When the Women Come Out to Dance
by Elmore Leonard
Published by William Morrow
224 pages, 2002
Reviewed by Anthony Rainone
Elmore Leonard hates filler. His books don't contain lengthy description of settings, in-depth characterization or much emotional baggage. They're to the point. In When the Women Come Out to Dance, his new collection of nine short stories, Leonard gets even leaner and focuses on what's visceral to him -- the act of confrontation. Leonard likes conflict and the unpredictability of the decisions it causes so much that each of these stories is really a hybrid on this theme.
Sometimes, the author offers a cowboy twist on that old standard, the duel. Several of the previously published stories contained here are Westerns, a genre in which Leonard specialized before turning to crime fiction. "Hurrah for Capt. Early," set in Sweetmary, Arizona, in 1898, finds two men -- ex-U.S. soldier and Spanish-American veteran Bo Catlett, and a cowboy ranch rider named Macon -- facing off in the middle of La Salle Street with an unconventional choice of weaponry. Leonard writes: "Catlett raised the saber to lay the tip against Macon's breastbone, saying to him, 'You use your pistol and I use steel? All right, if that's how you want it. See if you can shoot me 'fore this blade is sticking out your back. You game?'" The immediacy that Leonard (whose 1998 novel, Cuba Libre, took place at the outset of the Spanish-American War) brings to his portrayal of the Americans who fought in Cuba in 1898 makes the reader feel that he must have been there. Surely he charged up San Juan Hill with Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, no? Such is the power of Leonard's research and prose.
In contrast, "Fire in the Hole" is a modern yarn involving an ex-con, Boyd Crowder, who employs skinheads to commit acts of hatred -- crimes that are perpetrated only to satisfy his violent nature. Crowder is pursued by an old friend, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, with whom he dug coal as a young man. In a nod to the Western, Leonard puts Givens in cowboy boots and Stetson hat, and arms him with a six-shooter. ("You and your big six-shooter -- born a hundred years too late," one character says to Givens.) The two men work opposite sides of the law, but there is mutual respect, as evidenced in a late-night meeting during which Givens tries to convince Crowder to give himself up. The final encounter between the two takes place at a dinner table, one man sitting across from the other. Crowder has an Army Colt .45 pointed at Givens, whose own gun is holstered. In true gunslinger fashion, Givens isn't worried:
He kept his hand there, the right one, smoothing the napkin, the hand that would slide down the lapel of his suit coat, sweep it open and in the same motion cover the walnut grip of his gun and pull it high to clear the six-and-a-half-inch barrel. He saw himself doing it.
"Fire in the Hole" is also about redeeming the past. It contains the parallel story of Givens' affair with a woman from his old neighborhood, Ava Bowman. No innocent in her own right -- she shot and killed her abusive husband with a Winchester rifle -- Ava sees an advantage to Givens' attentions, a path to bettering her life. While Givens may serve as her redemption from a sordid past, Ava returns the favor by saving Givens from Crowder in the end, with another blast from the Winchester.
There is a great deal of macho to be found between these covers, but there are passionate (and violent) stories involving women, too. The ability to construct razor-thin tension serves Leonard well when he employs it between the sexes. In "Sparks," insurance investigator Joseph Canavan finds himself sipping martinis and smoking dope with Robin Harris, a woman he suspects of having burned down her multimillion-dollar house. Assigned to prove that Harris is trying to pull a fast one with her insurance claim, Canavan enjoys the flirtatious tête-à-tête in her living room. It's all part of his game. While he may bend the rules, Canavan faces down Harris and gleans the truth. What he does with that truth, though, is as surprising to her as it is to the reader. Let's just say that Canavan is one cool dude.
Leonard fans will be pleased to welcome back Karen Sisco (from the 1996 novel Out of Sight) in "Karen Makes Out." And they probably won't be surprised to learn that her choice in men still leans towards the dangerous. Carl Tillman gives Karen what she needs between the sheets, but as a bank robber, he lacks the charm and finesse of a Foley. In the end, she's got to do what a girl's got to do -- especially when she's a U.S. marshal. "Karen said, 'Yeah, well ...' and raised the pistol to rack the slide and cupped her left hand under the grip. She said, 'You move to get in the car, I'll shoot.'" Reverberations of the Karen Sisco we know from Out of Sight ring strongly, even in this thinly plotted adventure, one of the shorter pieces in Leonard's new collection. Tillman turns out to be not much more than a prop, and the tensions between Karen and FBI agent Daniel Burdon, who is pursuing Tillman, seem rather stale.
There are two original stories in this book, "Tenkiller" being the less successful. It introduces us to Ben Webster, an ex-rodeo star and Hollywood stuntman, who -- following the death of his stuntwoman wife -- leaves Los Angeles and goes back to his family's pecan farm in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. Webster thereafter has several confrontations with a mean group of brothers squatting on his land, one instance involving a car chase that seems made specifically for filming. Even when Ben enters into an affair with Denise Allen, a flame from his past and the former wife of a country music artist, the story meanders. Besides the Western, Leonard has a fascination with music and film. "Tenkiller" is infused with references to both, much like the novels Get Shorty and Be Cool, only here it lacks verve. You get the sense that this was the kernel of a novel that ultimately didn't inspire Leonard's continued attention.
The volume's title tale is a considerably more potent original effort. Leonard has all his mojo working in this one. Ginger Mahmood lives a boring life as the wife of a Pakistani plastic surgeon in Palm Beach, Florida. She's an ex-stripper, whose dancing kept Dr. Mahmood coming back again and again to watch. "About the fourth visit," she explains, "I gave him what's known as the million-dollar hand job and became Mrs. Mahmood." The surgeon's lust for Ginger, though, hasn't stopped him from cheating on her. Now she's had enough and wants out of their marriage. Trouble is, Mahmood isn't only lecherous, he's dangerous, too. ("A guy gets tired of his wife in Pakistan? He burns her to death.") Ginger is tough, but she needs help to win back her freedom. Enter Lourdes, her Colombian personal assistant. Ginger is intrigued to find that Lourdes knows just the kind of unsavory characters who could put a tragic end to her hubby's life. But her passive-aggressive behavior and her reliance on Lourdes, who doesn't reveal her true nature until this story's end, finally put Ginger into another kind of bind -- one that may prove even more sinister than whatever threat Dr. Mahmood represents.
All of the stories here bear the Leonard trademarks of clean prose and just the right amount of detail necessary to bring a character or a setting to life. Indeed, some stories, such as "Chickasaw Charlie Hoke" and "Hanging Out at the Buena Vista," seem more about extended mood than action. While a few of these tales are more winning than others, Leonard manages to hit at least one home run in each of them. | January 2003
Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine.