webster series —

1. The Hot Kid (2005)
2. Up in Honey’s Room (2006)
3. Comfort To The Enemy (story collection; 2009)