Elmore Leonard does racism right. That’s kind of a weird thing to say, isn’t it? But I just finished a Western novel by Leonard entitled Forty Lashes Less One and it proved to me that Leonard understands how racism works as much as anyone and can accurately show how it affects both those that uphold it and those that suffer under it. I sort of already knew that from Fire in the Hole, the novella that gave the world Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder of Justified fame. Crowder is leading a bunch of Neo-Nazi/Militia/Redneck domestic terrorists in this story and Boyd’s talk about ‘Mud People’ and ‘Jews controlling the government’ is treated as deservingly ridiculous — but something which provides Boyd for both an excuse to ‘get money and blow shit up’ (his favorite past time) and a explanation of his dismal life of Kentucky poverty and pointless service in Vietnam (I’m going by the story, not the show, by the way), which are the natural results of American capitalism and imperialism. I wouldn’t say that racism is the focal point of Fire in the Hole– but its definitely a bigger theme of Forty Lashes Less One.
I was immediately intrigued by the summary for Forty Lashes Less One because the summary explained that the protagonists were a Black soldier and an Apache. Leonard’s other books, particularly his modern crime novels, do often feature People of Color — but they’re usually the antagonist or a supporting character. Rum Punch has Ordell Robbie. Out of Sight has Snoop. Be Cool has Raji. 52 Pick-Up has Bobby Shy. Raylan has the bank robber and the chauffeur turned organ smuggler. But in Leonard’s historical novels, especially Forty Lashes Less One, minority protagonists take center stage. I was expecting something a little like Django Unchained — Western ass-kicking and social commentary in equal measure — when I read my way through it. It didn’t have the hyper-realism of Django Unchained, but I wasn’t far off either.
Forty Lashes Less One is a Western, but it is also a prison story — taking place in the infamous Yuma Territorial Prison. A colored solider and deserter from the Spanish American War in Cuba named Harold Jackson shows up, along with a weak-willed, devoutly Christian new superintendent. The racist captured bandit who runs the prison, Frank Shelby, manipulates the only other minority in Yuma, the Apache Raymond San Carlos, to go after Jackson. The two are forced to battle, get locked up in the solitary ‘snake den’ (a predecessor of today’s Secure Housing Units) and eventually end up forming a lasting friendship. That friendship is bolstered when the new superintendent tries to reform them. Here’s where Forty Lashes Less One gets interesting.
You see, Forty Lashes Less One forces its protagonists to deal with two distinct kinds of racism. They’ve got the outright ugly racism of the other prisoners — and the society at large which led them both give in to their anger, pull triggers and become prisoners. But they’ve also got the patronizing racism of the superintendent. He tries to teach them about Christianity (and fails) and then tries to get them in touch with their Noble Savage sides, explaining that they can be Apache and Zulu warriors, and having them run and even practice spear-throwing. He’s treated as an ineffectual, well-meaning idiot, but Jackson and San Carlos enjoy the chance to break up the dull monotony of their sentences. And when Frank Shelby escapes, they volunteer to go after him (spoilers up ahead, by the way). But when they get back, dragging Shelby with him, the superintendent thanks them profusely and says that he’ll work very hard to get their sentences reduced. Jackson and San Carlos exchange a glance, Jackson says ‘Fuck you, Captain’ and they turn their horses away and ride to freedom.
It’s not exactly Django Unchained‘s Southern Plantation blowing up, but it’s still an awesome moment — and it’s a vital examination of America’s racist past. Leonard’s other Western work often leans towards that as well. The Tonto Woman shows a crusty Mexican bandito and a socially maligned white woman coming together. Hurrah for Captain Early deals with the betrayal of America’s Black soldiers. And while Black men may often appear as foes in Leonard’s modern crime stories, he always tries to show why exactly they end up on the wrong side of the law. Rum Punch, for instance, opens up with arms dealer Ordell Robbie watching a Neo-Nazi parade marching through Miami with police protection. It’s pretty clear that the law is not on his side, so it makes complete sense for him to try his luck as an criminal.
I’m not going out on a limb when I say that Leonard is one of the best writers currently working in America. I’ll read anything he writes and I know it will be worthwhile. And his crime stories are awesome because there are always deeper truths — about America, masculinity, and friendship — inside. That makes him a master and I’m looking forward to always reading more.