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A very ‘hot kid,’ indeed
THE HOT KID
By Elmore Leonard
William Morrow, $25.95,
Once more, Elmore Leonard has written a novel that will delight just about everyone. I know of someone whose impeccable literary tastes used to run to Trollope and the Victorians but even he conceded — and not begrudgingly — that for plotting, excitement and gracefully written prose few could match the inimitable Mr. Elmore, now 80 and showing little sign of slowing down.
Mr. Leonard has written over three dozen novels (“Tishomingo Blues,” “Mr. Paradise,” “Cuba Libre,”) of which several have become good films (“Get Shorty” for one). He also has his own Website that has been created with the same tilted zest for life and story as he demonstrates in his books. On that Website it was amusing to find a lanky, smiling Mr. Leonard proudly holding his grandson Jack Belmont. For starts, it’s jarring to think of the novelist who has given the world so many memorable reprobates (murderers, prostitutes, con men, etc.) as a family man. But there’s more. Jack Belmont is the name of this novel’s protagonist, a blackhearted murderer and all around bad guy. And in “The Hot Kid” — perhaps most pointedly to date — one finds hints of the man behind the mischief and mayhem. Is it Mr. Leonard looking back over his life? Maybe.
The basic plot is this. Carl Webster is a young guy who early in his life (the action of the novel takes place in the 1930s) discovers that he has the chops to be a lawman. He is calm, disciplined and he can shoot a man who is up to no-good at 400 yards. Before long, Carl is pressed into service as a U.S. marshal in Oklahoma. From the federal courthouse in Tulsa, he works hard on the side of the law while John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and a host of other gangsters are busy working on the other side of it.
It is Carl’s goal to be “America’s most famous lawman.” Along the way he encounters a variety of characters who seem to come from society’s darkest corners, such as the young gun moll Louly Brown who wants the world to think she is Pretty Boy Floyd’s girlfriend. He also encounters Tony Antonelli, a writer for True Detective Magazine, who aspires to be as good a journalist as newspaperman Richard Harding Davis, his hero. Tony will follow Carl to get the scoop on some true crime and along the way meet the goodhearted prostitutes who play such a crucial role in the caper that consumes Carl’s attention and energy. The girls — Heidi, Elodie and others — work at Teddy’s Restaurant in Kansas City where the girls prance around in (no surprise here) “teddies” while serving their drooling customers. The guy they are simultaneously most attracted to and most want to avoid is Jack Belmont, son of a millionaire oil man, a scion gone bad who robs banks and still wants to show his dad that he can be a success.
There are the inevitable showdowns, gunfights and hairraising turns to keep the taut narrative moving. But there is also depth here, character development that to a person makes this book’s characters variously deeply admirable or, in the case of those without morals or conscience, deeply unlikable but real. The playing turf is level. Jack may be the son of a millionaire oilman but so is Carl. Some of the girls may have fallen from grace, but they find love and courage when it matters most.
And of course, through it all readers are treated to Mr. Leonard’s spare, deadpan prose. Here Carl and Bob McMahon (Carl’s boss at the Tulsa marshal’s office) discuss what Tony Antonelli is reporting about a wayward Justice Department agent named Nestor who the marshals were forced to chase down, causing other marshals to resign:
“I didn’t tell you,” McMahon said, “Lester Crowe’s quit the marshals.”
“That’s a shame,” Carl said.
“He didn’t think we were treating Nestor right.”
“You gonna read what Tony wrote?”
McMahon looked down at the magazine and read, “’ Nestor Lott brought up both of his chrome-plated .45s at the same time to clear the car’s hood and Marshal Carl Webster,’” McMahon looked up again, his eyes on Carl, “‘lightning responses, shot him through the chest.’ There’s one more word at the end of the sentence,” McMahon said, “‘Bam.’”
“He wrote ‘Bam’?” Carl grinning now.
“I told him to write what he saw. He had the best seat in the house.”
Inevitably, it is likely that Tony Antonelli is the character that brings the reader closest to Mr. Leonard’s thoughts about crime and crime writing. He is also the character who seems to be on the receiving end of the novelist’s gentle teasing. Is Tony a stand-in for the younger Mr. Leonard? Maybe.
Tony, like Carl, was born in Oklahoma, but unlike him, was the son of a coal miner. He began by writing stories of “the hazards of working underground” but ran afoul of an editor who “chopped the drama out of his stories, telling Tony to get rid of the ‘gasping for breath in a grotto of coal.’” Tony’s path crosses with Carl’s when he sets out to write a story called “The Bloody Bald Mountain War,” a story that will reveal the high stakes battles taking place in the coal and oil region that causes the paths of Carl, Jack Belmont, Nestor, Jack’s father, Carl’s father, a bevy of molls some Mafia and assorted others to intersect and, in some cases end.
Along the way, readers are treated to reflections of the world as it was then, a post World War I world, in which the exploits of Eddie Rickenbacker and the Red Baron were still fresh as were the injuries on the battlefield. It was a world of Charles Lindbergh and Will Rogers and tommy guns and gun molls. And it was a time when each of the characters in the book from Carl right through Tony to Louly could lay claim to being a “hot kid” for a time. However, my vote for the hottest goes Mr. Leonard. With this book, he has done it again.
By David Keene
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