"The Moonshine War," is Grade-A Leonard. Written in 1969, one could say it was written at a time when Leonard was still a wonderful secret, and not yet a trendy discovery for People Magazine. What makes "The Moonshine War" a bit different than some of Leonard's crime novels, is that it is set in the not too distant past - 1931. So to some extent it is a historical novel. The setting is Eastern Kentucky. True, Leonard skates pretty lightly over the regional specifics (dialect, land descriptions, etc.) - the kind of things that make Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy so authentic in a literary sense. But Leonard does throw enough in to make it thriller believable. Authentic details regarding the making of moonshine, historical nods, such as the Spanish flu, WW 1, and the kind of overalls men wore, for the most part root the reader well enough. The characters are as solid as any Leonard has created. Son Martin, the novel's hero, is your typical Leonard tough-guy. Quiet, operating on the edge of things, something of an outlaw himself. The bad guys are what you would expect. Vicious, erratic, and often kind of stupid. Of particular note, however, is Dr. Taulbee, a murderous bootlegger, who is smarter than your average Leonard criminal, and a difficult opponent for Son Martin. But he has a weak spot - Miley, a beautiful (and amoral) prostitute, who's along for the ride, though she's always looking for a reliable man. Son, with his internal code of honor, is closer to fitting that description than the good doctor, and Miley, who recognized this, is in her own way a more admirable character than Mrs. Lyons, Son's long-running love interest from town.
The plot in "The Moonshine War," is pretty simple: bootleggers trying to steal Son's hidden whiskey, and Son's reluctance to let that happen. There are echoes of "High Noon," as Son's friends and neighbors abandon him to the bootleggers. One questions whether mountain folks would abandon one of their own to an assault from outsiders, but Leonard seems to anticipate this, when he has a neighbor of Son's tell him that the difference in their predicament is that Son has no family being threatened. In essence, to what extent Son cares for his neighbors is thus returned, in kind, which makes the ending appropriate, and well done. Leonard's endings can sometimes be disappointing. I have remarked on this myself ("52 Pickup"). But my complaint had more to do with the fireworks leading up to the end of that novel. If you look at the range of Leonard's work, you see an author who likes the open ended ending. It is a deliberate artistic choice by Leonard. At his best (for example, "Valdez is Coming," "City Primeval") he leaves the reader with a vivid, even mythic, tableau that invites the reader in. Leonard loves his High Noon moments, and will often freeze it, in novel after novel, like a photograph of opponents squared away on Main Street, guns drawn, with the sun beating down. "The Moonshine War," to my mind sits up there with the best of Leonard.