COMFORT TO THE ENEMY AND OTHER CARL WEBSTER STORIES
By Elmore Leonard
Harper, $14.99 224 pages
If you seek to capture the essence of a law enforcement legend, look no further than Elmore Leonard, the master of the merry and macabre crime scenario with dialogue to die for.
Cynical in his humor, with a smooth rolling writing style, sometimes reminiscent of Damon Runyon in his characters, Mr. Leonard this time focuses his laser eye on one Carl Webster, nicknamed the "Hot Kid of US Marshals" whose reputation is linked to his drawling a quiet warning to lawbreakers that when he pulls his gun, he "shoots to kill."
And he does, as his record of dead bad men shows. Carl is a mixture of deadeye competence mixed with a quirky tolerance for bad guys, not to mention some German prisoners of war from the Afrika Corps in World War II who become enamored of life in America. Carl and tough Germans are made for each other.
Carl demonstrates the same quixotic tendency in his choice of a wife, name of Looly, who is almost as fast on the draw as her husband. It is predictable that they meet in a hail of bullets because of Looly's infatuation with Charlie "Pretty Boy" Floyd, a notorious gangster of the 1930s. Carl and Looly are reminiscent of a law enforcement version of Bonnie and Clyde.
When America goes to war, Looly joins the U.S. Marine Corps, where she teaches Marines how to handle guns. Yet Carl tries patiently to explain to a hard-driving young deputy that you can't judge all criminals alike.
For instance, there is the case of Joe Tanzi, a coal miner who robbed a bank and was sent to jail for 25 years and escaped after five years. He then dug up the stolen money and bought a small farm and settled down as a law-abiding citizen even if he is perpetually on the run. Carl finds Tanzi but doesn't rush to arrest him to make sure he does the rest of his time. They have a hilarious confrontation in which Carl knows that Tanzi is armed with a shotgun hidden in a washtub, yet he shows no inclination to take him on or take him in.
There is, according to the veteran marshal, a difference between a Tanzi who was "a criminal for a few days" and the kind of killer who shoots down law officers in the course of committing violent crimes. As Carl puts it, "You have to know when it's all right to use your gun."
The deputy is perplexed because it had been his dream to work with the hard-bitten and fast-shooting Carl Webster who was 15 when he first killed a cow thief and went on to dispose of an assortment of bank robbers. There was an ex-federal agent gone bad, who had two guns cinched to his legs. There was the man holding a woman in front of him as a shield, whom Carl shot from 20 feet. But he admitted he worried about that one.
"You know the woman fainted?" he tells his deputy, "For a minute I was afraid I'd shot her."
Mr. Leonard is on the top of his crime-fiction game, and this collection is even better than usual. In addition to the deliciously tongue-in-cheek novella "Comfort to the Enemy" there are two Carl Webster short stories that track his career beginning with the sardonic "Showdown at Checotah," which tells "how Carlos Webster changed his name to Carl and became a famous Okahoma lawman." Only Mr. Leonard could link a lingering resentment over a stolen peach ice cream cone with Carl's first clash with a mobster.
In "Looly and Pretty Boy," he is the U.S. marshal who encounters his future wife in a shootout when she is living with Joe Young, a friend of Charlie "Pretty Boy" Floyd's. Looly isn't about to waste her time on "this dumbbell," as she calls him, so when he refuses to give himself up to the law, she shoots him and insists that she was kidnapped. In a nice touch of irony, Marshal Webster observes that if she sticks to that story she'll get a $500 reward from the Oklahoma Bankers Association.
And she does. She also gets the marshal.
"Comfort to the Enemy" is a satirical gem about the investigation of a hanging at a German POW camp in Oklahoma, where the marshal meets the captive Nazis and decides they aren't all bad. Carl strikes up a friendship with Jurgen Schrenk, a young captain in the Africa Korps and a friend of Gen. Erwin Rommel's who was forced to kill himself after the German defeat in North Africa. Jurgen, once a poster boy for the Hitler Youth, falls into the category of former Nazis who would be happy if Hitler were dead.
Meantime, he is prepared to do all he can to help his American friends, especially the slow-talking, fast-shooting Marshal Webster. Jurgen speaks perfect English and is in frequent trouble for slipping out of the prison camp to visit his American girlfriend, Shemane, who has been a whore since she was 16. Shemane's mother, Gladys, drinks martinis and likes Jurgen because is "a nice polite boy who calls her ma'am."
And, of course, what Shemane is doing with Jurgen is "giving comfort to the enemy." It's one of the few books that can make you laugh.
Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.
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