A truly great artist works equally well on a big or small canvas. In When the Women Come Out to Dance, Elmore Leonard shows that he falls under that category with nine short stories that are equals of his novels.
Best known for earthy, hard-boiled novels such as Pagan Babies, Get Shorty and Out of Sight, Leonard utilizes those same sensibilities in his short stories, creating equally compelling characters in a smaller amount of space. His characters range from a has-been ball player looking for a job in “Chickasaw Charlie Hoke” to a stripper who hires a maid for nefarious purposes in the title story.
Many of the stories, like Leonard’s novels, are about crimes – crimes that have happened, that are happened or are about to happen. But the form allows Leonard to make some surprising departures, as in “Hanging Out at the Buena Vista,” about an older man and woman spending their last days in a retirement community. The story is a highlight of the collection -- poignant without being sappy. What’s most remarkable is that, unlike a lot of other writers, Leonard treats older people at the end of their lives not as symbols or calculated sympathy grabbers, but as real people. The two characters in “Buena Vista,” Vincent and Natalie, flirt, get bored, and discuss the past and the limited future. Leonard isn’t afraid to show that these are real people, who have been made saintly by age. They think a lot about appearances, and are still capability of pettiness, as when Vincent observes that “the majority of women who work in health care are seriously overweight.”
But that shouldn’t be surprising, coming for Leonard, whose trademark is his well-drawn characters, so realistic that in reading his work, you don’t feel that the people he writes about are just there on paper, putting on a show, but that they have real lives – that they existed before the story began, and will go on thriving long after you pick up the book.
That’s obviously Leonard’s intent, as he often revisits characters from work to work, picking them up at different points of their lives. Two of the stories here feature characters from his novels, the first being “Fire in the Hole.” That story centers around Raylan Givens, a character also featured in the books “Pronto,” and “Riding the Rap,” books which, I admit, were unread by me. I’m sure that I might have appreciated the story more had I read the books but, the story also stands on its own, a neat twist on the “two friends on different sides of the law” genre.
However, as a fan of Leonard’s Out of Sight, it was a pleasure to read the story “Karen Makes Out,” which picks up the story of U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco before the events of the book. In the story, Karen unwittingly trysts with a bank robber – an affair that’s mentioned in“Out of Sight, in which she falls for yet another bank robber. Leonard makes Karen likable and smart enough that we forgive her lapses in judgment, and yet, I hope if he visits Karen again, she’ll have enlisted the services of a good therapist.
Despite occasional lowlights (the western themed “Hurrah for Capt. Early” failed to thrill me), When the Women Come Out to Dance is further evidence that Leonard is still among the finest fiction writers working today, whether he’s painting a mural or a postcard.