First off I should tell you I have never seen the film. I’m old enough to have seen it but Charles Bronson’s string of po-faced vigilantes never appealed to me in the least. He’s fine in The Great Escape, but my impression of the bulk of his 70s films as ‘old guy blows away punks’ seemed so Nixonian law and order jazz. I didn’t even realise for the longest time that it was based on an Elmore Leonard novel.
This book is a monument to Leonard’s ability to pace a story like a mofo (that’s a technical literary term). A little under 200 pages and you can read it in an hour or two. There’s not one word spare. It’s not all action but moments of quiet are rare breathing spaces. Yet he’s able to throw in back story and characterisation along the way — in miniature, of course. But it’s there.
A lot of the story feels just as modern which is a good trick for a 1974 novel. The simplicity of the story helps: the pressing matter of harvest on a California fruit farm, immigrant labour, getting mixed up with hoods small time and large. The most dated thing about it is referring to women’s bottoms as ‘cans’ which is just so 70s to me. Like Melanie in Rum Punch there’s a gal slumming it with the hoods, Wiley, an actor wannabe who studies the hit man, a natural actor.
Of course there’s Mr Majestyk himself. The novel is in that kind of liminal space where Leonard was moving from westerns to crime, so it has a bit of both. Majestyk is a vet but one who hunts in the mountains and has the knowledge of wild places that serves him well. Nancy Chavez, the labour organiser, provides an unexpected yet fully competent sidekick. Renda, the hit man, provides a lot of the impetus for the story when his plans and Majestyk’s cross.
Renda’s not a man accustomed to things going wrong. Majestyk, of course, is not a man who will back down from what he thinks is right.
Lots of action; yet Leonard takes the time to offer a few gems:
‘Lundy was counting the bug stains, more than a dozen of the yellow ones: some kind of bug flying along having a nice time and the next thing sucked into the wind, coming up fast over the hood and wiped out, the bug not knowing what in the name of Christ happened to him. Maybe they had been butterflies.’
‘Five years ago it ha been better, simpler. Get a name, do a study on the guy, learn his habits, walk up to him at the right time, and pull the trigger. It was done. Take a vacation, wait for a call, come back. L.A., Begas, wherever they wanted him. Now it was business all the time. The boring meetings, discussions, planning, all the fucking papers to sign and talking on the phone. Phones all over the place. He used to have one phone. It would ring, he’d say hello, and a voice would give him the name. That was it. He didn’t even have to say good-bye. Now he had six phones in his house, four in the apartment. He took Librium and Demerol and Maalox and even smoked reefer sometimes, which he had never done before in his life or trusted anybody who did.’
‘He should have known there was someone else, another person, inside the farmer.