Emma Sue by Dave Zeltserman from On Dangerous Ground: Stories of Western Noir – review

On Dangerous Ground Ed Gorman Dave Zeltserman Martin H. Greenberg Cemetery DanceReviewed by Nick Mamatas

Emma Sue is a very violent woman. After ten years of marriage and a failed ranch, her choice is to work and be separated from her husband Bo each night…or to steal and kill with him in tow. So stealing and killing it is, and her suddenly milquetoast spouse just goes along with it, worrying all the while and plotting to get back East. Dave Zeltserman’s story is compelling enough to start, but he runs out of content before he runs out of wordcount. Emma Sue can only repeat “you did it for us” and her warnings against leaving any witnesses. With neither a twist nor a dive down into the black pit, “Emma Sue” doesn’t quite qualify as noir.

The storytelling is a bit strained—”Emma Sue” is a first-person narrative from Bo’s point of view, and he begins telling the story just as he’s about to join a posse to find a pair of bank robbers who have been implicated in the crimes he and his wife committed. Why does he begin to tell the story at this point in time; why does he “start” at a place that isn’t quite the ending, as there is so much dramatic potential to be had in the story’s unwritten third act? Does Bo go along with the posse and help frame the two men for his own crimes? Does he go out of his way to get himself shot and killed, or does he finally blurt out some truth to the mob he joined? Forget answers, the questions are hardly raised—Bo only thinks he’ll either be killed on the ride or hanged later.

Of course, if the story were to continue it would be Bo’s and not Emma Sue’s, but she’s simply left sleeping peacefully, alone. Even the tiny irony of Emma Sue sleeping alone when she’s killed so many to keep her husband by her side goes unremarked upon. Noir has a tradition of not-very-clever characters bumbling their way through a life of crime unto death, but they rarely make good narrators. Why is Emma Sue even with this schmuck? She slit the wrong throat.

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