Saturday, July 31, 2010

Escape from Five Shadows by Elmore Leonard

Escape from Five Shadows by Elmore Leonard
Dell #940,
Copyright 1956

Most know that Elmore Leonard cut his teeth writing Western stories. For a young man that grew up in Detroit, he sure supplied the reader with a palpable portrayal of the Arizona Territory in the 1880s. "The Law at Randado" was my first Leonard Western novel. That was many years ago and at that time I thought I stumbled upon a Western that was different from the generic ones that I had been reading. The impact that "Randado" left on me made me seek out Leonard's other early Westerns. And I have read them all. One that is near the top on the list is "Escape from Five Shadows." It's filled with a wide variety of morally different characters stuck and struggling in a harsh piece of the dusty Arizona landscape.

Salvaje looked at his men. There were ten trackers here, and now he watched them remove their army-issue shirts and pants, stripping to breechclouts, then slipping on their cartridge bandoleers again. All of them wore curl-toed Apache moccasins folded and tied just below the knee: and to a man they carried single-shot Springfield carbines.
When they were ready, Salvaje nodded, and they moved off to take the escaped man.

Cory Bowen has been wronged, sent to prison for stealing cattle which he had no involvement in. He's been farmed out of Yuma prison, along with a handful of other prisoners, to work on territory road construction, which the Government has contracted to an iron-fisted independent named Frank Renda. The prisoners are housed in a makeshift convict camp called Five Shadows and Renda holds them there with a few guards, a ruthless gunhand, and a dozen Mimbre Apache police. Posted to watch over the Government's investment is the cowardly Willis Falvey, whom Renda has wrapped around his finger. Together they have been skimming off the money that the Government has allocated for the prisoners' care and the road work. It's become a profitable business for them, at the prisoners expense. Bowen escapes early in the novel and the Mimbre Apache trackers drag him back to Five Shadows. Renda gives him a beating and month's worth of brutal punishment. This is when the novel really takes a turns and we learn that through Bowen, others seek ways to form their own means of escape. And the others are not the prisoners. There is the wife of Falvey, who wants out of this stinking dead end part of Arizona. A girl that lives with her father at the nearby stage station, who is determined to get another trial for Bowen. And my favorite, the Mimbre leader named Salvaje, who is the most righteous and pure character in the whole story.

Not to give anything away, I'll just say that there is an opportunity for Bowen to plan another dangerous escape. Of course he takes it and this intertwines all characters, for some the results offer a weighed relief and for others there is contriteness. The risk for Bowen is great because a new trial is granted for him and he doesn't know it. Getting caught this time means death. "Escape from Five Shadows" isn't Elmore Leonard's best Western novel. (It's tough to compete with his later classics -"Valdez is Coming" and "Hombre") But it is still a well above average one and there is plenty to like in it. First is the remarkable picture of the old Arizona West that Leonard paints for the reader. The smells of horse, leather and dust get in your nostrils. Frank Renda and his gunhand are diabolical, and for some reason I find these characters compelling as hell. Elmore Leonard has Bowen being tormented by these two. He takes a lot of punishment, but remains determined to get out. (I guess that is the will of an innocent man) The best scene is without a doubt when the Mimbre Apache trackers are hunting down Bowen after his first escape. It happens early in the novel and it turns into a game of respect and bravery. A wonderful action snapshot episode in the novel.

I enjoyed this Elmore Leonard novel, but that's easy for me to say because he is one of my favorite Western writers. I have always wished he had written more Westerns. I prefer them over his crime fiction. I have hope that he will write another. It's been too long of a wait.


Frank Loose said...

I have not read any of Elmore Leonard's westerns, but i have VALDEZ IS COMING in my TBR Pile. Been there awhile. Guess I should move it closer to the top. Didn't EL write a lot of western short stories, too? I seem to recall seeing a book of collected shorts.

August West said...

It's titled "The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard" and was published in 2004. And it does contain all of his Western stories going back to his first from 1951.

I was lucky and got a new hardcover edition for $4 when a bookstore was going out of business in 2005. I read them all and they are fantastic.