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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

City Primeval is widely regarded as the first book of Leonard’s strongest period. As the allusion to the classic 1952 Western film High Noon in the subtitle suggests, the novel marks a conscious adaptation of the characters and themes of Leonard’s earlier Westerns to the modern urban settings of his later crime novels. The book’s protagonist, Detroit homicide detective Raymond Cruz, is a Texan of Mexican descent who thus has the background appropriate to a Western hero. Leonard describes Cruz’s relationship with Clement Mansell, the book’s villain, in terms of classic Westerns: “No—more like High Noon. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. You have to go back a hundred years and out west to find an analogy. But there it is.” References to Westerns are scattered throughout the book, which opens with a dinner conversation between Cruz and a reporter who accuses him of trying to emulate Wyatt Earp, Clint Eastwood, and John Wayne. It closes, appropriately, with an old-fashioned showdown between Cruz and Mansell.

This frontier imagery is integrated into a thoroughly realistic context that reveals Leonard’s recent in-depth study of the daily operations of the Detroit police department. Particularly well-handled are a series of interrogation scenes in which the detectives use subtle techniques of misdirection to gain information from uncooperative suspects, who never realize how much they have given away. As in most of Leonard’s novels, the difference between the good and bad characters is not strictly a matter of following or breaking the law; the players on both sides operate very near the border between right and wrong, with their ends differing much more than the means used to achieve them.

Mansell has, in fact, found the legal system to be in some ways his best ally; he has been freed from earlier murder charges on legal technicalities. Cruz, on the other hand, is forced to work outside the law, tampering with evidence and eventually forcing a confrontation in which he kills Mansell under circumstances that are ethically, and perhaps legally, suspect. As Mansell says to Cruz in the final scene, “Me and you are on different sides, but we’re alike in a lot of ways,” an observation that typifies the similarity, and even sympathy, that usually exists between antagonist and protagonist in Leonard’s work. Mansell’s point of view is relied on just as much as that of Cruz or of Sandy Stanton, Mansell’s girlfriend, and the reader consequently acquires a degree...

(The entire section is 590 words.)