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Crime and Celebrity Redux

Leonard time travels to the Depression

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The Hot Kid
By Elmore Leonard (William Morrow, 312 pages, $25.95)

As Elmore Leonard's 40th novel, The Hot Kid, demonstrates, the gangsters of the Dust Bowl era first fired his imagination to become a writer. As always, this outing lingers on fame and celebrity as much as it does on crime and punishment. Leonard's cops and robbers keep close tabs on their budding notoriety and press clippings even as they size up one another - offering wry proof of dumbed-down media flourishing well before the advent of Court TV. Set in Oklahoma, The Hot Kid centers on Carlos Webster, a cocky US marshal. At 15, he witnesses Emmett Long's drugstore robbery and casual, cruel murder of Junior Harjo.

Witnessing the murder stings young Webster and, six years later, he enlists with the marshals. A dead-aim shot, the newly minted Webster dresses, and shoots, to kill. He nails Long in one of many high-profile busts and becomes known for warning crooks not to make him draw his gun, or else — and otherwise keeps busy checking his looks.

Webster becomes a pulp celebrity at the same time an ambitious Oklahoma newspaper reporter named Tony Antonelli ditches his day job in favor of a gig at True Detective, where purple prose reigns. Gun molls, whores, lapsed cops and assorted degenerates round out the cast, striding across the flat, bullet-riddled Oklahoma landscape.

And in this corner? Jack Belmont, son of an oil baron. Lazy, resentful, a bit of a dupe, cruel. And motivated: In the era of Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson, Jack wants to become Public Enemy Number One. To that end, he carries out a few robberies, shoots several people — and plans to avenge an earlier arrest at the hands of Carl Webster by killing the sharp-shooting marshal.

Meanwhile, the crooks — and cops — gobble up Antonelli's accounts even as they dispute various scenes and snatches of dialog. One thug decides against shooting Webster after the marshal proffers an opportunity to be interviewed, and glorified, by Antonelli.

The inevitable showdown moves closer when Webster, almost gunned down in a Tulsa hotel lobby, taunts his rival through newspaper accounts. "I'm sure it's Jack Belmont," he tells reporters. "Only fired three times and lost his nerve. Couldn't finish the job. How about if I give you my phone number? Put it in the write-up so Belmont can call me. I'll tell him where to meet so he can try again."

No such worries with Leonard. Just like Carl Webster, he always finishes the job — and looks good doing it.

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