Elmore Leonard’s debut novel, THE BOUNTY HUNTERS, is a classic western tale about a Civil War veteran and retired Army scout brought back into the service for a final dangerous mission: escort a green lieutenant into Mexico to bring back a renegade Apache chief. I hadn’t known Leonard got his start with Westerns (subsequently discovering the films 3:10 TO YUMA and other Western films are based on his stories) and found it a real treat.
The story centers on Dave Flynn, a classic Western hero: doesn’t say much, means what he says, takes no crap from anybody, knows how to survive in the wilderness. He suspects his mission into Mexico is a fool’s errand as it was arranged by Major Deneen, with whom he shares a dark secret from the Civil War. He and the lieutenant cross paths with Apaches, undisciplined and unruly Mexican police, and a ruthless gang of bounty hunters–American desperadoes who kill Apaches and get paid by the Mexican government for each scalp. When the bounty hunters turn up with a bag of scalps that may not be Apache but instead Mexican farmers, Flynn gets embroiled between these three sides and plays them off against each other to save some local people he cares about, including a fiery and strong Mexican beauty. It’s up to Flynn to do what’s right, deliver Western justice, and save the girl.
The novel was published in the 1950s, and I was happy to see how well it holds up. In my view, it flirted with but didn’t rely on racial and gender stereotypes, and our hero survives more on his wits, experience, and demeanor than he does on any seemingly superhuman capability. His sense of justice is more focused on protecting people he cares about than a stark code of justice that is never challenged by situations involving moral shades of gray. The result is a realistically delivered, solid yarn with likeable characters and Leonard’s trademark quality dialogue that holds the story together even as it occasionally plods or comes together loosely.