We all know a bit of Elmore Leonard, even if we don’t realise that we do. Long before I read his books, I’d seen the films that’ve poured out from his multitude of novels, short stories and screenplays, and it’s hard to appreciate just how much he’s produced.
Films delivered from the end of Leonard’s pen include Out of Sight, Jackie Brown (from the novel Rum Punch), 3:10 to Yuma, Mr Majestyk, Hombre, Get Shorty, Be Cool and plenty more besides, including Valdez is Coming.
Bob Valdez is a well thought of, but generally disregarded Mexican town constable in a border town in the early 1800s of the old west. Encountering a stand-off surrounding an old shack out of town he discovers the rude, ruthless and self-important Frank Tanner who believes the man in the shack is a killer. Men line up to get the kill shot but, even though he’s dismissed and ignored by Tanner and his men, it’s Valdez who decides to do his job by walking out into the open and talking the man out of the shack. Tanner’s idiotic gunman R.L Davis causes shots to go wild and Valdez kills the man. The man was innocent and inside the shack is his pregnant wife.
This one act makes Valdez, a just and decent man, take on a massive sense of duty beyond his position. He knows the woman has been done wrong and aims to set things right. Burying her husband he promises her recompense for her and her child but, although all the dozens of men who were there agree she’s in a bad place now, they won’t help her. She is a native American and he was black. There is no acceptance of their humanity. So, Valdez decides to approach Tanner, figuring it was he who created the stand-off and he who should see reason and help the woman. He can afford it after all.
Tanner is cold beyond cold and has Valdez put against a wall and shot at for his impertinence. He is pinned in place with Tanner’s men unloading bullets between his legs around his hands and head. Eventually they let him go, seeing him stagger away and laughing. Only the segundo, Tanner’s team leader, has a doubt, recognising something in the fact that Valdez stood, didn’t beg and didn’t complain.
One more attempt at reasoning with Tanner ends up with Valdez being beaten, bound to a crucifix and abandoned into the desert. It’s a final straw, compounded by a fearsome attack on Valdez friend, Diego Luz, whose hands they break and whose children barely avoid rape and murder.
Valdez returns to Tanner’s town. What people are now to discover is that the Valdez they know, the 40 year old town constable, has another side. A killer, a hunter of Apaches, a scalper, a man with skills, resources and grit to spare.
Killing three men in quick succession he takes Tanner’s bride to be and leaves Tanner a message to meet him at a far off mountain. Pay up for the wronged woman, or lose your wife. Taking 14 men with him Tanner pursues, only for them to be killed one, two, three at a time. His men, the segundo especially, gradually lose faith in the wisdom of pursuing this man, fearing for their own lives and failing to see the value in risking themselves for their boss’s wife and not understanding why he doesn’t see reason with this man. At the final analysis Valdez offers to face Tanner and spare the rest of his men. Tanner, his men refusing to draw guns on Valdez, won’t face Valdez and he is left broken with no wife, no men and, more importantly, no respect. The respect he never gave Valdez.
What Valdez is Coming delivers is a morality tale in spades. The key characters are diametrically opposed in their outlooks and there is almost no doubt as to what the outcome of this duel will be. Valdez may be killed, but that’s not the point, for the reader or for Valdez. This is about not judging people, or taking advantage of those judgements. But, really it’s all about reckoning. Everyone has one, will have one, and deserves one.
The plot, dialogue and characterization is spare, tight and rapid. That this is a book about cowboys is irrelevant. There are no cactus, lonely prairies, wandering moons and all of that nonsense. It’s about people and Leonard hasn’t been called the Dickens of Detroit for nothing. These are real people, written from the ground up.