This generally digestible and entertaining Leonard sampler collects two novellas and a seven short stories written over the last decade. For those who've never read any of his many many many books, it's a pretty representative introduction to his range and style. For those who are intimately familiar with his work, there are new sides of a few familiar faces. For those like me, who've read seven or eight of his novels, and found them diverting, this is more of the same, page-turning, if not particularly memorable, genre fiction. The stories can all be readily grouped into pairs.
Both the title story and the opening story are a shade under 20 pages and feature attractive rich women who are running some kind of scam. In "When the Women Come Out to Dance", we meet an exotic dancer who married a wealthy Pakistani doctor. A year later, sitting in the lap of luxury, she professes to be worried that she will meet the gruesome fate of other wives no longer desired by their traditional Pakistani husbands-being burned to death. Her new Colomian maid might be the solution to her problem... In "Sparks", the widow of a famous record producer is grilled by an insurance company adjuster following the suspicious destruction of her house during a California brush fire. The two stories chug along through small intrigues and banter, arriving at satisfying, yet predictable conclusions.
Two of the stories are twenty-page vignettes in the lives of characters who are features in full novels. "Chickasaw Charlie Hoke" is a humorous and colorful story about how the title character lands a job as celebrity greeter for a Vegas casino. What happens after this is detailed in Leonard's 2002 book, Tishomingo Blues, whose main protagonist Dennis Lenahan is also introduced off-stage in this story. "Karen Makes Out" is throwaway story about U.S. Marshall Karen Sisco, and a brief fling she has with a man who may or may not be a bank robber. Her character is featured in Leonard's 1996 novel Out of Sight, and the 1998 film of the same name, where Jennifer Lopez played her.
Two more stories weighing in at slightly less than twenty pages showcase Leonard's abilities in the Western genre (in which he excelled before moving on to crime). "The Tonto Woman" is about a woman who had been kidnapped by Indians and tattooed on her face. Many years later, she makes it back home only to be shunned by her husband-until a crafty and honorable Mexican cattle rustler comes along. "Hurrah for Captain Early" shows the side of Leonard that believes in using his stories to tell a little history. It's about a black U.S. Army veteran of the Spanish-American war, and in it, Leonard pokes holes in the myth of the Rough Riders.
The two novellas are around sixty pages and benefit from the extra space. Set in hardscrabble turf of Harlan County, Kentucky, "Fire in the Hole" is about a group of white supremacists, led by an ex-coal miner turned preacher, turned tax protestor, plotting a little domestic terrorism. Hot on their trail is U.S. Marshall Raylen Givens (the star of Leonard's 1993 book Pronto and its 1995 sequel Riding the Rap), who grew up with the leader of the gang. In "Tenkiller", a rodeo star turned Hollywood stuntman is returning to his tiny hometown in Oklahoma following the death of his wife. When he finds a family of nasty white trash thugs have conned their way onto his land and into his house, he doesn't waste any time running them off. The novellas proceed in fairly familiar fashion, with the expected violence and conventional ending. Reading them in close succesion, however, reveals a high level of similarity. The protagonists are cut of the same cloth, in the their late 30s, early 40s, with rugged, well-worn good looks. Each is returning home, where they must rid the place of an evil white-trash man of their own age, with younger and dumber sidekicks. Each will encounter a woman from high school who has been pining for him for twenty years. This is not to say the stories aren't entertaining, but it does reveal how Leonard is able to use the same template over and over.
The one story that doesn't really fit in anywhere is "Hanging Out at the Buena Vista", a throwaway fifteen pages about a pair of cancer patients in a hospice. In the final anlysis, if you're a Leonard fan, you'll like the stories, if you've never read him, this is a good way to dip into him to see if you do.