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Life of Crime

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Gunslingers, bank robbers, and one well-told story

Sarah Weinman
Baltimore Sun

Still, the historical detail and the author’s obvious affection for the time period gives the novel an extra flourish that will appeal to longtime addicts, new faithful, and even those still wary of Leonard’s enduring appeal. Besides, The Hot Kid is so much fun that any criticisms fall away - the hallmark of an excellent tale well told.

Sarah Weinman
Baltimore Sun

Considering that the early 1930s was a time of depression, lawlessness and would-be nihilism, it seems altogether fitting that one of the most revered crime writers would take on that period and make it his own. Perhaps there’s a better fit for Elmore Leonard, but I’d be hard-pressed to think of one more suited to him than what’s depicted in The Hot Kid: a colorful tale of gunslinging heroes, itinerant bank robbers and the women who sometimes love them but more often outsmart them.

In an opening scene that will resonate throughout the entire narrative, Carlos Webster, age 15, goes to the drugstore and buys an ice cream cone. Enter Emmett Long, notorious bank robber, who proceeds to shoot and kill other store customers - but not before taking Webster’s cone away. This formative encounter stays with Webster as he grows up, becomes more familiar with the use of a gun and the ways of the law and turns into one of the most famous federal marshals, known equally for his sharp sense of dress as for his rising kill count - one that includes Long.

Now Webster hopes his next catch will be Jack Belmont. He is a rich man’s son who doesn’t appreciate what he has. Why else would he blackmail his father about having a mistress (whom Jack later attempts to kidnap in laughable fashion) and start his own foray into a life of crime? But as his notoriety grows and his penchant for criminal activity soon includes murder, Webster begins to chase Belmont through Oklahoma and beyond, through speak-easies and whorehouses and other fine establishments of ill-repute with one goal in mind: to take him down.

Of course, in typical Leonard fashion, the so-called heroes aren’t so much different from the criminals. It’s very clear that Webster’s reasons for becoming a government gunslinger have less to do with noble aspirations than something more ambiguous: “That’s your excuse,” says the girlfriend of a criminal Webster has shot to death, “why you became a marshal to carry a gun. You like to shoot people. I think you get a kick out of it.” Lines are further blurred in the form of Tony Antonelli, a True Detective reporter more interested in being part of the story than writing it, and Louly Brown, a not-so-doe-eyed miss hankering after the nearest outlaw she can find (when she’s not shooting them). Moral ambiguity and hard-edged cynicism were never rendered with a slicker, almost cheerful sheen.

The Hot Kid does suffer from problems endemic to Leonard’s work, albeit to a much lesser degree. Although the dialogue is excellent and some set-pieces are flat-out brilliant, even sharply portrayed characters like Louly and Jack and Carl don’t rise above their surface features. Leonard tells great stories, but they’re located more in the shallow end of the pool, where great individual parts make for a less than cohesive sum.

Still, the historical detail and the author’s obvious affection for the time period gives the novel an extra flourish that will appeal to longtime addicts, new faithful, and even those still wary of Leonard’s enduring appeal. Besides, The Hot Kid is so much fun that any criticisms fall away - the hallmark of an excellent tale well told.

Sarah Weinman writes a monthly crime fiction column for The Sun. Visit her at http://www.sarahweinman.com.

 

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