The Moonshine War
by Elmore Leonard
Reviewed by Kemper
4 out of 5 illegally brewed stars
I started reading Elmore Leonard in the late ‘80s when I was a teenager with a growing taste for crime fiction. It was a great time to jump on the Leonard bandwagon because he was in the midst of a creative high that would last through the ‘90s. Three top notch movie adaptations (Get Shorty in 1995, Jackie Brown based on Rum Punch in 1997 and Out of Sight in 1998) would soon follow.
He seemed to gear down a bit after 2000. No surprise there. He was getting older, and if the books came a bit slower and weren’t quite as creative as some of his earlier ones, they were still pretty damn good and came out regularly. Then in 2010 FX aired the show Justified based on one of his earlier characters, US Marshal Raylan Givens, so Elmore Leonard’s name became known to another generation of fans. Inspired by the show, Leonard even wrote a new book that would be used for more of Raylan’s TV adventures. He was reportedly working on another one when he died last week following complications from a stroke.
It seems silly to say that a man who was 87 years old and who had a long and distinguished career is gone too soon, but writers like Leonard become fixtures in the lives of their fans. You get used to a new book popping up. Every once in a while someone will put together a new movie or TV show based on his work, and when the name comes up, there’s the fleeting thought, “Damn, that guy is good.” You forget that there won’t be an infinite number of books, and that you should appreciate every one you read and like.
I had come across The Moonshine War in a bookstore several months ago, and it was one I’d never read before so I grabbed a copy. It got lost somewhere on the steep slopes of Mount To-Read, and I didn’t give it much thought until the word came out about Leonard’s death. Having an unread Elmore Leonard book in the house after that seemed like a crime against nature so I mounted a successful expedition to recover it. I’m glad it was worth the effort.
Son Martin is a Kentucky moonshiner during Prohibition and while his liquor is considered pretty damn good, everyone agrees that his father’s was even better. Before his death, Son’s father spent a year brewing up 150 barrels of whiskey that he hid somewhere in the hills to age. That was eight years earlier and the booze would be worth a fortune now. Unfortunately, while he was in the army Son drunkenly confided the story of the whiskey to Frank Long. Frank is now a Prohibition agent, and he shows up demanding that Son turn over the liquor to him, but Long isn’t planning on confiscating it for the government. He wants to sell it for himself, and when Son refuses to hand it over, Frank recruits another bootlegger to help him recover it, and the moonshine war begins.
One thing that jumps out immediately about this one is that it’s incredibly tight at just over 200 pages. Yet despite being relatively thin, it’s stuffed with well-developed characters who spout the typically great Leonard dialogue. There’s also plenty of action and a couple of memorably sleazy villains in the form of a former dentist turned bootlegger kingpin and his crazy gun man. I especially liked how Leonard lets the small town dynamics play out when Frank and his partners try to force Son to give up the whiskey by busting up the stills of all of his neighbors while leaving his alone.
Fans of Justified will see the same of Leonard elements that the show uses, and the relationship between Son and Frank is as complicated and rich as the one between Raylan and his arch-enemy/friend Boyd on the show.
The only bad thing I can say about this book is that I wish there were about twenty more like it still to come.