In the outlaw West of Elmore Leonard's dazzling novel The Hot Kid, bank robbers have become so common that "thief" seems close to a legitimate occupation, right alongside gun moll, bootlegger, and prostitute. Set over 13 years in '20s and '30s Oklahoma and Kansas City, the book is populated by characters looking to make names for themselves, joining legends like Bonnie and Clyde, Machine Gun Kelly, and John Dillinger in headlines and crime magazines across the country. In this world, notoriety means more than money, and that counts for figures on both sides of the law, who engage in a game of one-upmanship that has little to do with the usual interests of crime or justice. Though Leonard doesn't sketch them as broadly as the colorful hoods found in his contemporary crime novels, the ambitions of these larger-than-life characters take on infectiously comical dimensions.
The title refers to young Deputy U.S. Marshal Carl Webster, a quick-drawing slickster who wants to become the most famous lawman west of the Mississippi, and does little to hide his vanity. At 15 years old, Webster witnessed the vicious Emmet Long shooting an officer in a drugstore robbery, but what rankled him the most is that Long snatched away Webster's peach ice-cream cone and called him a "greaser." Webster gets his revenge six years later by making Long the first in what will become an impressive list of vanquished outlaws, and he seals his fame with a cool catchphrase: "If I have to pull my weapon, I'll shoot to kill." (Funny how often he "has" to pull it.) Webster's chief rival is Jack Belmont, the black-hearted son of an oil millionaire who's out to show up his dad by knocking off more banks than Pretty Boy Floyd. Both stand to gain from the purple pen of Tony Antonelli, a True Detective magazine writer who follows the story as it develops, and plans to stretch his two-cents-a-word bounty to the limit.
Never pressing for effect, Leonard effortlessly evokes the speakeasies and whorehouses that harbor these seedy characters at the height of jazz-age Kansas City, where the likes of Louis Armstrong and Count Basie could be heard above the fray. True to the book's archetypal spirit, the women are generally tougher than the menthey're all lion-hearted exotic dancers and/or prostitutes who know how to handle themselves in the company of roughnecks. A smooth-running tour through a vibrant period in American history, The Hot Kid hopscotches from one memorable setpiece to another, including a shootout at a speakeasy where Webster and Belmont team up against local Klansmen, a showdown with police in which a gun moll shoots her felon boyfriend in the back, and an ending that brings the arrogant Webster back to his roots. After 50 years and 40 novels, Leonard shows no signs of losing his touch.