CHARLIE MARTZ AND OTHER STORIES: The Unpublished Stories, by Elmore Leonard. William Morrow, 237 pp. $25.99.
Franz Kafka is always the go-to guy in the debate about posthumous publishing. If Max Brod had actually heeded his friend's request that his manuscripts be burned, we wouldn't have "The Trial," "Amerika" or the Kafka we have today. The counter-argument: Not everyone is Franz Kafka.
Elmore Leonard isn't Franz Kafka, either. But Leonard, who died in 20013 at the age of 87, does occupy a singular place in American literature, as the creator of wry, wise, deliberately spare explorations of human nature that also happened to be about crime and criminals. The question raised by "Charlie Martz and Other Stories" -- a new collection of mostly unpublished Leonard short work -- is whether the late author enjoys a status so lofty that even his juvenilia is worth examining.
There are no unheralded masterpieces among the 15 stories in this volume, 11 of which are previously unpublished and several of which don't even have dates (because they came from undated manuscripts). According to the book's very candid foreword by the author's son Peter, Leonard worked on his early prose with the application of a gunsmith -- cleaning, polishing, adjusting the parts till they moved fluidly, efficiently and accurately, all the while making sure the pistol didn't explode. His self-administered internship -- conducted in the dawn hours of his workdays at Campbell-Ewald, the ad firm where he once wrote copy -- involved hundreds of false starts, false moves, the culling of influences and the refining of various elements that eventually added up to his witty, observant, iron-fist/velvet-glove style.
The title story, "Charlie Martz," doesn't open the volume, but it does reflect the better elements of Leonard's Western fiction (which over the years included "Hombre," "Valdez Is Coming" and "3:10 to Yuma," all made into major movies). It's he-man stuff. As Peter Leonard says in his intro, Hemingway was his father's strongest influence. The opening line of "Charlie Martz" ("In Mesilla it was the hour of the siesta") nearly screams copyright infringement. The title of another story, "A Happy Light-Hearted People," echoes Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," although in this case the content is pure Fitzgerald: the spoiled Americans in Spain, judging fellow guests as they enter the hotel dining room, is straight out of "Tender Is the Night."
The story that does open the book -- "One, Horizontal" -- owes a considerable debt to Dashiell Hammett, the Continental Op and the vernacular of hard-boiled '20s crime stories ("blind pig" for speakeasy; "black-and-tan" for an interracial club). The fact that Leonard eventually climbed out from under these 800-lb. influences is a testament to both his talent and his hard work.
The collection abounds with signs of the writer to come. Characters who strut or practice blinkered machismo usually pay a price (the supposedly "weaker" protagonist often prevails, as in 1955's "For Something to Do" and 1958's "The Trespassers"). There's a puritanical morality at work in some of the tales (such as "Evenings Away From Home," 1959), where even sinful thoughts come with a cost. The character of Charlie Martz, who cries out for a movie portrayal by actor Sam Elliott, is the classic Western hero, modest and closemouthed, but lethal when provoked. What's intriguing about "Charlie Martz and Other Stories," aside from watching a great writer emerge from his chrysalis, is that some of the stories that one would consider below the Elmore Leonard standard are the ones that were published during his lifetime. One wonders what calculations went into that, either on the part of his editors or the author himself.