Elmore Leonard began his writing career in the 1950’s, turning out Western novels and stories. Not until the demand for Westerns abated did he begin writing the crime fiction for which authorities as disparate as Martin Amis, Stephen King, Quentin Tarantino, and George Will have proclaimed Leonard a genius. Leonard, who has also written such historical fiction as Cuba Libre (1998), set during the Spanish-American War, returned to the Western with The Tonto Woman, and Other Western Stories (1998). The Hot Kid combines Leonard’s interests in crime, Westerns, and historical fiction and represents his best work since Out of Sight (1996).
The Hot Kid opens in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, in 1921, when fifteen-year-old Carlos Webster witnesses Emmett Long kill an Indian policeman while stealing thirty dollars from a drugstore. Impressed by how the United States marshals track down and arrest Emmett, Carlos decides he wants to be a lawman. Shortly afterward, the boy shoots and kills a cattle thief. At this, Carlos’s half-Cheyenne father, Virgil, who raised him, realizes, “My lord, but this boy’s got a hard bark on him.” Carlos’s Cuban mother died when the boy was born. Virgil raises cattle and pecans but is wealthy from the oil discovered on his property. The other member of the Webster household is Narcissa Raincrow, whose job description has evolved from nanny to housekeeper to Virgil’s lover.
Jack Belmont is the same age as Carlos but his moral opposite. As a youngster, he had let his younger sister drown, leaving her brain-damaged. As an eighteen-year-old in 1925, he decides to blackmail his father, the oil millionaire Oris. The “good-looking, useless boy” wants ten thousand dollars a month, or he will tell his mother about Nancy Polis, Oris’s mistress who runs a boardinghouse Oris bought her. Jack has been arrested numerous times, including once for rape. “Everything I got into,” he says, “either I didn’t start it or it was a misunderstanding.” Nonetheless, he does what he wants, when he wants, because he has never been held accountable for his actions. After Oris refuses to pay, Jack enlists the ex-convict Norm Dilworth in a bungled plot to kidnap Nancy. Jack is so despicable his mother plans to shoot him the next time she sees him. His only goal is to become “public enemy number one.”
By 1927, Carlos, now known as Carl, is a U.S. marshal on the trail of Emmett Long’s gang of bank robberswhose newest member is Jack, just out of prison. Carl, a ladies’ man, becomes friendly with Crystal, Emmett’s moll, during his pursuit of the gang. Carl kills Emmett, having said, “If I have to pull my weapon I shoot to kill,” and journalist Tony Antonelli begins making Carl famous for using that line. In the world of The Hot Kid, the number of men someone has killed is very important, with Carl keeping track of how many both he and certain criminals have shot. One criminal’s wife tells Carl he is more frightening than any outlaw because he enjoys shooting bad guys. Carl says, “I can shoot at ’em, but not lie to ’em.” Of such contradictions are born memorable characters.
Tony, the journalist, continues chronicling Carl’s exploits in True Detective Mystery magazine. Leonard depicts Carl much like a gunman of the Old West, and Tony resembles the legendary Ned Buntline, who wrote about the exploits of outlaws, gunfighters, and lawmen for the dime novels of the nineteenth century. Tony, who always seems to have more details than do the police, sees the movie-star-handsome Carl as his own means to success, dubbing him “the hot kid.” Tony thanks the marshal for providing him something to write about, as if his writing is just as important as keeping the peace.
The other major character in the story is Louly Brown. In 1924, when Louly is twelve, she attends the wedding of her cousin Ruby to Charles Arthur Floyd. A year later, Floyd is notorious as an outlaw whom the newspapers call Pretty Boy, and Louly develops a crush on him. She thinks of him as Choc, his chosen nickname, short for...
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