“People around here have built their stills and drunk whiskey for more than a hundred years. They believe if a man plows the ground and sows it and raised corn, it’s not the place of another man to tell him he can eat it but he can’t drink it. That’s what we think of your Prohibition law.”
Elmore Leonard was a master of dialogue. While he’s best known for his crime thrillers and suspenseful stories, not everyone recognizes just how much of that comes down to how perfectly he captures the way people talk.
Stephen King in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft used Leonard as an example of how to do dialogue right. How to make it feel natural. How it conveys character. How it can carry information without being obvious exposition. But it goes beyond the words spoken by characters. The narrative (not to be confused with narration) often comes across as a character all its own, with its own manner of speech.
People did crazy things where whiskey was concerned. It being against the law to drink wasn’t going to stop anybody. They’d fight and shoot each other and go to prison and die for it…
The Moonshine War is one of his older and lesser known novels (1970) as well as being shorter than the others I’ve read (at just over 200 pages), but that doesn’t mean it’s not as epic as the title suggests. In fact, that title is a bit of a masterstroke on its own, combining something low scale and private like making moonshine with something large scale like war (even though it only consists of a handful of people).
The plot is basic and straightforward. “Son” Martin runs a still during the Prohibition era. He’s got a large cache of his father’s whiskey stored up to sell once Prohibition ends, worth a small fortune. An old war buddy of his, Frank Long, now working for the IRS, wants in on the action. When Son refuses, others are brought in to try and put pressure on him (both directly and through his neighbors) to give it up. Eventually, it all gets out of hand.
What sets a story like this apart is the characters, and not just because they’re witty or entertaining (or disturbing) in their own various ways, but how who they are dictates how they’ll behave. Son’s reasons for refusing to play ball are hard-coded into him. Long’s flexible morality is consistent but has limits. And the psychos Long brings on board to help are kept in check pretty much as well as you’d expect.
Alliances shift throughout the story, but always in a believable way. By the time you reach the end and see things play out, it comes off both as a surprise, and as utterly consistent with Son’s beliefs. There’s a kind of inevitability to the events that comes down to who a person is, rather than an author making a decision because it benefits the plot.
I think there’s something undeniably American about it all as well. You can almost see certain archetypes, good and bad, of the American Dream reflected in these characters. Son believes in making your way through hard work and that what’s his is his. Frank is like a more entrepreneurial type who believes there’s always an angle and a way to get a piece of the pie (even if it belongs to someone else). And then you have the even less scrupulous characters, the snakes in suits types, who believe whatever they can take is theirs.
The writing is incredibly tight. All killer, no filler. And even though it’s only 200 pages, it doesn’t feel rushed. In fact, it feels like a much larger story has been distilled between the covers, and aged to perfection like a fine whiskey.
Anyone looking for inspiration for a gangster-era RPG could certainly use this for ideas. There’s also a film adaptation of the novel starring (of all people) Patrick McGoohan and Alan Alda. Although Leonard wrote the screenplay himself, it wasn’t well received (though I hear it’s not bad). While there aren’t a ton of plot seeds to work with outside the basic premise and the finale, studying the way these characters interact will be great for how you decide to play your NPCs.
Bonus: Clip from the film adaptation:
Originally Published in KODT #249