The shoot-out that ends Elmore Leonard’s 1977 novel The Hunted is just like those in the westerns he was still writing back in those days.
Three heavily armed bad guys, getting ready to kill an upright guy who is protecting a young woman and an idea of rightness. A stand-off in the dry, arid desert. A trick by the upright guy to even the odds. And them — WHAM! WHAM! WHAM!
Oh, and there’s also a bag of money, a lot of money, that a fat, sloppy, dopey lawyer tells the guy he “can’t just walk off with.” “Why not?” the upright guy asks.
And Leonard ends with a final paragraph:
It seemed that simple. Why not?
Americans in Israel
This scene, however, doesn’t happen in Arizona, but in modern-day Israel, outside of the resort town of Eilat, the country’s southernmost city, at the northern tip of the Red Sea.
But, for the most part, it does involve Americans.
There are three mobsters from Detroit who have come to Israel to kill a mortgage broker named Jimmy Ross who, three years earlier, was pressured by federal prosecutors into testifying before a grand jury. Although the grand jury never returned any indictments, one mob chief Ross fingered suffered a stroke from all the stress, and the other, Gene Valenzuela, went to prison on an unrelated charged.
Ross has been hiding out in Israel ever since with a government-provided identity as Al Rosen, which also happens to have been the name of the thirdbaseman of the Cleveland Indians who, in the early 1950s, was the AL Most Valuable Player.
“You’re the first person”
Now, in the mid-1970s, when U.S. Marine Gunnery Sergeant David E. Davis — the aforementioned upright guy — meets Rosen, he asks:
“You weren’t by any chance a third baseman? You’re about the right age. The one played for the Indians, made Most Valuable Player in, I think, ’53. Hit forty-three home runs, led the league with a three thirty-six average.”
“You want to know something? You’re the first person over here’s asked me that,” Rosen said. “How old you think I am?”
In fact, Rosen is 50 although he claims, depending on the woman he’s trying to get into bed, to be 45 or even 40. [For the record, the ballplaying Rosen, known as the “Hebrew Hammer,” was 29 when he was the 1953 MVP, which would make him, at the time of Leonard’s novel, around 50.]
Rosen is one of Leonard’s many personable and attractive white-collar guys who tiptoe along the edges of nefarious activity at times and, at others, stand knee deep in it. With $100,000 coming to him every year from his mortgage company, Rosen lives comfortably, enjoying the climate and engaging in a game of seducing tourist-ladies.
Davis is 27 days away from leaving the Marines, not because he knows what he’s going to do — he doesn’t, and that frightens him — but because he’s gotten tired of sitting behind a high counter at the U.S. Embassy, nothing more, he says, than the equivalent of a bank guard.
How would you react?
The conversation about the ballplaying Rosen — the book’s Rosen corrects some of Davis’s stats about that MVP year — is an example of what Leonard does in The Hunted and nearly all of his novels.
He has his characters talk about stuff the way you and I do. These conversations usually have little or nothing to do with advancing the plot. They have everything to do with giving a sense of the people — the human beings — who are going through something that generally begins in the normal course of life but escalates into something that is both an adventure and life-threatening.
How would you react if three mobsters were suddenly on your trail?
Rosen’s talk about the ballplayer makes him seem much more like you and me. It completely removes him from the clichés and stereotypes of crime fiction.
“A dozen transit-mixers”
Even Leonard’s bad guys are people.
What Gene Valenzuela liked was the view of all the cement work going on.
[Valenzuela’s name will echo with baseball fans since there was a really good pitcher named Fernando Valenzuela who pitched for a long time in the Majors. But his career, which lasted to 1997, only began in 1980, three years after The Hunted was published.]
Valenzuela — no question, a stone-cold killer — is standing watch on a terrace, hoping to spot Davis’s car, and he’s enamored of the view and an idea for the future:
Directly below him, the road came curving in from the south beach and fingered out in three directions: across open, undeveloped land to the North Beach hotels; to the airport; and up the hill to town…
He’d watch the Israeli girls walk by in their jeans with their Jewish asses. There was a crowd of young stuff here and enough cement work — a guy with half a dozen transit-mixers could make enough to retire in three years.
Even bad guys have dreams.
“Telling me how you feel”
At the beginning of The Hunter, Davis is trying to explain to his superior Master Sergeant T. C. Cox why he is going to leave the Corps after 16 years rather than re-up and be sure of good pension.
“I probably make it sound more complicated than it is.”
“I’ll agree with you there,” Sergeant Cox said. “We talk about something, it seems like a fairly simple issue, then you start telling me how you feel. What’s that got to do with it?”
Yes, that’s it. In the world of Elmore’s characters in The Hunted and many other novels, men don’t know how to think about feelings. [Is that much different from real life?]
Some, though, like David E. Davis, act on feelings, even if they can’t explain them. Such as his decision to do what he can to keep Rosen from being killed by Valenzuela and his two sidekicks.
This mystifies the bad guys who can only explain it by fantasizing that he’s being paid a great deal. And it mystifies Rosen and his Israeli aide Tali.
And it mystifies Davis.
It’s never really explained. However, Davis does fit into the pattern of many of the main characters of Leonard’s novels. It’s not so much that they have decided to do something noble or right. It’s just that they don’t like to see people pushed around by bullies.
And, sometimes, it’s that simple.
Patrick T. Reardon