I finished reading Elmore Leonard's THE MOONSHINE WAR (1969) the other day. I have a vague memory of reading this one back in the 1980s but I had forgotten enough of the story to make this a brand new reading experience.
Set in 1931, THE MOONSHINE WAR is a transitional novel in Leonard's body of work, falling neatly between his earlier, fine western novels and the rest of his contemporary crime thrillers. Moonshiner Son Martin is sitting on top of a fortune worth of illegal white lightning in the back hills of Kentucky. The booze was distilled by his late father and only Son and his hired hand, Aaron, know the location of the hidden barrels of whiskey.
Along comes federal Prohibition agent Frank Long, a WWI buddy of Son's. Long is looking to find the hidden treasure but Son won't co-operate. Long decides he needs help so he calls in bootlegger and criminal genius Dr. Taulbee. Taulbee brings along his psychotic hired gun Dual Meaders and his young prostitute Miley Mitchell. Taulbee decides Son needs some extra persuasion so he recruits a small army of thugs to put pressure on Son's neighbors, all of whom operate stills of their own. When that fails, the bad guys resort to murder before things come to a (literally) explosive climax.
THE MOONSHINE WAR is a tightly constructed little crime thriller that moves along at a nice pace. The characters are all well drawn, as is the time and place and the dialogue is first rate. It may not be Leonard's best but it's a good one.
There was a movie version of THE MOONSHINE WAR released in 1970. I've never seen the film but the cast includes Alan Alda as Son Martin, Patrick McGoohan as Frank Long, Richard Widmark as Dr. Taulbee and Will Geer as Sheriff Baylor. When I was reading the book, I cast the characters in my mind as follows: Charles Bronson as Son, Dennis Weaver as Frank, Strother Martin as Dr. Taulbee, Bruce Dern as Dual Meaders and Woody Strode as Aaron.