I picked this up in a used book store while I was on vacation — in a spiffy hardcover too. It’s actually a collection of short stories and novellas, which start with some nice slice of life bits before turning into all out crime and mayhem. Leonard’s got stories featuring a lot of his recurring characters in here. Karen Sisco from Out of Sight makes an appearance and so does the descendant of Carl Webster from The Hot Kid. But for me, When the Women Come Out to Dance is great because it shows that Leonard can pack his fun crime stories with deeper truths about the cruelty and awful nature of America — giving you social commentary while never taking away the entertainment factor of his stories. I guess all crime stories — even patriotic macho tales like the Mike Hammer detective yarns — do this to some extent. If everything was peachy in American society, after all, then there would be no crime and corruption to write about. James Ellroy seems to love examining America’s sins, with sociopathic criminals, racist, corrupt cops and corruption and perversion behind almost every powerful man in business or government. Leonard doesn’t go that far, but he dabbles well.
That dabbling is most apparent in ‘Fire in the Hole,’ the novella that later became the pilot for the very good Justified TV series. It’s got Raylan Givens, one of Leonard’s most popular characters, coming back to his home state of Kentucky to deal with Boyd Crowder — a Neo-Nazi militiaman and terrorist who enjoys robbing banks and spouting insane racist claptrap. But Crowder is something more than just a nut with swastika tattoos. He’s actually a very sad representation of what capitalism does to the American underclass. Crowder is a product of capitalism. He’s from a poor area and was forced to work in coal mines, alongside Raylan, during his youth. When the workers went on strike, Boyd remembers how the company hired gun thugs to bring them into line and could always count on the support of the police and the government. Boyd Crowder is also a Vietnam War veteran, complete with a necklace of ears, and this rather pointless war for profit and political posturing turned him into someone who understands and enjoys violence. Crowder needs someone to blame for the mess that is rural Kentucky and so he chooses rather silly conspiracies about Jews and lesser races — which even he doesn’t really believe. At the end of the story, Raylan is forced to kill Boyd. I love Justified and Walt Goggins’ Boyd Crowder is probably the best part of the show, but Raylan killing Boyd at the end of ‘Fire in the Hole’ is such a sad and perfect moment that’s undermined a little by Raylan shooting to wound like he does in the TV series. Raylan has to kill Boyd because of Boyd’s own bad decisions and because it’s the law — and he doesn’t really like it. In the last lines of the story, Raylan explaining ‘Boyd and I dug coal together’ is wistful and sad. They were both blue collar workers and the capitalist American system forced them to kill each other.
But America’s awful past also comes into Leonard’s scrutiny in the short story ‘Hurrah for Captain Early.’ It’s a story about a Buffalo Soldier showing up at a small Western town to meet up with his commanding officer, after they both fought in Cuba in the Spanish American War. Everyone in the town is rude and racist to the Buffalo Soldier, who finds himself having to deal with a particularly racist cowboy eager to draw on and kill him. Leonard seems to really like the Spanish American War — it also makes an appearance in his novel, Cuba Libre — probably because it’s such a buffoonish and stupid little conflict. From the boiler room accident in the USS Main serving as an excuse for American expansionism and greed to senile ex-Confederate General Joseph Wheeler shouting ‘we got the damn Yankees on the run again!’ while fighting the Spaniards and battle-crazed Theodore Roosevelt yelling at Black soldiers for retreating when they were really going back to get more ammunition, it seems like a farce as much of a war. And, like most of America’s wars, it was pointless. The Cuban people weren’t particularly better off under American rule and nothing at all changed for the Black veterans who fought for American greed. That’s what ‘Hurrah for Captain Early’ is ultimately about.
I suppose there’s an element of anti-capitalist, anti-American sentiment in a lot of Leonard’s stories. It might not always have been there — 52 Pick-Up is pretty much how tough, Greatest Generation businessmen triumph over the long-haired youth of the sleazy Seventies — but it deepened as he got older. Raylan, Leonard’s most recent novel, has a scathing look at a coal company’s exploitation of rural Kentucky, for instance. When the Women Come Out to Dance has some of his most political work in it, along with my favorite Western short story of all time, ‘The Tonto Woman’ and it’s definitely a great place to start if you’re looking for a sampler of one of the greatest — and most insightful — writers around.